Barbie celebrates her birthday today. And while looking remarkably youthful for a woman of 56, Barbie can count on many years as a woman of the world to teach us all about the realities of international markets. But as Mattel losses in the toy market mount, will her venture into the Chinese market be the final chapter in a worldwide success story?
Barbie’s Post-War German Face
Barbie got her start in the not-suitable-for-work spaces of post-war Germany. According to Barbie history, the original, inspiring doll, called Bild Lilli after a German comic strip first published in Bild Magazine in 1955, was a popular humor item sold to adult men not teen girls. She was drawn smart, sassy, and uninhibited and sold in her short skirt, red-painted nails, and black stilettos via bars and tobacco shops. It was there in 1959 that she was discovered by toy entrepreneur Ruth Handler and remodeled over the years since into an American fashion icon. While her U.S. counterpart was suitably stripped of her German sister’s more lurid characteristics, much of Lilli — as a strong female character — nevertheless carried over into the American imagination.
Mattel bought all copyrights and patents related to Lilli by 1964 and stopped all German production so that her American sister could grow to be the world model that she has become today. But if there is anything to be learned from the Lilli-becomes-Barbie transformation, it is that what resonates in one market in one language will not easily carry over into another.
Barbie Bets on China … And Loses
Take the case of Barbie’s venture into the Chinese market back in 2009. While Barbie had a world of success to rely on, her trip to China was universally declared a flop. Mattel was so eager to win new Barbie fans in the the Chinese market that, according to Forbes, the company sunk more than $30 million in just the Shanghai flagship store alone. According to the BBC, the store’s immense size — 36,000 square feet over six floors — likely made it the largest Barbie house in the world.
So why did Mattel have to shut it down in just two years time?
According to experts, Mattel’s failure was in misunderstanding Chinese expectations regarding toys and play in general and Barbie dolls in particular.
Americans who had grown up with Barbie had accepted her as a model for womanhood. Barbie has had more than 150 careers — including as an astronaut — has had six runs for the presidency, has a model boyfriend named Ken, and has her own Dreamhouse. She has collaborated with more than 75 world-renowned fashion designers to firmly establish her hold on fashion’s stage — with clothing, jewelry, and makeup lines to prove it.
That’s a whole lot of expectation for a child’s toy — at least according to the Chinese market.
While Barbie had already made inroads into the Chinese market by the time of the Shanghai debut, Barbie was not the fashion and lifestyle brand of the American marketplace. Instead, Barbie was simply a doll, and one without the long-term cultural pull of Japan’s Hello Kitty. The House of Barbie — with its spa, runway, karaoke bar, and luxury pricing — confused more than it inspired. Moreover, Mattel’s expensive take on play — delivered up to local girls in English rather than their native Mandarin — bumped up against the expectations of frugal parents more interested in their child's educational achievement.
Barbie’s Chinese Take-Away: Localize!
Is this the end for Barbie’s great Chinese adventure? Not a chance. According to the BBC, Mattel has learned its Chinese lesson and is staging a come back that includes a focus on talent and learning, rather than fashion and luxury. (China’s new Violin Soloist Barbie is priced far more cheaply than her international sisters, for example.) According to the Wall Street Journal, the company is also building its relationships with China’s Education and Culture ministries and educational experts to help redefine the nature of play for Chinese consumers.
Mattel nevertheless has a hard battle ahead. While the company was able to hold the title of market leader in 2014, Danish manufacturer LEGO is close on its heels and can count both strong earnings and its soon-to-be-completed factory in China as assets.
Will Barbie's makeover save the day for Mattel in China? Well, with a fight for China’s $7.9 billion toy market at stake, expect Barbie to come out swinging.