When talking about successful brands and marketing, one case study for great success can be the Sanrio Company and its Hello Kitty brand. Hello Kitty, a character developed to sell merchandise, became a global phenomenon that has lasted over 45 years. This character debuted on a simple coin purse and eventually went on to grace over 50,000 different branded products, including official coinage from three different countries.
Shintaro Tsuji and the Founding of Sanrio Company
The origin of Hello Kitty and the Sanrio Company started with Shintaro Tsuji, a Japanese businessman who, after successfully working for the Japanese government, went out to start his own business, the Yamanashi Silk Company in 1960. The Yamanashi Silk Company was a specialty store that offered products from the Yamanashi Prefecture, a business plan copied from his government work offering different prefecture goods and products in specialty shops. Tsuji noticed that plain sandals didn’t sell as well as the ones with flowers or strawberry designs imprinted on them, and those being a premium product sold for a higher cost and netted more profit. As a result, Tsuji changed his business to one featuring kawaii (cute) products. Tsuji hired a team of designers to design cute products that could be marketed and sold as premium pieces due to the design.
The Yamanashi Silk Company rebranded itself as Sanrio. The focus of the company also shifted to include a vast array of products popular for the gift giving culture of Japan and Asia. The company had licenses for importing items, such as Hallmark cards. However, items such as novelty products, are more popular than cards in Japanese gift-giving culture. Sanrio previously won one of the licenses for the Snoopy character (of Peanuts comic strip and cartoon fame) in Japan in 1966 and saw success with products featuring the iconic fictional beagle. Sanrio also had the license for Barbie, which failed with Japanese consumers.
During this time period, animals and animal characters had become very popular in Japan and internationally, so following his success with Snoopy and other characters Tsuji asked his development team to create animal characters. In 1974, a drawing of what would become Hello Kitty was produced and the image was placed on a children-size coin purse which sold for about 240¥ or about US $1. The coin purse sold very well and soon other Hello Kitty products joined the line with a plethora of new characters.
The Sanrio Company is very different than other companies. They will issue a vast array of products for sale and those that sell well are released wide scale with increased production, while those products that don’t meet expectations are discontinued. Sanrio also does not advertise; hence all of its success is driven by actual consumer demand and word of mouth. With the introduction of Hello Kitty and other such characters on products in 1974, the company’s sales doubled each year for over five years straight. The eventual success from products featuring the company’s own intellectual property would eventually be worth over a billion US dollars a year.
Hello Kitty – A Sanrio Success
When Sanrio releases products with the characters on them, these characters are given little to no backstory. For Hello Kitty, this anthropomorphic female cat character was designed with an oval-shaped head with two pointing ears, widely spaced dot-like eyes, a small oval nose, whiskers, and a bow on her left ear. The character was not drawn with a mouth and as such shows no emotions. The stagnate head design does not change, but the clothing, location, and everything around the character does. With Hello Kitty, the Sanrio company issued this backstory: Hello Kitty’s real name is Kitty White, she was born with her twin sister, Mimmy White, on November 1 in suburban London, England, and she weighs the same as three apples. From this character’s story canon, Sanrio has built a multi-billion-dollar empire.
From the first successful product (the coin purse) featuring the Hello Kitty image, the Sanrio company expanded the products and brand featuring Hello Kitty. Finding success in Japan, Sanrio expanded overseas, first with exports to Taiwan and Singapore where Hello Kitty and other Sanrio products found success and to the United States starting in the 1970s where it wouldn’t become popular until later. Eventually the Hello Kitty brand exploded across the globe and has been featured on over 50,000 different products. Sanrio continued diversifying its products from originally being one offering pieces geared toward young children to expanding into teen and adult lines. For Sanrio, it was a huge success and led to annual sales of more than $1 billion. With over 425 different characters in the Sanrio portfolio, Hello Kitty accounts for over half of the sales and income for the company.
The Hello Kitty brand also entered countless media forms, including comics, cartoons, movies, and video games that featuring her and her friends – all Sanrio intellectual properties. Other novel Hello Kitty ventures include an airline and theme park. All of this feeds back to the Sanrio holdings and its massive product licensing operation, growing the brand and helping to sell everything featuring this now iconic internationally recognized character. It is estimated that counterfeit and unlicensed Hello Kitty products lose Sanrio $800,000,000 (USD) each year, showing the true significance of the brand.
Coins Featuring Hello Kitty
With a product line incorporating tens of thousands of items, it is not surprising that Hello Kitty and other Sanrio properties would eventually end up on commemorative non-circulating legal tender (NCLT) coins. Some tokens and medals had featured Hello Kitty before 2005, but with the explosion of numismatic NCLT issues from around the globe it wouldn’t be until 2005 that the license was granted for countries to issue coins featuring Hello Kitty.
In 2004, the Cook Islands issued coins minted by the Perth Mint in Australia for the 30th anniversary of Hello Kitty. A total of six coins were issued, three in silver and three in gold. The silver issues each contain one ounce of .999 silver featuring Hello Kitty wearing three different costumes; a red kimono, a yellow kimono, and a white kimono paired with a purple parasol. For the gold issues, two coins featuring the $25 denomination were struck in .999-fine gold each weighing a quarter ounce and featuring Kitty wearing a Japanese Kimono as Princess Yaegaki-Hime and Kitty wearing a white kimono with a purple parasol. A one-ounce $100 coin was issued featuring Kitty wearing a red kimono. The gold coins were each issued in Japan with a mintage of 1,500 and quickly sold out.
