#171 Barbie in a (Chinese) Barbie World
In 2009, American toy company Mattel opened a gigantic, 36,000 square-foot “House of Barbie” in Shanghai, China. The company had invested over $30 million in the House of Barbie in celebration of the American iconic doll’s 50th anniversary. The six-story building housed the world’s largest collection of Barbie dolls, and also featured a fashion runway, a design studio, a stunning spiral staircase decorated with 800 Barbie dolls, and a Barbie-themed café. If you visited Shanghai today, you’d be wondering where to find this marvel of a flagship store. The reason you can’t find it is that in 2011, after only two years in operation, Mattel decided to close it again. So, what had happened?
Barbie has been a household name in the United States and many other countries since her birth on March 9, 1959, and so the original assumption was that the Chinese market wouldn’t be any different. Mattel started selling Barbie dolls in regional stores in China in 2002, and later even introduced Ling, a Barbie with black hair and traditional Chinese dress in an attempt to cater to local tastes and customs. According to insiders familiar with Mattel’s strategy and Chinese culture, however, the adaption was too superficial. Rather than to reposition Barbie as a truly Chinese aspirational role model, only her dress and appearance were changed. As a result, success was moderate, but not at the same level as in many other markets.
It is commonly thought that Mattel failed to recognize that Barbie did not have the same standing as an icon in China as it had in the West. In the United States, over several decades Barbie had taken on a life of its own and become a household name. In China, even though people were somewhat familiar with her, she was just another doll on the market, and did not have strong brand equity. That Mattel forced the usual high-price strategy on the Chinese market didn’t help and invited cheaper knockoffs or counterfeits to the market. Chinese middle-class consumers might not buy fake Nike sneakers or Louis Vuitton handbags anymore, but parents would most likely not be willing to spend their hard-earned money on a foreign doll if cheaper local alternatives are available.
There was also a mismatch between the American and the Chinese concepts of femininity. Barbie is sexy and forward, but girls in China are often encouraged to be soft, caring, and humble. The idea of aspiring to be a fashion icon with an entire world revolving around them, having fashion runways and design studios was not a good cultural fit. Chinese parents also prefer their children to have educational toys that will help them to learn new skills instead of playing with dolls for play’s sake.
Mattel’s solution to achieve the ultimate breakthrough in China was to go big with the flagship store in Shanghai. Clearly overestimating the allure of Barbie in China, an entire standalone store around a single brand was a bad choice. Overpriced Barbie-branded clothes, accessories, and even furniture didn’t make sense to many consumers who just wanted a doll. In addition, there was no widespread distribution and retail to leverage the presence in Shanghai. If consumers didn’t live in Shanghai, they were out of luck. Ultimately, the lackluster performance did no longer justify the high operational expenses of the flagship store, and Mattel shut down the House of Barbie.
But don’t worry – Ken and Barbie aren’t living on the streets of China. Mattel hasn’t completely given up on the Chinese market. In 2017, the company struck deals with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba as well as online content developer BabyTree to sell interactive learning products based on its Fisher-Price toys. And only a year later, Mattel signed Shanghai-born ballerina Tan Yuanyuan as one of the models for a new 2018 Barbie global role model series that included, among others, Olympic snowboarding champion Chloe Kim, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, soccer player Sara Gama, and conservationist Bindi Irwin (the lineup has changed since). And most recently, for Lunar New Year 2022, Barbie partnered with Guo Pei, one of China’s most renowned couturiers.
Anderlini, J. (2011). Barbie Shuts Up Shop in Shanghai.
Burgundy, R. (2021). Liu Wen, Chinese Supermodel, is Now a Barbie Too.
China Daily (2020). Mattel’s classic Barbie dolls prove to be a lockdown favorite.
Ganesan, G. & Cavale, S. (2017). Mattel reworks China strategy amid elusive growth.
San Juan, D. (2018). Mattel Features San Francisco Ballet’s Yuan Yuan Tan in its Barbie Global Role Models Series.
The Economist (2019). Why Chinese parents prefer Lego to Barbie.
Wang, H. (2012). Why Barbie Stumbled in China and How She Could Re-invent Herself.
