Helen Wang: Chinese Business – The Barbie Case Study

Doing business in China is never easy. China business speaker Helen Wang shares for Forbes what Mattel has learnt after its embarrassing closure of its flagship store, the House of Barbie, in Shanghai two years ago. Appealing to the “tiger mums” and also getting the pricing right are crucial. See Helen’s insights below…

Helen Wang

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!

[…] 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. […]

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.[…] 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.

[…] 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.

Read the entire article from Forbes here…

Helen Wang

Helen H. Wang is an award-winning author, consultant, and expert on China’s middle class.

Originally from China, Wang has lived in the U. S. for over twenty years. After finishing her master’s degree at Stanford University, she joined at a prestigious think tank, Institute for the Future, in Menlo Park, California, and consulted for Fortune 500 companies including Apple Computer, Oracle, and Bank of America.

Wang’s new book, The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World’s Largest Middle Class and What It Means to You, has won the 2012 Eric Hoffer Book Award and First Horizon Award. Wang has appeared on BBC World Television News, CNNMoney, been quoted by the Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, and featured in San Jose Mercury News, China Daily, and other major media.

Contact us at China Speakers Agency should you wish to engage Helen for your next event.