Explaining Hello Kitty’s Success

Author Rob Walker says consumers flock to some brands with irrational exuberance.

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Rob Walker, author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, is back for a final day of answering questions from readers who participated in the first edition of the Alpha Consumer Book Club:

From Ryan Taylor of Millionaire Money Habits: It seems everyday consumers have more and more ways of "branding themselves" with the products they use, wear, and associate with, and organizations have an opportunity to capitalize on this with the viral, word-of-mouth phenomenon that exists with Facebook, YouTube, and the like. This also poses a challenge, as word-of-mouth advertising can't really be controlled as much as other forms of marketing, or can it? Is there a way to launch a "word of mouth" campaign and get people talking about your product?

Hmm, yeah, well, I think there are a number of fairly specific examples of that in the book. So, sure, it's possible. It's also hard. But guess what? Advertising, selling, marketing—it's always been hard. And as I say in the book, this issue of "control" has never been clear cut. I tell the story of Timberland—long before Facebook came along, the "meaning" of Timberland was completely redefined by consumers, transforming a pure-function brand into a fashion/style brand. The company had absolutely no ability to stop that from happening.

The dialogue between what we buy and who we are is not controlled by brand owners alone—and it never was. This is not a function of new technology; it's a function of how markets work. What a brand "means" isn't simply a question of what its owner thinks. It's also a function of what consumers think.

You're right—that poses a challenge, and the challenge may be more complex now because of technology. On the other hand, new technology also makes it much more possible for brand owners and consumers to communicate. But I sometimes think business owners think too much about what medium to use to get people talking, rather than thinking about what they can do, as a business, to actually be worth talking about.

Why do some brands, like the Lacoste crocodile or Hello Kitty, take off so amazingly?

The answer to a brand's success is different every time. One thing many gurus ignore is how culture and business change—there is no such thing as a five-point plan for making a brand take off. Consider Hello Kitty, which is an example I use in the book at some length. Some three decades ago, this mouthless, cute cat symbol was created by Sanrio. It turned into a megaseller, and while there are a number of theories as to why, the essence of my own theory is that there is no single answer. Hello Kitty benefited from "projectability," meaning that different consumers projected different ideas on this blank canvas. For some, it was little-girl cute, for others it was kitschy, for others it was nostalgic. And because Hello Kitty has no "official story," everyone is, in effect, right.

Now, Sanrio has created upwards of 400 other characters, and believe me, they would love to replicate the success of Hello Kitty. They have never come close. The reason is that there is no secret sauce that makes a brand/logo/symbol meaningful—it comes from consumers.

You say iPods became so popular because of a "secret dialogue" between an iPod and those who buy them. What is that secret dialogue?

Hmm, well, without rehashing the entire book, which is of course devoted to the question of what the secret dialogue is—and, much more importantly, how we as consumers can do a better job shaping that dialogue by understanding how it works—let me just bring up one point about the iPod. When I started looking into that particular product, I was searching for the "one thing" about it that was the key to its success.

After a lot of effort, I finally figured out that there was no "one thing"—certainly not in the object. It was in the "dialogue" between consumers and consumed. And there were aspects of that dialogue that involved nonconscious thinking (see yesterday's installment), and that's why I say that it's "secret."

The key to the iPod, or in my opinion to any product/brand that goes mass in the new, fragmented media culture of the 21st century, is that different consumers come to it for different reasons. Broadly, I think you can make a case for the iPod as an enabler of individuality—you have your own personal soundtrack wherever you go. BUT it's also an enabler of something like community—you feel like part of what one magazine labeled the "iPod Nation." (After all, those white headphones indicate that this is THE portable music player to own these days, right?)

It's more complicated than that, which is why I wrote a book on the subject, but just ponder the contradictory nature of those two impulses. When one product/brand can satisfy such disparate needs—that's a big deal.

So the secret dialogue, to get back to your question, varies from consumer to consumer, from brand to brand.

Now, you might say: "Well, both individuality and community are things that have nothing to do with brand choice." And you'd be absolutely right. Our consumer choices really do matter, both to our own satisfaction and (as we've learned all too clearly of late) to the planet's future. The bottom line is that a great deal of commercial persuasion is designed to prod you to make buying decisions based on immediate, reflexive factors that short-cut reflection and thought.

My hope in writing the book is to help all consumers understand how this "secret dialogue" works, to pull back a curtain both on the mechanisms of commercial persuasion and the mechanisms of the human mind, to help consumers get past (or at least be aware of) their own biases and make the decisions that really matter the most—to us.

You can read more of Walker's answers to questions here.