March 8, 2023 @ 4:59 pm
This case once again highlights the importance of market research and the necessity of a true understanding of the culture BEFORE introducing a product in a new country. One would think that not investigating whether a product or a service actually will sell in a new country is a rookie mistake, yet it regularly happens to very popular, very experienced companies such as McDonalds and Amazon. There might simply be no need for certain items in certain countries or products have to be adjusted according to the needs of the population. Ideally, companies figure out whether there is a demand for their service or product before launching it. This particularly has to be considered when a product is to be launched in a country that significantly differs from the nation the product was created for. When a company introduces a service that sells well in Austria on the German market it is more likely to be successful than when the company introduces the very same service in the country of Somalia. Thankfully, there are many tools available that allow companies to do a lot more than “guess” whether their service will sell in a new market.
March 10, 2023 @ 8:07 am
This case hit me really hard. I loved to play with Barbie, I love Barbie’s variety and always dreamed of a collector piece.
Here, I see a lack of research of a new market. It is not just about money, it is always about society and cultural issues too. Before entering a new market, a lot of research and knowledge has to be evaluated and considered.
Mattel did not considered chinese culture and the project, introducing Barbie to China, failed.
While reading the article, I thought: „Why Mattel opened a barbie dreamhouse when chinese people don’t have this connection to Barbie?“ Just because Chinese youth love to play in similar places, it does not mean a unknown doll house success.
Second, the way to introduce Barbie to Chinese society was too heavy. It would have been better to introduce it slightly and doing a lot of digital advertisment. Another point was the counterfeit market – you could not beat it but be better with additionals or quality.
Third, as mentioned in the article, young chinese girls‘ education is more about being nice, quiet and girly.
Barbie, the adult doll with her slogan „you can be anything“ is the contrary of chinese girls‘ perception. Here, selling Skipper (the teen Barbie) and Shelly (the child Barbie) before introducing Barbie as a collector’s piece, would have been a possible solution.
March 11, 2023 @ 6:33 pm
For many global players, the dollar signs in managers’ eyes light up when they hear China as a target market. Of course, China offers huge opportunities, but mostly only for companies that do “their homework” such as market research, surveys, etc. Mattel has obviously shirked its homework, otherwise, they would have set up the “House of Barbie” differently in Shanghai in 2009.
Market strategy challenges for Mattel in China:
In 2009 Barbie was not well-known and Mattel’s selling prices were not competitive in this market. Furthermore, Mattel had to deal with plagiarism, leading to products with similar designs but much lower prices.
The small superficial adaptation of Barbie’s appearance for China was not accepted by the market, since cultural differences were not adequately considered. Mattel did not address children’s needs for a playful doll or parents’ needs for a toy that would develop children’s skills. Also, there is a difference in the upbringing of girls in the West, where Barbie is allowed to be sexy and confident, while girls in China are raised to be soft and caring.
The “home of Barbie” layout was not adapted to the preferences of consumers. Large, air-conditioned shopping malls are preferred over individual buildings.
March 12, 2023 @ 3:18 pm
For a variety of reasons, Mattel faced many problems in China. One of the main reasons for this was cultural differences. Mattel produced a number of toys that did not reflect or fit into Chinese culture. In the case of Barbie, the doll was designed to reflect American culture. Several nations were dissatisfied with Barbie’s design, and Mattel experienced problems as a consequence. Due to the fact that Barbie was designed to represent American girls with blonde hair and blue eyes, the doll was not popular among the Chinese market. They were familiar with Hello Kitty and other soft dolls. Due to cultural and language differences, Mattel failed to understand how American and Chinese girls perceive the world differently. In addition, Mattel failed in China because they did not thoroughly research their ideas prior to entering and introducing a new product in a completely new market. Building relationships with others is a high priority for the Chinese before doing business. Because Mattel chose to ignore this important fact, they suffered a significant loss. Mattel believed that Barbie was popular throughout the world, but this was not the case in China. This failure was caused by Mattel’s failure to inform or establish a relationship with China in the first place. Mattel was unable to adapt to Chinese culture and way of life. A further complaint had been made by the company that Barbie was overpriced. Mattel’s research into China was insufficient without a doubt. As a result, what was beneficial for one market was not beneficial for another. Prior to entering a market, manufacturers should establish a relationship with it, visit the countries they intend to target and determine what products are most popular there. To be successful, a company must first strategize, conduct market research, build relationships with the people in order to gain their trust, and then introduce its products to the market. The failure of Mattel in China was due to its failure not to follow those steps.