14 Apr 2015

What Does the World Think of Barbie?

With domestic sales dwindling, Barbie manufacturer Mattel has shifted its focus to new markets in recent years, although not with complete success.

Worldwide, sales for the Barbie brand were down 14% in 2014 and Lego has now beaten it to the top spot as the world’s best selling toy.

It’s a difficult proposition to serve to a global market: Barbie’s vision of femininity has long been considered controversial and the figure is unarguably Caucasian. How successful has Mattel been at introducing Barbie to overseas markets and does Barbie have a future on the global stage?

The plastic toy doll with unrealistic proportions has been a major part of many childhoods in the West since her creation in 1959. At the time, children tended to play with baby dolls rather than dolls based on adults with grown-up lifestyles, so Barbie was quite innovative.

Mattel was also the first toy company to broadcast ads to children. The invention of Barbie opened up a multiplicity of associated good such as outfits, toy vehicles and play houses.

It’s estimated that over a billion of the toys have now been sold and there’s a thriving resale market for vintage dolls and accessories.

But how has she been received in global markets?


Mattel has been accused of failing to undertake enough market research before entering the Japanese market. Dolls are taken more seriously in Japan than in the West and have ceremonial significance. People weren’t sure what to do with the new plastic toy from America when it first arrived and the doll’s open mouth was considered vulgar.

Mattel partnered with a local toy company, which advised some physical changes arguing that Japanese children (probably quite sensibly) didn’t identify with her appearance.

Barbie’s legs were shortened and her eye colour changed from blue to brown. The adapted doll was a great success although Mattel had some licensing problems with its local partner which led to its former ally marketing a rival doll for a period of time. Japan is now a thriving market for ‘Licca-chan’ as Barbie is now known in this market.


Mattel recently pulled out of Shanghai after a big branded store failed to perform well in this market. Whilst many commentators claimed that the Caucasian doll wasn’t right for the market, others pointed out the blonde doll has sold better than the localised version, ‘Ling’. Others pointed out that the doll had no cultural significance in China in the same way she does in the West. To the Chinese, Barbie is just another doll.


Themed restaurants are popular in Taiwan, and Mattel have capitalised on this by opening a Barbie-themed eatery. As you might expect, the theme is pink and sparkly – waitresses have gems stuck to their faces and the chairs wear tutu flounces. Mattel’s strategy is to use the restaurant to push Barbie’s fashion line, which offers items such as tutus for toddlers.

Saudi Arabia

Barbie enraged hardliners in parts of the Muslim world by flouting dress codes with her sparkly wardrobe. This allowed another manufacturer to gain ground with their doll, Fulla, who comes with a more modest wardrobe that includes an abaya for the Saudi market and other interpretations of modest dress for various Islamic markets.

The chaste Fulla has no equivalent male companion to Ken. In Saudi ads for the doll, Fulla is seen reciting her morning prayer. The doll comes with her own panoply of accessories and tie-ins, which includes Fulla umbrellas, watches, bikes, CD players and cornflakes.


Mattel’s attempt to move away from ethnocentric Caucasian Barbie by marketing ‘transcreated’ dolls in Mexico led to controversy.

The brand was accused of representing outdated stereotypes when it issued a brown-haired Barbie wearing bright pink traditional dress with a Chihuahua dog tucked under her arm, and another outfit of traditional mariachi dress. Mattel were accused of creating offensively simplistic portrayals of different heritages.

In sympathy to the global brand, it seems Mattel attempted to do in Mexico what it should have done in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, these efforts appear crass, especially when considered alongside a black haired ‘China’ Barbie accessorised with a baby panda or the Indian one accompanied by a monkey.


Whilst Mattel does sell black Barbies in its US home market, the brand hasn’t really reached out to markets in Africa. In a similar situation to Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab Islamic world, another doll has instead triumphed.

The ‘Queens of Africa’ doll offers Barbie’s slender physique – interestingly, larger bodied versions failed to sell even in a culture that’s more accepting of larger women than the West – at a cheaper price and with traditional African dress. It’s estimated the ‘Queens’ have gained about 15% of Nigeria’s toy market.

Collectors markets

Mattel estimates there are at least a hundred thousand Barbie collectors, mostly women over 40, who purchase an average of 20 dolls a year. It now caters to this audience with special collectors’ edition Barbies made out of porcelain and themed dolls such as the Star Trek Barbie.

It’s worth remembering that all purchasers of Barbie dolls are adults, although many will be influenced by children to make that purchasing decision. It’s likely the adult collector market buying for themselves is focused on buying second hand dolls, so whilst they may be fans of the brand they aren’t necessarily contributing to Mattel’s coffers but to the second-hand market.

Like property, it’s first time buyers that really fuel the market. Unless a new generation comes to love Barbie, Mattel won’t see a future for the collectors market as present collectors age out of the economy.

Whilst the Barbie brand may be falling from grace, Mattel’s other brands appear to be thriving, and could even be cannibalising the company’s best known doll.

The ‘My American Girl’ doll offers 40 hair and skin combinations and girls can choose whether their dolls wear braces or have freckles, with the option to choose accessories such as hearing aids for a hearing-impaired owner.

Whilst Barbie refuses to yield to any concerns for political correctness, Mattel’s other brands could steal her market by being more relevant and better catering to niches.

Will Barbie endure?

Barbie has always been controversial. Detractors tend to be adults who yearn for a world that’s less pink and a bit more inclusive. Essentially Barbie’s survival as one of the world’s best-selling toys is going to hinge on pester power. Do children still find her appealing?

Although sales are falling, there are still enough Barbies being sold to suggest there’s some mileage left in the 56-year-old toy. What’s clear is that Mattel needs to find a way to make Barbie resonate with a new global audience for lasting success overseas. In the West, consumer perceptions will need to change radically if Barbie’s image is to continue to appeal to young audiences in an increasingly diverse and fragmented world.


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