RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Change is coming to a company known for a very particular brand of cuteness.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Hello Kitty, (singing in Japanese).
MARTIN: Yes, that's Hello Kitty, the white, mouthless character with a bow made by the Japanese company Sanrio. They recently announced 92-year-old founder and president Shintaro Tsuji will step down on July 1 and hand the company over to his grandson.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is the first change in leadership since Sanrio's founding in 1960.
CHRISTINE YANO: The grandson will have big shoes to follow. He's young. But in some ways, I think that it's not a bad thing for companies to be handed over to a younger generation.
GREENE: Christine Yano is an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii who has written one of the few books detailing Sanrio and Hello Kitty's rise to global fame. Yano says Sanrio started out as a dry goods company. The tide changed when it started catering towards cute culture.
YANO: I think the genius of Sanrio was to note that if you had a product - take a rubber sandal or something like that - and if you added a cute element, it became this huge value added, and that value being kawaii or cuteness, something that would be, of course, visually attractive and emotionally reassuring - things like a daisy, an apple and eventually a cat.
MARTIN: Hello Kitty debuted in 1974 and quickly became the company's flagship character. And young women in the '70s bought it up.
GREENE: Decades later, Hello Kitty is a multibillion dollar empire catering to people of all ages around the entire world with everything from pencils to cellphone cases to cars.
MARTIN: Yano says Kitty's simple design is key to her legacy.
YANO: There's something to me about the very spareness in design of Hello Kitty that gives her a kind of historical and cultural flexibility. In other words, she is so unspecific, that kind of what might be called a blankness can respond to whatever is needed at the moment, the flexibility to kind of be anyone, be anything.
MARTIN: The question now - can Hello Kitty and Sanrio's long cast of characters keep their positions atop the throne of cuteness?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Hello Kitty, (singing in Japanese). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.