Goodbye Afro Ken, Hello Kitty!
On the main page of my blog at InventorSpot there's an image of a small cartoon dog with a rainbow afro and a Mona Lisa smile. Cute, huh? Odds are, you've never seen it before, and that's because "Afro Ken" lost out to Hello Kitty in the great race for Japanese Character Supremacy. For sure, he wasn't the only one... Hello Kitty has become a global phenomenon ("plague", some say) that leaves little room on the store shelves for the also-rans. It's too bad, though, because in my humble opinion Afro Ken is a cuter, more interesting character whose appeal crosses gender lines - something Hello Kitty can't do.
Afro Ken is, basically, a dog with an afro - usually a rainbow afro like that strange "John 3:16" dude used to sport. Things take off from that point, because Afro Ken's designers have penned a bewildering variety of hairstyles that include traditional samurai topknots, pompous pompadours, multicolored mohawks, Jamaican dreadlocks and blond pigtails ala "Heidi". There's even "Normal Ken" who has NO hairstyle. Whatever his 'do may be, Afro Ken maintains the same, gentle smile that reflects his "innocent and blameless" nature. I could go on and on, but just watch this You Tube video to learn more about Afro Ken and see him (or her, Afro Ken's sex is undetermined) in action...
It's obvious that the creators and designers of Afro Ken at San-X have put a lot of work into the character, imagineering up a huge variety of different "Kens" that should have translated into a merchandising goldmine. Indeed, available Afro Ken items ran the gamut from school supplies & stationary to ceramic mugs & tea sets to plush toys big and small. After a few short years, however, the Afro Ken displays began to shrink as existing stock slowly sold out and was not replaced. What happened? I asked my wife, a genuine Tokyoite, why Afro Ken lost out to Hello Kitty and her answer was short and to the point: branding. Brands are extremely important to Japanese shoppers, she continued, and San-X simply does not have the status of Hello Kitty's creator, Sanrio, in the eyes of Japanese consumers. So, sad to say, but countless hours of brainstorming by San-X's character designers has once again gone for naught. Goodbye Afro Ken, Hello Kitty!