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A very British coo

We chat to Sanrio’s Simon Gresswell about the company’s strong 2017 and plans going forward.

Sanrio has been a global powerhouse for decades in licensing and merchandising. Best known for its iconic character Hello Kitty (‘KT’ as she’s referred to in-house), the company has also nurtured and grown the Mr Men Little Miss franchise in recent years.

However, something of a well kept secret about Sanrio in the EMEA markets, is its huge portfolio of other characters, developed in Japan. Over the last five years in particular, these have been starting to gain awareness and popularity in other international markets, thanks mainly to the power of social media, bloggers and vloggers. Now, new coo Simon Gresswell and his team at Sanrio EMEA, are aiming to raise their profile further, while also boosting some classic brands as well.

“To date, 2017 has been a very successful year of transition for Hello Kitty and promises more, as we are starting to convert marketing initiatives and fantastic brand collaborations into retail licences and sales,” he explains. “We’ve taken KT back in-house, from agency representation in the UK and created an EMEA strategy to re-position and re-invigorate Hello Kitty, working with key partners, cool brands and our European agent family.”


This strategy is still unfolding across the main European markets, but consists of an Instagram influencer marketing campaign – Hello Kitty Gang – and a similar campaign targeting kids – Hello Kitty Club.

Hello Kitty Gang (or ‘KTG’) has been set up only with influencers who are big fans of KT, inviting them to events, gifting them cool consumer products and encouraging them to share their thoughts, pics or posts online.

Simon adds: “Our marketing gurus here worked incredibly hard to find and approach the right kind of influencers, but in the right way. They have delivered a potent mixture of young influencers from varied areas of interest – lifestyle, music, social media, fashion, sport, etc. I think getting this profile and mix right is the key to the campaign and the message that KT is iconic and, therefore, always cool at some level.”

KTG was officially launched in a pop-up shop with personalisation service in TopShop, Oxford St in June and then at another event at Berlin Fashion Week in July. Further launch events are being planned for Spain, Italy, France and Russia.

Hello Kitty Club, meanwhile, is being seeded into licensees and retailers right now and plays partly to the multi-age appeal of the character. In terms of target market, ‘the Club’ is likely to determine its own breadth of appeal and age range, with younger groups aspiring to it and older groups wearing it at home as well, says Simon.


Alongside this, Hello Kitty has enjoyed more success via high-end brand collaborations and retail activations via location-based licensing. Already in 2017, KT has been on the catwalk with Ryan Lo and in Lazy Oaf stores/online in the UK, in a spa in Dubai, in Carrefour stores in Turkey and has themed a holiday hotel and resort on the east coast of Italy. Another project sees a KT ride and café in development at the Dream Island Indoor Theme Park in Moscow.

Looking forward, Simon adds: “KT is a classic character and a classic brand that may have been over-exposed or over bought, in a fluctuating content market. But a classic doesn’t lose its equity and with a nod to the retro graphics of the 70s through her new design direction – which was visible in Paperchase’s recently promoted stationery collection – and a 45th birthday coming up in 2019, that’s what we are seeking to revive and re-launch.”


Sanrio’s future vision is not only about Kitty though. “I’m sure like me, everyone in the UK has a deep-rooted affection for the Mr Men and Little Miss characters and books,” Simon enthuses. “When I first worked on licensing the Mr Men brand at CPL in the mid 90s, my initial feeling was just jealousy! I was jealous that Roger Hargreaves had thought of such a brilliant idea.

Simon continues: “In this new role, I’m excited to be the overall parent/guardian of 90+ iconic characters, a family that grows year on year with bespoke characters for brand campaigns and retail partners, and has endless creative, messaging and communication opportunities.”

The Mr Men characters have appeared this year in high profile corporate campaigns with Transport for London and Heathrow, as well as continuing their strong awareness and appeal in France, Hong Kong and Australia.

As an evergreen brand, Mr Men has always seen solid success at retail in the younger end of the kids’ market, with kids and toddler day and nightwear proving strong in key mass retailers. It also has a strong gift appeal, with mugs being the number one seller year on year. It has recently moved into the adult humour market, with lifestyle tees and a series of polite-parody books launching this Christmas. This momentum encouraged Sanrio to open the first Mr Men ecommerce store in the UK last year (with one to follow in 2018 in France) and the product selection plays on the family and cross-generational appeal. You can personalise gifts and family portraits with your favourite Mr Men and Little Miss characters, as well as buy the exclusive range of Mr Men x Dr Who mash-up product developed in the joint venture with the BBC TV.

“Our aim now,” adds Simon, “is to further cement Mr Men into the Sanrio portfolio and evolve it into other media over the coming years, as a way to make the brand truly international and even global.”

With renewed vigour behind KT and Mr Men, more retail activations, marketing and character launches planned in 2018, Sanrio is planning a bright future, appealing to different target groups, across different territories and with brands at different stages of maturity and development. Behind it all though, Simon says they will naturally stick to the company’s core ethos of ‘small gift, big smile’.


An egg-ceptional launch

In addition to its classics, Sanrio is also starting to introduce new characters into the EMEA region, that have really only had traction online and among the social media set. One such character recently launched in the UK is Gudetama, aka ‘The Lazy Egg’ (Gude Gude is lazy in Japanese).

Simon explains: “Our marketing team absolutely cracked a soft-launch of Gudetama to coincide with the character’s initial listings at retail, in Primark and Paperchase. Among others, the event was attended by the world’s number one followed YouTube star, PewDiePie.

“Our marketing and digital manager – Hannah Rowlands – was excited, surprised and a bit bowled over to have generated this kind of interest and, given we know that licensees and retailers look to this kind of influence and following to assess brands, their relevance and their edginess, this was a perfect start for Gudetama.”

This feature originally appeared in the autumn 2017 edition of Licensing Source Book. Click here to read the full publication.

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