As the feline turns 40 she’s more powerful than ever. But how did she become a brand worth $7bn?

After Japan, Singapore was the first to suffer an outbreak. The infection? Hello Kitty mania. In 2000, a shortage of toys displaying the beloved cat at one of the city’s McDonald’s restaurants led to the unleashing of darker, violent instincts when a riot ensued. Seven people were injured and three taken to hospital for treatment. That was just the beginning.

Now, what is left of our species, children and adults alike, have succumbed, making ‘Kitty chan’, as she is better known in Japan, one of the most recognisable graphics on Earth. Hello Kitty turns 40 this autumn, and we can now see that she was the Trojan Horse that led to the global domination of Japanese ‘cute culture’. From Marrakech to Honolulu, the ubiquitous red-ribboned cat now stands top-tier in any toy display. Googling Mickey Mouse reaps about 23 million results. Search Hello Kitty, however, and you’ll find the kitten, which is basically just a narrative-free, trademarked drawing, garners 10 million more.

Kitty-shaped guitars and even Hello Kitty tombstones abound. The famous feline, originally drawn by designer Yuko Shimizu to appeal to kindergarten children, has been adopted as a style icon by the likes of Lady Gaga. Remarkably, such world-domination has been achieved with little advertising; relying instead on word-of-mouth. Now Hello Kitty appears on over 50,000 products that are sold in more than 70 countries, and is a brand worth $7bn. The company that holds the copyright, Sanrio, makes around $759m in annual revenue off the cat alone. So, why have we all become such pushovers for the feline?

“Kitty's appeal is that she's an emotional blank slate. As one of her designers told me: ‘Kitty feels like you do,’” explains Roland Nozomu Kelts, the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US. “We project upon that mouth-less, expressionless kitten, making her the perfectly interactive toy or doll or marketing tool in an age where interactivity is not only desired, it's expected.”

“Hello Kitty represents the deep desire among all people, regardless of nationality or race, to feel joy and happiness, without having to qualify it at any deep intellectual level,” Sanrio’s public relations manager Kazuo Tohmatsu tells BBC Culture. “Hello Kitty doesn't judge. She let's you feel how you feel without forcing you to question why.”

Sanrio made its fortune licensing the character to a slew of other businesses that produce merchandise. “Hello Kitty's many easily-accessible products make it easy to incorporate her into our daily lives and experience the ‘cute culture’ that her brand represents in different ways,” says Michelle Nguyen, who licenses the character for her Chubby Bunny Accessories. That’s why Forbes magazine has called Hello Kitty one of the best-selling licensed entertainment products ever.

So successful has Kitty been that she was chosen to be a Japanese diplomatic envoy, the official tourism ambassador to China and Hong Kong, in 2008. All part of Japan’s drive to bolster its soft power globally through a state-backed campaign dubbed Cool Japan. Promoting manga, anime cartoons and other aspects of Japanese pop culture, it’s an initiative that came about when Japan’s perennially uncool bureaucrats had a vision that cultural exports could help plug the economic gap created by the near collapse of Japan Inc in the 1990s.

Out went promoting wabi sabi and tea ceremonies. In came the country’s pop culture as flagships of Japanese enterprise. Older, less cute merchandise, would only remind the Japanese of their hubris and their bubble economy that burst, taking macho hi-tech Japan with it. Since the ‘90s many in the nation have wanted their culture to get in touch with its feminine side, hence the new love of all things kawaii (rhymes with Hawaii and means cute). Cute is also an important social lubricant in cities where many desperately seek a comfort blanket, a buffer against exceedingly tough urban lifestyles. Japanese companies now take special care in projecting their kawaii image, says Yasuko Nakamura, president of Tokyo-based marketing company Boom Planning: “Japanese products are made to be kawaii so that they are liked by women. In Japan, women hold the spending power. Even for things that women don't purchase themselves, such as a car, they have a strong say in the final decision.”

To rule the world

But why has Hello Kitty made such a foothold in Europe and the United States? Perhaps it is because the western democracies in the past decade have encountered problems similar to those Japan has faced since the 90s: deflation, more work for less pay, an ageing demographic and an unhealthy obsession with youth. Even the once hard-bitten British are falling for Hello Kitty and Osaka-based musician and cultural commentator Nick Currie thinks he knows why. “Hello Kitty symbolises some essential Japanese virtues: agreeableness, harmony, commerce, cuteness, nature, fertility, affluence and the avoidance of aggression,” he says. “She [also] represents the irresistible idiocy of consumer culture, hardwired to our neurological system. We shop with almost the same reflexes that make us stretch out to stroke a big-eyed, fluffy kitten.” That may be a universal impulse.

