This started out to be a post about a few wine news tidbits involving Asia, inspired by some tasty Thai food. I had collected news bytes, such as the increased interest of Chinese buyers at Primeur 2010 and the efforts of Duckhorn to start a new winery in China. I even had an amusing trifle about The Drops of the Gods, a Japanese comic book about wine that Dr. Liz Thatch passed on to me a while back. As crazy as it sounds, wineries should be overjoyed if their wine is mentioned in the comic. Sales go through the roof in Japan. But it all fell by the wayside when I heard Hello Kitty wine had arrived on the scene.

NBC Los Angeles covered the story last week. I’m not sure which part of me was more offended when I first read the NBC headline, “Cat Lovers and Wine Lovers Rejoice” – the cat lover or the wine lover- but I was intrigued at the same time.  The wines are produced in Italy and include sparkling Brut Rosé, a pink Demi-Sec sparkling wine in a .375 ml bottle, a Pinot Nero red and a Pinot Nero white, all produced from the Pinot Noir grape. This left me wondering, who is the target audience for Hello Kitty wine? I explored the phenomenon a bit and soon found myself falling down the proverbial rabbit hole into a world where branding and cuteness collide and create a powerful force that is sweet as sugar and packs a wallop of steel.

You might think Hello Kitty is just a product aimed at children, but that would be incorrect. Hello Kitty was first introduced in 1974 and an entire generation has grown up loving her and buying the merchandise.  According to an interview with founder and President Shintaro Tsuji by Robin Harding of the Financial Times, she’s also the mainstay of a $770 million business. (You can find the original here, registration is required.) The company found that over a third of the purchases made are by adults over 18 for themselves, and that’s where the wine connection comes into play as Sanrio uses Hello Kitty to reach out to adults that find her cuteness irresistible. Tyler Coleman aka Dr. Vino has a poll on his site where you can vote on whether you think it’s a ploy to attract children to alcohol. If you are “strangely confused and disturbed” by the idea of Hello Kitty wine, you are not alone. The comments on the post are worth reading to see some insight into the mind of the Hello Kitty generation.

Jeff LeFevere at Good Grape gets closer to the matter when he looks at the history of branding. His post directed me to a fascinating book, Buying In by Rob Walker, who looks at the Hello Kitty brand phenomenon in depth to help illustrate his theory of the “Desire Code” and how it influences us to buy. (And thanks to Kindle for delivering me the book instantaneously. Don’t we wish selling wine could be so effortless?).

Ironically, even though Hello Kitty is old enough to drink at 36, she doesn’t have a mouth. According to Walker, Hello Kitty’s designer, Yoku Shimizu, and others theorize it’s the absence of a mouth that allows the viewer to ascribe whatever meaning or emotion we want to Hello Kitty that makes her so popular. In a recent tongue-in-cheek interview, Hello Kitty makes her mission clear with the single mindedness of a science fiction robot gone awry. Brand is everything. I still haven’t figured out how a character with no mouth can give an interview.

Why should we here in wine country care about a Japanese entrepreneur, a bunch of expensive kitsch emblazoned with cartoon icons and wine that seems more appropriate for Brittany Spears to drink while having an emotional meltdown in a bubble bath? I think we need to take a closer look at branding, and how it can secure a place in the minds of consumers of the future. Rob Walker makes two statements in his book, Buying In, which offers the wine industry food for thought.

“The more narrow the range of actual differences in commodity attributes, the more important it becomes to create a different kind of value-one that transcends the material.”

”If a product is successfully tied to an idea, branding persuades people- whether they admit…or even fully understand it themselves- to consume the idea by consuming the product.

As for me, I’m looking for some Hello Kitty Brut Rosé so I can take a long, hot bath with lots of bubbles and contemplate what this is all about.

Author Leah McNally, WWS Blogger Intern
Editor Thayne Cockrum, WWS Communications Director