The successful transformation of Hello Kitty from a product to popular culture powerhouse had a lot to do with the character's cuteness and a blank-faced simplicity that "creates space for interpretation," said Christine Yano, the author of "Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty's Trek across the Pacific." She also credited timing.
When Hello Kitty first came on the scene, "there was rising girl culture that allowed girls and women to embrace 'cuteness' and have it be part of their esthetic and emotional repertoire," Yano told CNBC. She curated the retrospective section of the exhibit for its initial installation at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
Later, said Yano, Hello Kitty and "cute culture" got rolled into the U.S. fascination with cool Japanese trends like video games and manga animation. Today, there are 50,000 Hello Kitty-branded products out in the world at any given time.
In 2014, when Sanrio celebrated Hello Kitty's 40th anniversary, the company ranked sixth on License! Global's list of Top 150 global licensors with $6.5 billion in retail sales. That wasn't far behind Mattel, at No. 5 with its $9 billion in retail sales. Both companies pale in comparison to Walt Disney Co., which topped the list with retail sales of $45.2 billion.
So does Hello Kitty want to challenge Mickey Mouse for his throne? Sanrio's Marchi has different ideas. Disney, he told CNBC, is "an entertainment company, while we're a lifestyle brand."
Yet Yano notes that when Hello Kitty was created, "company founder, Shintaro Tsuji, really wanted to be Japan's Walt Disney," she said. "He said he wanted to create the Japanese cat that would overtake the American mouse."