From a country which brought the world brands like Sony and Toyota, there's another name that's crept quietly to global prominence. Hello Kitty, the moon-faced cat with a bow in her hair and no mouth.
She's one of 450 characters developed by Japan's Sanrio Group, but she's by far most popular -- the embodiment of what's known in Japan as Kawaii, or the culture of cute.
Her image adorns some 50,000 objects, from cute, of course, to downright crazy. But there's nothing cute about the numbers. Hello Kitty is responsible for more than half of Sanrio's billion dollar annual turnover.
Her creator and founder of Sanrio is the effervescent 79-year-old Shintaro Tsuji. He told The Boardroom's Andrew Stevens what he thinks is the marketing secret behind a cultural icon.
Tsuji: Selling something which people want to buy is one of the ways of doing business. But I thought, goods that I want are also something other people want. So we wanted to make goods which people want to send to somebody else as a gift. The idea is that goods are for social communication purposes and that has been accepted worldwide.
In addition, to give Hello Kitty goods as a present is very thoughtful. Our three concepts of friendship, cuteness and thoughtfulness have been reaching out to people. It conveys the importance of being friendly. Such gestures are necessary for the Japanese nation. You care about other people by sending some gifts. Those concepts have been accepted worldwide.
Stevens: My first question to you is Sanrio has developed something like 450 characters. Why it is Hello Kitty has stood out so much more than the others? What is the secret of its success?
Tsuji: At first we were using characters which were created by outsiders, such as cartoonists or artists, but in this case we had to pay the royalty. So we decided to create our own characters. We hired many artists and asked them to create various characters. According to our own research, the most popular animal character was a dog then a white cat and the third one was a bear. Snoopy already existed as a dog character -- that's why we went for the second most popular character. We asked the artists to design a character based on a white cat.
Stevens: Let me just ask you a question about your life, growing up. Reading your autobiography, you lost your mother when you were 13 years old. You went to live with your auntie. And you describe your life; your childhood, has been a quite lonely. How do you think that has shaped you in your business life?
Tsuji: I felt that the most important thing in your life is to have someone whom you can open up your heart to and talk about anything; to have many friends whom you can talk with your heart is the most blessed thing in your life. Then I asked myself how can you make friends -- in what way people can make a friend with those people. That is not just to avoid behaving, which makes people uncomfortable. But do something, which makes people happy. In this way people can make friends.
For example, when people are ill, you can say something to them, or when people did something for you, you say thank you to them. For those kinds of occasions, you send a small present rather than an expensive gift. It is important to show your appreciation since you are able to make good friends in this way. This idea has formed as a business. As a result, Hello Kitty was created. Hello Kitty has become known among everybody and it means that people are becoming friends. I am pleased with this phenomenon.
Stevens: What, in your business career, is the most important lesson you think you've learnt?
Tsuji: A good company means that, first of all, its sale increases each year and secondly it makes profits each year. This is what people call a quality company. But this is not my main concern. Obviously, a company shouldn't lose money. A company cannot contribute to a society easily. But for me, it is important to establish a company, which has a good reputation.
Stevens: Much easier said than done, how do you remain true to your original ideas, though, because there are so many pressures from shareholders among other people to make those profits?
Tsuji: The company shareholders actually say "Make more profits or dividends." But what I always say to them at the general assembly is that the shareholder should be someone who truly values my company and is proud of having my company's share.
According to newspapers, there are companies which make a profit by polluting the environment or breaking laws. But this is not acceptable by our standard. I bet the company staffs want to have an increase in the wages. But I want my staffs to be proud of themselves, in particular, when their children ask them where they are working. In my view, that is very important.
Stevens: What advice would you give to someone starting out their own company in 21st century?
Tsuji: It is not only about making profits or establishing a huge corporation. A bigger country doesn't mean a better country. Having a larger military capacity doesn't mean a better thing. It will be ideal to establish a company which is a value to the world. It's not just about the money. So I would say "How about creating companies which people appreciate?"