Can Barbie conquer China?

By Ian Rose
Business reporter

image copyrightAndrea Di Martino / Alamy
image captionYoung Chinese girls getting to know Barbie in the Barbie store in 2009

At 36,000 sq ft it must have been the biggest Barbie house ever created.

In 2009 the world's largest toy maker, US firm Mattel, set its sights firmly on the Chinese market, opening a flagship store in Shanghai.

It was using a toy that in her 50 years had conquered all before her.

Created in 1959, Barbie is today sold in 150 countries and has won the hearts and minds of little girls as far afield as Mumbai and Buenos Aires.

She has thrived almost everywhere, despite regular criticism from feminist groups who have decried her influence on young girls' body image and ambitions. Even in markets where she is triumphant Barbie continues to court controversy.

But it is in China, arguably the most important consumer market in the world, where the all-conquering doll has stumbled on her kitten heels.

The Shanghai Barbie store closed in 2011, just two years after its grand opening.

Now, as Barbie attempts to crack China once again, has Mattel learnt from its earlier failure?

Barbie's CV

  • On 9 March 1959 Barbie was unveiled at the New York Toy Fair; the date is her official birthday
  • Barbie's full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts
  • Mattel claims she has had more than 150 careers
  • She became a business executive for the first time in 1985 and an astronaut in 1965
  • More than one billion Barbie dolls have been sold around the world

Trouble in store

The 2009 opening of the Shanghai store was not done by half measures.

It was not so much a shop as a lifestyle concept.

A grand spiral staircase surrounded by more than 800 different Barbies climbed the building.

And it was not just aimed at children.

image copyrightALAMY
image captionThe entrance to the spa at the now closed Shanghai Barbie store

Mattel was marketing the Barbie lifestyle to women in their 20s.

Clothing lines for women as well as young girls were part of the key products.

Real life brides-to-be were invited to coo over a Vera Wang Barbie wedding dress.

"It was confusing," says Benjamin Cavender of China Market Research Group.

"No-one knew what the brand stood for and so instead of going for cute they went towards sexy."

As well as clothes and design-your-own dolls, shoppers could eat in the Barbie restaurant, relax in the Barbie Spa and drink in the Barbie cocktail lounge.

But the problem was not enough people knew who Barbie was.

"It wasn't like in other countries where generations of women had grown up with Barbie," Mr Cavendar says.

"They created this massive experience but not enough people came to find out about it as the concept of Barbie wasn't a pre-existing draw in China."

image copyrightALAMY
image captionThe pink exterior of Shanghai's Barbie Store caused confusion for some customers

Don't think pink

The massive store was located on Huaihai Road, one of the most prestigious shopping streets in Shanghai.

But on the ground floor it was not clear to anyone passing exactly what was inside - you had to enter the store and climb an escalator to feel the impact of the design.

Plus a pink light shone outside. In China, a pink light district is associated with a much more adult style of trade than selling toys and clothes.

And despite the location being sought after, it wasn't easily accessible for shoppers.

"There was nowhere to park your car and it was not near a subway station," says Mr Cavender.

"If you can't get to it and you don't already know about Barbie, you're just not going to go."

Too frivolous?

"Joy and learning are like oil and water in China," a Mattel executive recently told the Wall Street Journal.

His point was that the first time round Barbie may have been too frivolous for the Chinese market.

image copyrightRex Features
image captionFan Bingbing, the face of Barbie in China in 2014

The toy market in China, however, is big - and growing.

Between 2009 and 2013, it nearly doubled in size to be worth about £5.5bn (53.8bn yuan; $8.7bn), according to Euromonitor.

Video games are far and away the biggest category in the market.

But Mattel has done well - as a company it is the fifth biggest toy maker in China with 1.4% of the overall market.

Its most successful offering is the more learning-oriented Fisher Price brand, the 14th biggest toy brand in China, according to Euromonitor. And Barbie could be going the same way.

Barbie's back

In 2013 Mattel brought Barbie back to the Chinese market. Only this time instead of clothes by Oscar De La Renta she had a violin and you could buy Barbie for the much more affordable price of $13 (£8.20).

This year there was another launch - a "specialty" Barbie doll in the likeness of Chinese actress Fan Bingbing.

Heralding the launch of the doll Mattel declared: "[Fan Bingbing's] collaboration with Barbie will give purpose and meaning to play and help ignite the spark inside girls across China to 'Shine Your Way'."

So it's clear that Barbie has learnt that to succeed in China today you have to have a sense of purpose, but then she didn't get the keys to the super-deluxe dreamhouse and the perfect boyfriend Ken by being just a pretty face.