Hello Kitty: Bill Hensley

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Far from the aloof attitude of many felines, Hello Kitty wants to be your friend.

"We have a philosophy that we follow called 'Small gift, big smile,' " says Bill Hensley, 42, marketing director of Sanrio, the U.S. subsidiary of Tokyo-based Sanrio Co. "In the Sanrio vocabulary, the concept of customer acquisition would be better termed as making friends."

After two decades of underground popularity among young females in North America who found the Hello Kitty brand in Asian import stores and other niche outlets, the brand emerged into the mainstream in the late 1990s.

Retail sales, including licensed merchandise, are expected to exceed $300 million in North America in 2001.

The 4,000 products available in North America include backpacks, school supplies, toiletries and electronics. The collectible quality of the line-and resulting buzz among customers-is a factor in the strong focus on publicity in the Sanrio marketing plan. Recent efforts included the November 2000 opening of Sanrio's New York store on 42nd Street.

"We have redoubled our publicity efforts and achieved substantial success in elevating the overall awareness of the brand," says Mr. Hensley, a 12-year Sanrio employee. "The publicity feeds word-of-mouth better than advertising does, and that word-of-mouth is really what drives the Sanrio experience." Sanrio's advertising is mostly composed of print and online, which it creates and places in-house. It also distributes the "GoGo Sanrio Magalog," a quarterly magazine crossed with a catalog, through its 120 Sanrio boutique stores.

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