April 4 2010
As my four nieces opened their Easter baskets (which include Hello Kitty Jelly Belly Jelly Beans), my thoughts turned to the launch of Hello Kitty wine this past week, an event that drew scrutiny from many people for its puzzling marketing applicability without a tableau to place it into context.
In fact, apropos to ponderous wonderment, Dr. Vino conducted a poll on his web site in which he asked for reader feedback about whether Hello Kitty wine was marketing to kids. 19% said “yes” they are marketing to kids and 18% of the vote said, “I have no flippin’ idea who they are targeting but I’m strangely confused and disturbed!”
Preschool backpacks and Easter jelly beans notwithstanding, Hello Kitty wine isn’t marketing to kids, at least not implicitly.
In fact, the source article on Hello Kitty wine from LA Weekly hints at the age-spanning phenomenon when it paraphrases Drew Hibbert from Innovations Spirits (the marketer for the Hello Kitty wine). Author of the LA Weekly article, Gendy Alimurung, notes, “They see the Hello Kitty brand identity as being somewhat mature at this stage and open to all kinds of product interpretations.”
It’s exactly that notion of, “open to all kinds of product interpretations” that makes Hello Kitty wine a more interesting wine marketing story than your usual wine-related cause célèbre, celebrity wine or fleeting story of questionable interest.
And, the answers about the elusive appeal of Hello Kitty aren’t too far away, either.
Coincidental to the launch of Hello Kitty wine, I’m in the middle of reading Buying In by Rob Walker. His 2008 book discusses the increasing meaning consumers are finding in brands as a proxy for symbolism that used to be filled by other things in our life.
Buying In references (in lengthy, early passages in the book) the interesting cultural phenomenon that is Hello Kitty.
The book notes, in reference to Hello Kitty creator Sanrio, a developer and distributor of character-branded products:
“Sanrio has been in the “character goods” business since the 1960s. By one count, its artists have dreamed up more than 450 cute little creatures. The word ‘character’ is a little misleading. The characters created by, for example, the Walt Disney Company or Marvel Entertainment first reach(es) the world through a comic book or a movie or television show. They have attributes, personalities and backstories. Sanrio’s characters (often animals) do not. They first reach the world by being emblazoned on products. Although they might be aesthetically charming, they are empty of specific meaning.”
A Sanrio designer, in 1974, created Hello Kitty (absent a mouth because she couldn’t design it in a ‘Cute Way’). The designer, Yuko Shimizu, later said, “I felt the power of Hello Kitty … and felt that it could be used as a tool for communication between people.”
According to Buying In’s secondary research, Hello Kitty is not:
“ …like Snoopy or Mickey Mouse, a character who has engaged in memorable adventures or has developed a personality of any kind. This is intentional. We work very hard to avoid things that would define the character … the simplicity is what made people understand Hello Kitty …”
Quoting a cultural scholar, Walker highlights that the most compelling factor of Hello Kitty success is, “projectability.”
The book goes on to quote both the cultural scholar and a Sanrio representative who say:
“Hello Kitty’s blank ‘cryptic’ simplicity … is among her greatest strengths; standing for nothing. She is waiting to be interpreted … without the mouth, it is easier for the person looking at Hello Kitty to project their feelings onto the character … the person can be happy or sad together with Hello Kitty …”
The analysis continues:
“Hello Kitty … is a mirror that reflects whatever image, desire, or fantasy an individual brings to it … what makes (Hello) Kitty so intriguing is that she projects entirely different meanings depending on the consumer … the cat is an icon that allows viewers to assign whatever meaning to her that they want …”
So, About that Hello Kitty Wine …
Hello Kitty wine, for me, is a very interesting case study-in-waiting. The wine business is excellent at developing a back-story as a part of a brand – think any one of thousands of wineries. Likewise, the business is also very good at manufacturing a brand that has arbitrary symbolism – think any one of hundreds of critter brands.
What the wine industry has no experience in whatsoever is a brand whose symbolism and meaning is based on “projectability” —the notion that users can use the wine as a prism to refract whatever they believe onto the wine drinking experience.
Wine is one of the most malleable of consumer products – it seemingly changes with every circumstance – light, mood, food, circumstance, etc. It seems only fitting that a brand play into that mercurial notion as well.
So, in sum, I hope your takeaway is not that Hello Kitty is or isn’t appealing to youth; I hope the takeaway is that Hello Kitty might be the very first wine brand in which the experience of the brand is defined not by the winery and their creation story, or a brand manager, but rather the user whose interaction with Hello Kitty is unique to them, and by virtue of that, it’s unique to the world of wine, as well.