Rovio’s presentation at [a]list summit New York started with the trailer for the Hoth level update to Angry Birds Star Wars, where Imperial AT-AT Walkers comically slip on ice, and eventually one struggling AT-AT has all four legs go under it. It turns out that was Rovio’s quiet homage to Disney, mimicking Bambi, and put in the video to commemorate how Disney picked up the Star Wars license.  It’s the kind of smart thinking when it comes to showing off the Angry Birds brand that put Rovio on the map.

In some respects, Rovio has made the map when it comes to taking an original mobile game IP, making it successful, and turning it into a global phenomenon. How they did it was the topic of a fireside chat between Rovio senior VP of brand marketing Ville Heijari and [a]list’s Steve Fowler.

Rovio is still widely known as a mobile game maker in the game industry, but hearing Heijari give their history in about 90 seconds, it’s clear the company has grown way beyond that moniker.  It’s an entertainment company, deriving more and more of its revenue from licensing the Angry Birds brand.  In 2011, it said it drew more than 30 percent of revenues for Angry Birds from licensing, toys, merchandise, everything but selling games.

Just yesterday, the company announced plans to create its own Angry Birds cartoon, with co-founder Mikael Hed telling Wall Street Journal, “The content itself is the channel.  We have become the channel.”

It’s a rare piece of entertainment that can galvanize enough of a following to turn one piece of IP into the foundation for a global entertainment company, but Angry Birds has done just that for Rovio.  Three guys left college in Finland in 2003 to start the company, seeing how more and more people playing mobile games but few quality experiences out there.  They originally made games in Java.  Smartphones changed their strategy.

Rovio marketing heads Peter Vesterbacka and Ville Heijari

“There was the indication for us that the potential is there,” said Heijari.  “Google or Apple would say they activated 250,000 more phones.  We’d say that’s 250,000 more people we need to have.”

“The idea was to make more engaging games for mobile,” he added.

Over the next six years, Rovio grew from three to twelve people, all developers.  In 2009, it released Angry Birds.  Today, the company has 540 people on staff.  Less than half – only 220 people – are in game development.  Outside of its Finland headquarters it has offices in Sweden, China, New York and Los Angeles, and it’s looking to expand to Tokyo and Korea.  Only two of those locations, Finland and Sweden, are game studios.

It’s surprising to hear Heijari say that initial reaction to Angry Birds in Finland, where it first hit the iPhone App Store, was “lukewarm.”

“The characters are not interesting, sound design is boring, everything is average,” Heijari said of the first sentiments Rovio received about the game.

That makes the story of how Rovio embraced this brand that much more interesting.  Seeing initial reaction, the company immediately turned to grassroots PR with a territory by territory approach. They went after regional press and game forums to start to get people interested in it, first encouraging they play it then finding ways to keep them talking about it.

From there, according to Heijari, it was the game’s fun, polished experience that made it take off.  They made Angry Birds number one in the iPhone App Store store in Finland first, then Sweden, then other European countries.  Their big prize was UK, what Heijari calls the “turning point.”  Once it showed up among top apps on UK charts, Apple started to take notice.  By that point it was about three months after launch.

“You have to have the goods to share,” says Heijari.  “There has to be that magic X factor so whoever plays it gets hooked.”

And once Apple takes notice, he adds, “The product has to be ready, really polished.”

Heijari shares an anecdote as the moment when Rovio knew they had something stellar on their hands.  Co-founder Niklas Hed went to a dinner party and handed the game to a friend’s mother, who was hosting.  Several hours later they found her still playing the game instead of cooking dinner.

As early success metrics for Angry Birds, Heijari says Rovio looked at retention first and foremost.  Despite the game being paid they wanted people to keep playing, so they released level updates.  They initially wanted to charge for new levels but decided giving it away to keep people engaged with it was more important.

“That worked remarkably well,” said Heijari.  “It contributed to word of mouth.”

When did the company start thinking of it as a brand?  According to Heijari, in some respects Angry Birds resonated as a piece of IP at Rovio before even becoming the game we know.  He said the earliest version was a brick-breaking game made in MS Paint.  It had little birds in it, and they would disappear with a poof and feathers flying when bricks near them were destroyed.  Nobody liked the game, but they took an immediate liking to the birds.

