Road Warrior

Hello Kitty, the global brand that flies, is cuddly, and rakes in cash

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC
Hello Kitty quite the cat's meow
Hello Kitty quite the cat's meow

Already flying the friendly skies, Hello Kitty is now touching down at a museum near you.

An exhibition celebrating the iconic character, which adorns everything from key chains and costume jewelry to — most recently — jumbo jets, opens Nov. 14 at Seattle's EMP Museum.

The venue will become a shrine for lovers of the popular Sanrio imprint, with 600 Hello Kitty-themed objects and more than 30 pieces of artwork on display. Some of the assorted bric-a-brac will include housewares, motor oil and appliances.

For a Hollywood touch, the exhibit will also feature the Hello Kitty dress worn by Lady Gaga, and a couture bustier worn by Katy Perry.

Read More Now boarding at Gate 1, Hello Kitty airlines?

"Hello Kitty started out purely as a product," Dave Marchi, Sanrio's vice president of brand management and marketing told CNBC, "and 40 years later, here we are with a phenomenon."

A McDonald's restaurant is shown in Shanghai, China.
McDonald's recalls 2.3M Hello Kitty toys
A queue forms outside of a McDonald's branch in Singapore on April 28, 2014.
A Hello Kitty cat-tastrophe for Singapore?

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."

Hello Kitty phone
EMP Museum

Pricewise, Hello Kitty memorabilia is at least as diverse as anything found in the house that Walt built. Hello Kitty items range from 30-cent packets of gum, to a necklace with pearls, rubies, onyx and diamonds that retail for over $250,000.

"We're constantly looking to create products that make fans happy," said Marchi. And, increasingly, those fans are men. "In the past we've released boxer shorts, a neck tie, a bow tie and a full three-piece suit," said Marchi.

Meanwhile, a new Hello Kitty-themed men's collection was just released in Japan. Now the question remains whether consumers will go for all of it.

"If enough consumers say they consider this to be cool, funny, ironic or stylish by buying it, then it will be successful," said Martin Brochstein, senior vice president of Industry Relations and Information for the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association.

"But it's also important to note that sometimes there are goals beyond pure revenue," he said. "Sometimes, you try something that seems a little outlandish just to start the cultural conversation."

— Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.