TOKYO -- Sanrio, the Japanese company behind the iconic cartoon character Hello Kitty, has created an online sensation.
The company on July 10 launched Chanrio Maker, a free service that lets users create avatars in the trademark Sanrio style. Management hopes this will boost foot traffic at its Sanrio Puroland theme park in Tama, in western Tokyo.
PC and smartphone users can choose their avatar's hairstyle, outfit and accessories. They can also upload a photo to create a likeness of themselves. The service has struck a chord with teenage girls and women in their 20s, in particular. Many are putting the avatars on their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles.
The number of users has vastly exceeded Sanrio's expectations. As of Wednesday, the count was already over 10 million, almost 10 times initial projections. Early on, the hordes crashed the website, sending the company scurrying to add more servers.
Question is, can Sanrio turn the free avatars into revenue?
Perks at the park
The company has been struggling to attract visitors to Sanrio Puroland. The park's customer base is dominated by families with small children. It faces tough competition with Tokyo Disneyland and other rivals.
In the fiscal year ended March, Puroland drew 840,000 visitors, which left it nursing an operating loss of 500 million yen ($3.99 million).
Sanrio thinks Chanrio Maker can help.
On July 18, Puroland started promotions linked to the service. The park has a large screen that shows a virtual parade of Hello Kitty and other Sanrio characters. Visitors can have their avatars join the parade by swiping their unique bar code over a special device.
ID cards with one's avatar are also available for 500 yen. The cards grant discounts at the park's shops and restaurants.
Shiori Kubo, a 24-year-old cooking instructor, was impressed. "It's really cute!" she said as her personalized character marched across the screen. She recorded the roughly two-minute parade with her smartphone camera.
Kubo said it felt as though she had become a Sanrio character.
Hideaki Yokota, executive analyst at MM Research Institute, said 10 million users is a crucial marketing threshold, and that Sanrio did well to hit the mark so quickly. He said that while Puroland cannot compete with the visitor figures of, say, Disneyland, it may be able to regain some ground if it capitalizes on Chanrio Maker.
Sanrio is projecting a 12% on-year increase in visitors to Puroland in the July-August period. Kosho Nomura, an official at theme park operator Sanrio Entertainment, reckons the actual results could be even better. "Chanrio Maker could boost the increase to more than 20%," he said.
Other companies are taking notice. They see Chanrio Maker as a valuable social media marketing tool.
Several potential partners have approached Sanrio with ideas for events centered on the avatars. Nomura said that while promoting Puroland is the first priority, partnerships and monetization are the next steps.
But making money from social media phenomenons can be tricky. Of the 10 million-plus Chanrio Maker users, 30% have accessed the site from abroad, including Taiwan, the U.S. and the U.K. Sanrio's next challenge is to devise a strategy for turning those pixels of cuteness into cash.