When Sanrio Gets Angry: How Meme Culture Influences Legacy Brands

Why the makers of Hello Kitty shifted from cute and wholesome to angry and flawed.
Posted at 3:56 PM, May 07, 2018

Sanrio is one of the world's leading companies on cuteness — but how it defines cuteness seems to be changing with the times.

You're probably familiar with Sanrio's most famous character: Hello Kitty. She's adorable, wholesome and one of the most recognizable cartoons in the world. But now she's up against some stiff competition.

In 2015, Sanrio created Aggretsuko — an aggressive, angry but hard-working red panda with a penchant for heavy metal. Geek.com described her as "what happens when Hello Kitty gets a soul-crushing job."

Now, Aggretsuko is still cute like Hello Kitty, but unlike her iconic predecessor, she was created to be flawed and relatable. You can see this in her Netflix original series, which touches on the frustrations of tedious office work, sexist co-workers and impostor syndrome. Heavy topics for a cartoon red panda.

Sanrio's evolution from Hello Kitty to Aggretsuko and other popular characters, like the lazy egg Gudetama, is pretty drastic, but it corresponds with the trend of subversive, ambivalent and self-deprecating humor. That type of humor is pretty common in another medium: memes.

Back in 2012, BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti told U.S. News that memes were popular on the internet because they played "into shared emotions and experience." Many studies also say memes can promote public discourse and identity-building.

This phenomenon also happens through television series like "BoJack Horseman" or "Rick and Morty." Both shows use humor to spotlight heavy topics, like depression and alcoholism. And when fans turn moments from the series into memes themselvesthey're adding to the discussions.

For companies like Sanrio, this level of fandom and online engagement is attractive — but not necessarily because it wants to further conversations about mental health or societal critiques. Although the company is shifting away from its long-held brand of wholesome cuteness, its new subversive humor is fulfilling the same purpose: selling merchandise to fans.