In 2009 the Cook Islands once again issued coins featuring Hello Kitty. Issued by the Royal Mint in Great Britain, a series of three $5 coins minted in sterling silver feature Kitty in London wearing a coat and holding an umbrella in front of a red double decker bus, Kitty playing polo riding a horse, and Kitty and her boyfriend Daniel before the London Bridge. The three $5 coins have a mintage of 3,000 each. A $10 coin incorporating five ounces of silver was issued featuring the White Family: Kitty, Mimmy, Mary “Mama,” and George “Papa.” This coin has a mintage of 1,500 pieces. A $25 gold coin features Kitty’s face in the center of a shield with the colorized British flag in the background flanked by two other characters – My Melody and Bear; this coin has a mintage of 1,000 pieces. A gold $50 coin features Hello Kitty and Dear Daniel in front of Big Ben has a mintage of 1,000 pieces.
In 2014, the Cook Islands released issues for the 40th anniversary of Hello Kitty. The two coins include a silver $5 one-ounce issue and a gold $100 half-ounce piece featuring Kitty weighing a kimono. The silver $5 features Kitty with Mt. Fiji in the background and cherry blossoms at both sides. The gold $100 features Kitty with cherry blossoms to one side. The gold $50 has a mintage of 800 coins.
With the popularity of the coins, along with their low mintages and high retail costs, counterfeits soon flooded the market. Gold-plated and silver-plated counterfeits of the Hello Kitty coins have popped up on Alibaba and other Chinese websites featuring counterfeit products, being sold for as little as a few dollars and advertised with photos of the real coins.
For the 30th anniversary of Hello Kitty in 2004, Japan issued a special-edition proof set featuring the famous Sanrio feline. This proof set includes a Hello Kitty silver medal made by the Japanese Mint featuring the original image of Hello Kitty as it was on the first product, the coin purse, in 1974. On the background of the proof set packaging holding the coins are various Hello Kitty characters, including Kitty, her sister Mimmy, George “Papa,” Mary “Mama,” Anthony “Grandpa,” Margaret “Grandma,” Timmy and Tammy the monkeys, Mori the seal, Joey, Rory, Thomas the bear, and Fifi.
In 2005, the Paris Mint issued four different Hello Kitty commemorative coins featuring Kitty in Paris. The issues include three silver coins each denominated 1 and ½ euros and colorized with a mintage of 4,000 pieces each. The silver coins depict Kitty at a café with a black poodle dog, Kitty on the Champs-Elysees, and Kitty flying through the Paris skyline with an umbrella with the Eiffel Tower in the background. A gold coin denominated 50 euros features Kitty and Daniel dancing at the Spectacle. The gold 50 euros coin has a mintage of only 1,000 pieces.
The condition of these Paris Mint issues is often not very good. Many examined have hairline issues directly from mint production mishandling as well as spotting on the silver pieces. With the small mintages and condition issues, finding nice examples is incredibly difficult.
In 2010 a 30th anniversary of Sanrio commemorative series was released under the country of Niue coinage. These coins feature three silver issues in the shape of a heart with a bow on the left side. The coins showcase Hello Kitty, My Melo, and Kiki & Lala characters from Sanrio. The three coins each had a mintage of 3,000 pieces. A 100-gram silver coin in the shape of a heart with a face value of $10 was issued featuring Kitty, Melo, Kiki & Lala other Sanrio characters in the background was issued with a mintage of 1,000 pieces. A product featuring two coins that interlock into one was issued in gold with an outer coin featuring six figures of Tiny Chum (Kitty’s teddy bear) and a center hole depicting the iconic outline of Kitty’s head with a face value of $30. The inset $20 coin is of Kitty’s head with a pink bow and fits into the $30 coin, making for a total face value of $50 for the two coins that become one. The piece has a total weight of a half ounce and a mintage of 1,000 pieces.
In 2006 a gilt silver $1 coin was issued featuring Hello Kitty and another feline friend above was released.
Developing from one man’s observation that adding a design to sandals could increase sales to building a global empire, Sanrio company and its still-growing catalog of properties continue offering world-wide retail opportunities. With this, it will only be a matter of time before more Hello Kitty and other Sanrio-related coins are licensed and released, meeting a great demand from the countless people who love the iconic cat and her many Sanrio friends.
- Hello Kitty Wikipedia
- Sanrio Wikipedia
- Shintaro Tsuji Wikipedia
- All About Hello Kitty: The Story Of Her Life, Family, Friends, And Pets Anita's Notebook
- Hello Kitty Wiki
- Hello Kitty: The Global Brand with Nine Lives by Ken Belson – Lecture upload YouTube April 1, 2008
- NIUE 2010 $20&$30 HELLO KITTY HOLY DOLLAR & DUMP 1/2 OZ GOLD 999 PROOF COIN SET WorldAncientCoins.com