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The app that ate Finland

Published Jul 9th, 2013 1:05PM EDT
Angry Birds Analysis

It had been 18 months since I was last in Finland, so the extent of Angry Birds’ brand saturation came as a shock when I arrived in Helsinki three days ago. Of course, the Angry Birds t-shirts, caps, backpacks, scarves, sippy cups and baby clothes are immediately evident the moment you touch down at Helsinki’s airport. But the brand has expanded to unexpected niches with the vigor of Stage IV pancreatic cancer. When I visited the biggest amusement park in the country, there was an Angry Birds expansion area. At the major department stores there were Angry Birds mascara and lipstick stands, not to mention lip gloss, body emulsion, shampoo and cold cream. I did anticipate Angry Birds candy and soda — but the frozen donuts, paper plates, premium ice cream, float sets and fishing tackle bags took me by surprise.

This is unprecedented for a mobile app franchise.

Of course, Finland is a tiny country and a substantial company like Rovio can create an oversized brand presence more easily than in big markets like Germany or America. But Rovio’s partners like Nestle, Mattel, Toys R Us, Walmart and Hot Topic have major marketing muscle across the globe.

Usually, entertainment brands tend to be cautious about picking their merchandise segments. But Rovio’s latest wave of licensing expansion has carried it to cosmetics, jewelry, headphones, sports drink bottles, sneakers and more. The brand is going for demographic niches including babies, pre-schoolers, teenagers, young women and young men — simultaneously. This is nothing like the big licensing waves of the past that involved Hello Kitty or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Those cartoon characters were tied to much more narrow demographic segments.

What Rovio is going for is a demo grand slam encompassing a wide range of age ranges and a female/male mix that is basically unheard of since the halcyon days of the Mickey Mouse mania 60-80 years ago. Naturally, the threat of oversaturation is cited by most app industry people the moment you bring up Rovio. Many once popular cartoon characters from Snoopy to Garfield to Ninja Turtles were burnt out by overexposure. You could argue that Garfield once had crossover appeal from kids to middle-aged consumers that rivals Angry Birds. But those cartoon characters did not have the biannual product platform that Rovio’s mobile app machine is providing. Mobile apps are potentially far more flexible than newspaper comics or TV cartoons — formats that are locked into the same basic narrative, year after year.

Rovio is already trying to diversify the Angry Birds franchise by carefully expanding it to new game genres. Angry Birds Star Wars brought gravity mechanics to the catapult format; Bad Piggies experimented with car-building challenges; the upcoming rally game seems intent on stealing Mario Kart’s slowly fading glory. Finland is Rovio’s laboratory of merchandising ultra-saturation; the most promising products launched here are often exported to bigger markets. The Nestle ice cream has turned into a massive hit in Israel, for example.

Rovio’s vision of ultra-saturation goes directly against the philosophy of most American branding gurus who are always yammering on about narrow targeting and careful selection of product categories. It differs radically from the gender-specific licensing strategies of Hello Kitty or Transformers.

The Disney comparison is overused and worn out by now, but the closest comparison for the Angry Birds merchandise expansion wave really is Disney around 1930-1950. Mickey Mouse was born in 1928, Donald Duck debuted in 1933, Snow White kicked off the princess product factory in 1937. That two-decade character expansion progression is something Rovio is now trying to compress into a few years, debuting a female bird, elaborating on the Piggy personalities and no doubt rolling out several new personalities in the next two years. The new amusement park drive is unlikely to be a coincidence.

Trying to replicate the Disney formula of 1930-1950 is, of course, insanely ambitious. But it is kind of funny that it is a Finnish company trying to achieve this, while American mobile app firms were firmly out of the race between 2010 and 2012 when it came to licensing opportunities.

Right now, everyone in the app industry is jumping on the bandwagon and trying to strike merchandise deals. The problem with games like Fruit Ninja and Farmville is that they were never built to have an appealing central character, so they are hamstrung by their core design. So for the time being, the most likely mobile app company to hammer together a global product armada is Finnish. And Helsinki is a prototype of what Minneapolis and Leeds might look like in three years.

After launching mobile game company SpringToys tragically early in 2000, Tero Kuittinen spent eight years doing equity research at firms including Alliance Capital and Opstock. He is currently an analyst and VP of North American sales at mobile diagnostics and expense management Alekstra, and has contributed to, Forbes and Business 2.0 Magazine in addition to BGR.