It has been a while since I last spoke to the folks from Rovio, the Finnish company behind the wildly popular Angry Birds mobile game. But I recently had a chance to catch up with a few members of their flock in Tokyo, as the company gears up to open a new office in the Japanese capital, likely this spring. And while it might make for a more dramatic story to say that the company is making a furious push for Japan, that’s not the case. In fact quite the opposite. They are taking it slow, and that’s how they want it.
I would argue that Rovio’s Angry Birds has achieved the kind of pop culture icon status not really seen since the days when Mario Bros revolutionized gaming. But the company realizes that if it wants to permeate uber-cute Japan, which has a culture of firmly established brand icons like Hello Kitty, Anpanman, and yes, Nintendo’s Mario Bros, they need a long term game plan. Peter Vesterbacka, ‘Mighty Eagle’  at Rovio explains:
We want to figure out how to build a proper presence that lasts – not just for the next year or two. We want to be a leading entertainment brand, one that’s more Japanese than many of the Japanese [brands].
Learning locally ¶
But at the same time, they recognize that the business models in Japan leave much room for innovation and disruption. And while the company has been active on the ground in Japan making deals with local partners, they still haven’t really made a significant marketing push in the country. I asked if they’d ever consider television ads in Japan, as that’s a common tactic among the major internet companies here – but Peter says they would likely do something else. Rovio always takes a somewhat different approach in its marketing, he notes, and that’s likely to be the case in Japan as well. Of their existing merchandising partnership with Sanrio, the makers of Hello Kitty, he explains:
It’s always important to have the best possible local partners, because we can learn a lot from them. This was the same reason we wanted to work with LucasArts on Star Wars .
I’m told that the downloads that Rovio is seeing from Japan still have a long way to catch up with neighboring Korea, as smartphone penetration still has much room to grow in Japan. This is another reason why playing the long game in the country might be a wise idea, because a all-out marketing push at this time could indeed be premature.
But in the interests of giving locals an idea of what Rovio and Angry Birds are all about, they recently published a sort of Japanese language primer about what Angry Birds is all about (pictured right). Antti Sonninen, Rovio’s country director in Japan, points out that the site launched just a few weeks back. This is actually a common tactic for digital companies bringing a new digital product into Japan. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn – all have done similar things. They hope to answer many of the basic questions about Angry Birds here, including profiles of the different birds, as well as an explantion of in-game items.
Global migration patterns ¶
Meanwhile in nearby China the Angry Birds brand has truly taken flight. I’m told that in a recent survey of 1,000 people that about 94% were familiar with the Angry Birds brand. The company has never been too upset about the IP infringements that usually accompany expansion into China, because it’s only a precipitate of passion for their product. Without going into too many details about their upcoming plans in the country, Peter says with a smile that “there’s a lot going on in China.”
Currently the company has a headcount of about 550 people, with 90 percent of those in Finland. But from what I can tell, the team is very adept at spreading their message, focusing their energies in the right places at the right time. Peter was recently in Russia where Rovio hopes to open activity parks in the next year, as well as push their new Angry Birds branded cola.
Looking at other top mobile games in comparison, there aren’t many that can even come close to what Angry Birds has done in terms of building such a recognizable and iconic brand. It will be interesting to see if this long term strategy works for Rovio, not just in Japan but across the globe.