Once the game was a hit, their first hint at licensing potential came from a toy company.  New York-based Commonwealth Toys approached them because they had been looking for a property that could translate to plush toys.  They had researched kid’s TV and comic book licenses but didn’t find anything that fit the kind of toys they wanted to make.  Then they found Angry Birds.  Heijari says that jumpstarted their decision to move into licensing.  For Commonwealth, it was a goldmine.  Midway through last year the company said it was on track  to make $400 million on Angry Birds toys in 2012.

Heijari said about licensing considerations at Rovio, “It was business driven at first, but eventually we realized that if we can get Angry Birds t-shirts on the street it may help downloads.”

The drive to license never meant they gave up strict control of the brand.  Rovio now has 30 people internally working on consumer products, and that team is completely separate from marketing.  But that brand nurturing approach has saturated the entire company, from development to sales.

As an example of how their marketing approach has evolved, Heijari points to Angry Birds Space.  It was the first game the company launched with a well-planned, integrated campaign.  The PR announcement was accompanied by all-new assets that included game trailers, both those created by Rovio’s in-house animation team and a live action buzz-building video the company arranged with NASA.  It showed an astronaut in space demonstrating how physical objects – Angry Birds toys –  behave in an environment void of gravity.  The video was a hit, generating tens of millions of views.  It has nearly 22 million today on YouTube alone.  According to Heijari, it turned buzz for the game “to eleven.”

That video also underlines how Rovio now approaches marketing content.

“A lot of it is experimentation – what’s funny, what’s cool, what haven’t we done yet,” said Heijari, adding that the experimenting is done in-house.  “Does it move you?  Because if it moves you, then the fans will respond to it.”

Once Rovio releases marketing assets, the company stays on top of how they’re performing.  It uses social media to gauge fan response and tries to monitor, not own, the conversation in places like Facebook.  The ultimate goal is to have content shared, and that’s what the company continually evaluates.  Is it engaging people, are they sharing it, how much are they sharing on average?  If they’re not sharing it, is sentiment on social networks shedding light on why not? To hear how Heijari described it, it has all of the makings of an agile approach – test, learn, commit.

“Evaluate, then keep on doing the right thing,” said Heijari.

Being reactive is a good thing when it comes to content marketing.  Heijari shared a story of how suddenly people started baking Angry Birds cakes.  Rovio quickly decided to start featuring the cakes prominently on their social channels to keep people baking, trying to take it from something that might seem like a goofy one-off to give the impression that it’s a phenomenon.

Does Rovio worry about Angry Birds brand fatigue?

Kiddie park in Shanghai

“Oversaturation is definitely a concern.  There are markets where it’s really being exploited – Korea for instance, or Taiwan.  But in the US and Europe, is it really that visible?  I would say it’s not overexposed.  There are roughly 25,000 Angry Birds products out there, but you can’t go into a supermarket and see 15,000 Angry Birds products,” said Heijari

One of the more puzzling aspects of how Rovio has treated their flagship property is the lack of a true sequel.  The game has had iterations that obviously keep people playing, to the tune of 260 million active users today.  It has never had that requirement of what we consider a true entertainment franchise, putting a core ‘brand part 2’ out in the marketplace.

“There was the feeling that Angry Birds 2 would kill off Angry Birds,” said Heijari.

Instead, Rovio focused on new game content, and eventually fresh variations such as Angry Birds Spaceand Angry Birds Star Wars.  Heijari is quick to point out that these weren’t “re-skinnings” but iterations on the core game play that included “a lot of love.”

Going forward, Rovio is keen on introducing new IP.  A recent one is Amazing Alex, originally created asCasey’s Contraptions by SnappyTouch but now part of Rovio’s portfolio.  Heijari said Amazing Alex and future games in development are going to take Rovio beyond the Angry Birds moniker.

The goal, he said, is to have fans recall their games as “developed by Rovio, not from the makers ofAngry Birds.”

By: Meelad Sadat