Can Mattel Make A Comeback In China?

After Mattel’s embarrassing closure of its flagship store, the House of Barbie, in Shanghai two years ago, the American toy maker seems to have learned a thing or two about the Chinese market.

Its newly launched “Violin Soloist” Barbie aims to target Chinese parents who want their daughters to be “geniuses,”  just like any self-respecting tiger mom would. The doll has a traditional Barbie look – blonde, blue eyes and dressed in glamorous hot pink. In addition to her five-inch high heels, she even has a violin!

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine that a Barbie like this would appeal to Chinese girls. Don’t they want dolls that would look more like them – black hair, brown eyes and round face?  Two years ago, Mattel did create a Chinese Barbie with black hair and wore a traditional Chinese dress. She even had a Chinese name: Ling. But oddly enough, Chinese girls actually preferred blond Barbie to Chinese-looking Barbie Ling. Why this is so is another discussion of what beauty means to them and who they want to identify with. For now, it is a fact that Chinese girls like blondes.

This time, Mattel has gotten at least two things right. First, instead of projecting Barbie as a fashion-forward brand, Mattel began to understand that Chinese parents want their children well-educated and well-groomed. The days and nights of Chinese children are filled with homework, music lessons, and private tutoring for tests. To those ambitious parents, whether their children love violin or piano or not is not important. What’s important is that they know better what is good for their children. The “Violin Soloist” Barbie certainly feeds into that kind of mentality. Tiger moms are more likely to buy the doll, in the hope that their daughters would want to be more like Barbie.

Second, Chinese consumers are fundamentally value-seekers. They will seek out good deals in every purchase. The new “Violin Soloist” Barbie costs only 79 yuan, which is about $13. This is the price point that many parents are willing to spend for a toy. Yes, a toy. That is what Barbie is in China. Chinese consumers would not pay more than that – unless the toy represents something significant in their life.

This may be hard for Mattel executives to swallow. Barbie is such a cultural symbol in the U. S. In China, she is just another doll. I grew up not knowing anything about Barbie. I only realized her significance a couple of years ago when I talked to my American in-laws. They grew up in the 60s and 70s. They were still mesmerized by what Barbie had done to them. “She wears high-heals,” one of my in-laws said with twinkling in her eyes. “She has cars, and she goes to the beach. We all wanted to be like her!” They talked about Barbie as if she was a real person, a role model and a celebrity like Beyonce.

The magic of Barbie hasn’t played out nearly as much in China as in her homeland. Chinese culture is significantly different from that of America. As I wrote in another article, Why Barbie Stumbled in China and How She Could Re-invent Herself, Chinese believe that “feminine” is more about sweet and soft rather than smart and strong, more about being subdued and modest, rather than dazzling and fashionable. Without understanding this, it was no surprise that the House of Barbie closed its doors so soon after it opened in Shanghai.

The Chinese toy and games market has been growing at 14% in the last five years. In 2012, the market was already about $10 billion. The demand will continue to be strong as the growing number of Chinese middle class families want to give their children the best. And, they have the disposable incomes to do that.

There are still opportunities for Mattel to get it right in China. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Mattel’s sales have tripled in China since 2010. The lessons learned from the closure of the House of Barbie have obviously helped. The company is also expanding its distribution channels and jumping on the wagon of Chinese social media.

Can Mattel make a comeback in China? Well, Barbie is making her way into Chinese families. Whether she will take on many roles in China as she did in the U.S. will remain to be seen. The Violin Soloist is perhaps a test in uncharted water to see whether Barbie does indeed have a role in China. Ultimately, Chinese consumers will decide what kind of cultural icons they want, or what kind of toys they are willing to buy. Companies that don’t have the humility to learn will pay hefty prices – as we have seen in many other cases.

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