Hello Kitty firm strikes China deal after viral hit

A Hello Kitty toy.

The Japanese company behind the Hello Kitty brand has struck a licensing deal in China after one of its lesser-known characters went viral in the country.

Sanrio says a unit of e-commerce giant Alibaba will have exclusive rights in China to make and sell merchandise of its 26 characters.

The deal comes after Sanrio’s imp-like rabbit Kuromi featured in a Chinese social media video that went viral.

Shares in Sanrio closed almost 14% higher in Tokyo trade on Thursday.

The company said in a statement that the five-year agreement with Alifish, Alibaba’s licensing and entertainment business, will “further enhance the Sanrio brand and character value in the Chinese mainland market”.

The deal covers 26 characters that Sanrio has designed including Hello Kitty, her best friend My Melody and the devilish Kuromi.

Earlier this year, Kuromi surged in popularity in China after an influencer danced in outfits inspired by Sanrio characters.

The video on the Douyin, the version of TikTok available in China, was posted by Helenoftroy, who has more than 14 million followers.

Kuromi’s birthday is on Halloween and she is described as a “tomboy” who is “actually very girly”. According to Sanrio’s official website, “She enjoys writing in her diary and reading romance novels.”

Sanrio character Kuromi.
Image caption,Kuromi is a character in the Hello Kitty franchise

Although Hello Kitty typifies the Japanese culture of “kawaii” or cuteness, the company has said that she is a British schoolgirl called Kitty White who lives just outside London.

The brand has generated billions of dollars since its inception almost 50 years ago.

Goods branded with the mouthless cartoon adorned with a trademark hair bow are sold in 130 countries worldwide, with the range extending from prosecco to plimsolls.

Sanrio has also licensed for amusement parks and cafés, while in 2018 a Japanese railway firm splashed the image on its bullet train, painted in pink and white.

However, Sanrio, whose business has been declining for several years, was badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Measures to slow the spread of Covid-19 resulted in the temporary closure of the firm’s theme parks and stores.

Despite the restrictions, Sanrio’s sales in China grew 39% to 4.7bn Japanese yen ($34.4m; £28.4m) in the year to March this year. Its profits in the country jumped 19% during the same period.

In 2020, the company saw the first change in leadership in its six-decade history.

That came when its founder Shintaro Tsuji, then aged 92, handed over control of the company to his grandson Tomokuni Tsuji.

2px presentational grey line