Thanks to a host of popular characters, including the global icon Hello Kitty, this consumer lifestyle brand continues to grow. Sanrio has the kind of relationship with its customers that is the envy of consumer brands everywhere. With its motto of “small gift, big smile,” the company is celebrating its 50th year of marketing gifts, stationery, fashion accessories, and lifestyle products featuring a host of internationally popular characters, including Hello Kitty.

“We’re celebrating the history of the company this year,” said Janet Hsu, president. “The philosophy of our company over the past 50 years is that gifts can be used as a social communication tool. Small gift, big smile is still our big message to people.”

Sanrio is a worldwide designer and distributor of character-branded stationery, school supplies, apparel, and accessories, and is perhaps best known for Hello Kitty, its most popular brand. Hello Kitty, however, is only one of the characters that are part of the company’s merchandise line. Other characters include Keroppi, a playful frog and the mischievous penguin Badtz-Maru.

Shintaro Tsuji founded Sanrio in 1960. Tsuji created a line of character merchandise designed around gift-giving occasions. Nearly 50 years later, Mr. Tsuji is the chairman of Sanrio Company, Ltd., based in Tokyo and with worldwide distribution. 

Sanrio, Inc. is the wholly owned subsidiary of Sanrio Co., Ltd. with U.S. offices in South San Francisco and Torrance, Calif. Sanrio distributes products throughout North, Central, and South America.

Sanrio began in the western hemisphere in 1976 with a boutique store in the Eastridge Mall in San Jose, Calif. In the Americas today, over 12,000 locations display Sanrio character merchandise, including in the company’s 95 US boutique stores.

With such a long history, Hsu said the company has seen customers grow with the products and pass along the love of Hello Kitty and other Sanrio characters to their children. “We have a huge age range of consumers,” she said. “They’ve grown up with the characters and have built a long-lasting relationship with the brand.”

Staying true to the characters

“Part of the success of the company is trying to stay true to the brand, creating a strong foundation for our consumers,” Hsu said. “There have been many opportunities to take the brand in different directions, but we’ve wanted to stay consistent with what our customers have grown up with. It is important for us to keep the essence of Hello Kitty and our other characters.”

The core of Sanrio’s business is on the characters and related products. “The focus of our initiatives is on our characters and the unique attributes that resonate with our fans,” she said. “We want to stay true to the customers who have been with us for a long time.”

Hsu said the company’s product segmentation and wide range of price points allow Sanrio to adapt to any changes in the market. “Because of the breadth of items we offer, we’re able to stay connected with our customers and give them accessible points of purchase even during difficult economic times.”

With its retail locations and its licensing of products for other retailers, Sanrio takes a two-pronged approach to getting its characters and gifts into the hands of the customers. “With our own stores, we are able to test new products and offer a wider range of gifts,” Hsu said. “By being able to offer our products at additional retail outlets, we’ve been able to meet the increasing customer demand. It’s a synergistic approach.”

Another year to celebrate

Sanrio has had two big celebrations back to back. Last year, the company celebrated the 35th anniversary of its flagship character, Hello Kitty. This year, it is celebrating its 50th year as a company with events planned for the later part of 2010 .

For the 35th anniversary of Hello Kitty, Sanrio held a three week, free to the public event in Los Angeles featuring over 80 artists offering their interpretations of Hello Kitty, as well as a product retrospective, a Hello Kitty apartment that illustrated the breadth of the brand, a pop-up shop showcasing the newest product offerings, and a Hello Kitty themed café. “The all-inclusive event gave artists and fans the opportunity for self-expression and the ability to immerse themselves in the celebration of Hello Kitty. This was something that appealed to our consumers of all ages and demographics,” she said.

Hello Kitty began as a character on a coin purse in Japan in 1974. The worldwide theme for the anniversary was Hello Kitty colors, which conveyed the essence of Hello Kitty that has made her special to fans for so long: red for friendship, pink for cute, yellow for heartful, green for wish, and lavender for sweet. The message of each color was reflected in Hello Kitty’s trademark bow, which was super-sized for the occasion.

“For the 50th anniversary, we’ll be celebrating all our characters and the legacy of Sanrio,” said Hsu. “We are working with our retail partners on programs to mark this special occasion.”

Looking forward to another 50

“I think we have an opportunity to expand on our strengths and in certain age demographics with extended product offerings,” Hsu said. 

The company takes seriously the feedback it gets from customers. “It’s important for us to listen to and stay in touch with our customers,” she said.

The company will also continue to look at opportunities to grow its number of stores in the US. With locations from coast to coast, Hsu said it is looking at different variables that would pinpoint the best locations for new stores.

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