Rovio Entertainment’s Ville Heijari Talks Marketing for Mobile Games

1/30/13Follow @jpruth

Even with its addictive gameplay and wacky characters, turning “Angry Birds” into a popular franchise required sizable doses of marketing savvy. And for Finland’s Rovio Entertainment, that meant merchandise—everything from stuffed animals to toothbrushes, some 25,000 products strong.

Ville Heijari, senior vice president of brand marketing for Rovio, dropped by the A List Summit in New York on Tuesday to talk about his company’s strategy for driving attention to its content beyond mobile platforms.

He was joined by CEOs from Newzoo in the Netherlands, New York’s Funtactix, and Appy Entertainment in Carlsbad, CA, who came together with other industry executives at the New Yorker Hotel to discuss marketing for mobile games ahead of this week’s Mobile Gaming USA East conference.

Though the quick rise of “Angry Birds” in popular culture might make Rovio seem like an overnight success, neither the game nor the company were instant hits, Heijari said. Rovio, founded in 2003 under the name Relude, emerged much like other startups: “Three guys abandoned their university studies to make mobile games,” Heijari said.

In those days, many mobile games were Java-based and ran on devices that could barely qualify as feature phones by today’s standards. Attracting consumers back then to mobile games meant leaping over numerous hurdles. “You couldn’t get your games out for sale anywhere unless you went through [mobile] operators and different stakeholders,” Heijari said. “At the same time, the audience didn’t know they could download content to their devices.”

Titles such as “Tetris” populated the mobile games landscape early on, but Rovio’s co-founders wanted to create better games that people would play longer. Early titles from Rovio included a survival horror game called “Darkest Fear,” and the company grew to more than 50 employees by 2007.

Rovio teamed up with Lucasfilm to release the "Angry Birds Star Wars" tie-in game in 2012.

Fortunes changed for Rovio in the grueling global recession that followed. Heijari said the company shrank to 10 full-time employees in 2009 when “Angry Birds” debuted.

Although Rovio developed an early reputation as a third-party developer, it had no recognition among consumers. Working with British game publisher Chillingo got “Angry Birds” noticed on the Apple App Store, but media back home went on the attack when the game launched.

“In Finland it was devastating,” he said. “The reviews were like ‘It’s average, the characters are not interesting, the sound design is annoying, and everything is wrong.’”

Rovio reached out to gaming communities across central Europe to build momentum for “Angry Birds” in Sweden, Denmark and other countries. With some persistence—and catchy content—“Angry Birds” developed a following that helped it get featured by Apple in the British App Store, which Heijari called the turning point. “That was the second largest market after the U.S.,” he said. “It went to No. 1 in the UK.”

With newfound popularity came a new set of challenges. Rovio gives away updated content, after the initial game purchase, to keep players coming back for more. That decision helped build critical mass for the title among consumers, but Heijari said it also raised questions about providing service to the growing audience.

“When you only have two people doing all the marketing and communications activities, you’re not going to have a lot of time for customer support,” he said. “It’s not easy to scale when your product costs 99 cents.”

The need to make more money drove Rovio to license products based on the Angry Birds brand. The company inked its first significant licensing deal—plush toys designed from “Angry Birds” characters—with Commonwealth Toy & Novelty Co. in New York. Other licensing deals followed, and they helped Rovio scale up.

“We’ve grown in two and a half years from 16 people to 540 people,” Heijari said. That includes some 220 game developers on staff in four studios within the company.

With the growth of the brand, Rovio bulked up its marketing efforts. But Heijari said the company is not trying to put its content on every social network. “You don’t need that whole row of 36 different social media sharing buttons on everything,” he said. “You need to know those [select] platforms inside-out, and create content that works for each those platforms.”

With all of exposure for the “Angry Birds” franchise, including a recent Star Wars tie-in game, Heijari said the company is trying to be careful about brand fatigue. The many different licensed products are scattered across different regions as well as online and bricks-and-mortar retail, which he said keeps the brand from seeming overexposed.

“Right now there are 25,000 different Angry Birds products, but you can’t go to an Angry Birds supermarket with those 25,000 products in it,” he said. “Hopefully one day you can.”

Rovio now plans to keep developing new Angry Birds games as well as other properties. Thanks to astute marketing and licensing strategies, the prospects for the company have changed significantly from the days when money was tight. “You can speculate whether Rovio would be here if Angry Birds hadn’t been successful,” Heijari said.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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