But the West, and certain minorities in Japan, are not all about the ascendance of commerce. Pockets of resistance to Kitty tyranny do exist, while savvier cartoon characters from Japan are now poised to possibly eclipse the reign of this most babyish of icons.

Kitty Hell is one of a number of web sites that aims to thwart the ubiquitous feline. The blogger puts up examples of his Japanese wife’s – and others’obsession with the mouthless one . He posts items such as Kitty-shaped face tattoos and suggests, tongue-in-cheek, that “Sanrio has invented a Hello Kitty virus that makes people do things like this.”

“All I really do is point out the absurdity of the fans and all the products,” the anonymous blogger tells the BBC.

Meanwhile, the genius Japan has demonstrated for creating likeable characters has spawned another Pan-Asian hit in the form of a chat service called Line. Much of the app’s popularity rides on one area where Japan has an unassailable lead – the design and playful use of emoji (Japanese emoticons). On the Line app they have grown into fully delineated characters such as the enigmatic Moon.

Now the company behind Line is gunning for equal success worldwide – recently the Spanish have also fallen in love with Line’s impish and much more cynical, adult-oriented mascots. Could it be time to say “Hello Line” and “goodbye feline”?

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Hello Kitty誕生40周年之際,越發風靡世界。它如何成為價值70億美元的品牌?

Hello Kitty最早流行于日本,隨后在新加坡掀起熱潮,出現大批Hello Kitty迷。2000年,因新加坡某家麥當勞餐廳Hello Kitty玩具供應不足,人群發生暴亂,造成7人受傷、3人入院,人性黑暗暴力面展露無遺。然而,這僅僅是開端。

如今,這只風靡日本的小貓咪( Kitty chan)已成為世界最著名動畫人物之一Hello Kitty,深受成年人與兒童喜愛。2014年秋季,Hello Kitty將迎來40歲生日。它已成為日本“可愛文化”( cute culture)風靡世界的“特洛伊木馬”。從馬拉喀什(Marrakech)到火奴魯魯(Honolulu),這只頭戴紅色蝴蝶結的小貓在各種玩具展覽中廣受歡迎。假如你谷歌搜索“米奇老鼠”,將有230萬個搜索結果;但如果搜索“Hello Kitty”,你將得到100萬個搜索結果,盡管它只是個不會說話,商業圖標以及有1000多萬用戶的游戲。

Hello Kitty形狀的吉他,甚至Hello Kitty的墓碑都隨處可見。設計師清水侑子(Yuko Shimizu)起初為吸引幼兒園小朋友而畫出的Hello Kitty如今已成為Lady Gaga追捧的時尚標志。值得注意的是,Hello Kitty風靡世界的秘訣不在于廣告宣傳,而是口口相傳。目前世界上有70多個國家出售5萬多種Hello Kitty相關產品,Hello Kitty商標價值已達70億美元。擁有Hello Kitty版權的三麗鷗會社(Sanrio)單憑Hello Kitty年收入已達7.59億美元。Hello Kitty到底是如何俘獲消費者芳心的?

“Hello Kitty的吸引力在于它是一塊情緒訴求的白板?!闭缙湓O計者之一所說:“Hello Kitty表達的是你的情緒?!比彰乐骷伊_蘭?佐佐木望?凱爾特斯(Roland Nozomu Kelts)解釋日本流行文化如何風靡美國時說道:“我們計劃推出一只沒有嘴巴、面無表情的小貓咪,在互動不僅是唯一需求的時代,使其成為互動完美的玩具、玩偶或營銷工具?!?/p>

喜愛貓咪

“Hello Kitty代表所有人群渴望感受樂趣和幸福的深層需求,不分國籍種族,不限智力水平?!比慂t會社公關部經理等松和夫(Kazuo Tohmatsu)如是說道?!癏ello Kitty不會評頭論足,它讓你感受當下,而非強迫你去追問原因?!?/p>

