Random item from the book Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are by Rob Walker. There's a section on Hello Kitty, the billion-dollar brand of the cute little cat with no mouth. There are thousands upon thousands of Hello Kitty licensed products available on the market, from toys and clothing to golf bags and appliances and even a $30,000 diamond-encrusted Hello Kitty wristwatch. Hello Kitty was originally thought to appeal only to young girls, but market research found that a third of Hello Kitty customers were over eighteen and shopping for themselves. So they started producing Hello Kitty lingerie and jewelry.
What's most interesting about Hello Kitty's brand identity is that there's no narrative or backstory behind it. Unlike characters like Snoopy or Mickey Mouse, there are no cartoon stories that give any hint about Hello Kitty's personality. And apparently this is entirely intentional. Hello Kitty stands for nothing, but this also means that Hello Kitty can also stand for anything the consumer wants it to be about.
Walker cites cultural scholar Brian McVeigh, who says that Hello Kitty is about "projectability." Hello Kitty's blank "cryptic" simplicity is "waiting to be interpreted." Hello Kitty could appeal to someone because it suggests nostalgia, or it could seem campy, or it could seem subversive. It could be anything.
The designer didn't know what to do for Hello Kitty's mouth and decided to just go without it. And that may well be the secret to Hello Kitty's success. A spokesman for Hello Kitty's corporate owners, Sanrio, says, "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." Other commentators observe that Hello Kitty is "an icon that allows viewers to assign whatever meaning to her that they want."
So Hello Kitty is not merely a corporate brand being foisted upon unthinking masses. Hello Kitty is an example of how consumers actually invest meaning into a cultural symbol. So we don't consume just to acquire stuff. And we don't consume merely to buy into a pre-existing brand identity. As we consume, we invest meaning into the corporate brands that we consume and appropriate them for our own purpose and use. We manufacture our own meaning. Consumption can thus be interpreted as a way that we construct our identity and make sense of the world.
Weird. Especially when I just did a quick Google image search for Hello Kitty and came up with:
Hello Kitty Ferrari
Hello Kitty exhaust pipe
Hello Kitty corset
Hello Kitty car seat
Hello Kitty motorcycle