#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.

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