通過授權企業大量生產Hello Kitty相關商品,三麗鷗會社收益頗豐?!氨阌谫徺I的Hello Kitty產品讓它輕易融入我們日常生活,人們時常能感受到Hello Kitty商標以不同方式呈現的‘可愛文化’?!泵仔獱?阮(Michelle Nguyen)說道。她的胖兔子配件公司(Chubby Bunny Accessories)已獲得Hello Kitty授權。這便是《福布斯》雜志將Hello Kitty評為史上最暢銷授權娛樂產品的原因。

由于Hello Kitty廣受歡迎, 2008年,它成為日本外交使節,駐中國大陸與香港的日本官方旅游大使。日本以“酷日本”(Cool Japan)為驅動力,支持其文化軟實力在國際社會發展。日本刻板的官員意識到,文化輸出有助于縮小20世紀90年代日本企業衰落引起的經濟差距,因此積極主動推廣漫畫、動漫卡通和其他方面日本流行文化。

侘寂之美(wabi sabi)和茶道已經過時,日本流行文化才是當今日本企業稱霸世界的秘訣。老式土氣的商品只會讓日本人回想起驕傲自大的國民性格、慘遭破滅的泡沫經濟和男性主導高新技術。20世紀90年代以來,許多日本人希望本國文化能夠展現其女性化一面,因此涌現“卡哇伊”(與英文“夏威夷”韻腳相同,意為“可愛”)新風尚??蓯畚幕蔀榭释诔鞘猩鐣钪袑ふ覝嘏娜藗兊臐櫥瑒?;同時,可愛文化更有助于緩沖節奏快而艱難的城市生活方式。如今,日本企業特別注意開發小巧可愛的卡通形象。日本東京營銷公司繁榮計劃(Boom Planning)總裁中村寧子(Yasuko Nakamura)說道:“為吸引女性消費者,日本產品制作小巧可愛。日本女性擁有消費能力,即便如轎車等非女性自己購買的東西,她們對最終決定都擁有強烈發言權?!?/p>

風靡世界

然而,Hello Kitty為何能在歐洲和美國取得如此穩固的地位?也許正是因為西方民主國家在過去十年中遭遇了與日本90年代以來相似的問題:通貨緊縮、工作多薪資低、人口老齡化和青少年頹靡。即便是一度強硬的英國國民也為Hello Kitty傾心,駐大阪音樂家、文化評論員尼克?克里(Nick Currie)分析其中原因?!癏ello Kitty象征著幾項日本基本美德:親善、和諧、商業、可愛、自然、多子、富足和避免侵略?!彼f道?!巴瑫r,Hello Kitty也代表盲目沖動的消費文化,人們與生俱來就有這種沖動。幾乎出于相同的反射作用,我們購物時都會去拿有著大眼睛、毛茸茸的Hello Kitty?!边@也許是普遍的沖動消費。

但在部分西方國家和少數日本人眼中,Hello Kitty并不那么“可愛”。出現過抵制Kitty時尚袋子。另一方面,來自日本形象精明的卡通人物正瞄準稚氣十足的Hello Kitty,準備搶奪其風頭。

“凱蒂地獄”(Kitty Hell)是眾多抵制無處不在的Hello Kitty的網站之一。博主列舉他的日本妻子及其他人癡迷Hello Kitty的例子。他發布諸如Hello Kitty形狀面部紋身的照片,半開玩笑道:“三麗鷗發明了一種名為Hello Kitty的病毒,感染者都會干這種傻事?!?/p>

“我做的是指出瘋狂粉絲和所有產品的的荒唐可笑?!痹撃涿┲髡f道。

與此同時,通訊應用連我(Line)中可愛卡通形象在泛亞地區走紅,充分證實日本人頭腦之聰明。連我流行的主要基礎是擁有日本穩如泰山的優勢領域,即設計與使用表情符號(emoji)。在連我應用中,它們已發展成完整的卡通角色,例如神秘的月亮(譯者注:神秘的月亮意味著“你永遠不知道接下來會發生什么”。)

目前,連我所屬公司正在全球尋求與HelloKitty同等的成功。得益于其面向成年人的奇趣搞怪、憤世嫉俗風格,近日,連我在西班牙走紅。是否到了說“你好,連我!”和“再見,小貓!”的時候了?

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