Where Did It Go Wrong for Mattel and Barbie in China?


China Shanghai Barbie

Two years after opening its first flagship Barbie store in Shanghai, Mattel closed shop in China.  The American toy maker had invested over $30 million in its House of Barbie store and the  concept was that Barbie is not just a fashion forward doll, she would also be a lifestyle symbol and cultural icon for girls and young women. The six-story building had the world’s largest collection of Barbie dolls and affiliated products such as children’s bedroom furniture and young women’s clothes. It also featured a fashion runway, a design studio, a stunning spiral staircase decorated with 800 Barbie dolls, and a café on the top floor.

Understanding the Chinese Consumer

Mattel’s first mistake was to have a standalone store before establishing Barbie as a strong brand in China. In America, Barbie is an iconic symbol of “femininity” for young girls. Over a period of fifty years, the brand has taken on a life of its own as Barbie assumed many roles of women. In China, Barbie is simply a doll. Since Barbie is not a cultural icon in China as she is in America, Chinese consumers couldn’t care less about Barbie-branded products.

Second, Mattel didn’t quite understand what Chinese girls and young women want. The Chinese concept of “femininity” is very different from that of American. In China, “feminine” is more about sweet and soft rather than smart and strong, more about gentle and loving rather than dazzling and fashion-forward. Although it has created a Chinese Barbie Ling with black hair who wears Chinese attire, Mattel failed to understand what Ling would represent in order to appeal to Chinese girls.

Learn more about the Chinese consumer, here

Instead of making Barbie a fashion and lifestyle brand, Mattel should have made Barbie an aspiring brand to empower Chinese girls. The idea of “I can be” is not encouraged in Chinese society, but is exactly what Chinese girls need. If Barbie, or Ling for that matter, could become a role model for Chinese girls, she would have re-invented herself and Mattel would have had a better chance to succeed in China.

Third, Mattel tried to bring a 50-year-old brand to a new market that had just gotten to know Barbie. Chinese consumers are new consumers. They are not yet as sophisticated as their counterparts in the West. Although China has changed significantly, it hasn’t changed to the point that 6-year-old girls would want to have their own fashion runway.

Finally,  the merchandise in the store was expensive since Mattel did not test the market in China. A pair of jeans cost as much as 1,000 yuan ($156). No one would spend that amount of money for a brand that doesn’t have significant recognition. Barbie dolls sold in other department stores were much less expensive. To make matters worse, there are countless knock-off Barbie dolls on the market.  Today, Chinese consumers might not buy a counterfeit Luis Vuitton bag, however,  a 6-year-old girl will not care about whether her Barbie dolls are authentic or not.

See the effect of counterfeit goods in China here


About Author

Social Brand Watch (SBW) is a collection of experts in digital, mobile and social media in China. SBW was created to complement Resonance's China Social Branding Report, a bi-weekly report focusing on modern marketing methods of the world's top brands in China.

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