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BIRDS TALK

Avian epidemic

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Why is everyone, especially millionaires, obsessed with hurling scowling birds at guffawing pigs? That is because Angry Birds is a game where simplicity meets creativity.

Angelina Jolie loves them. Justin Bieber thinks they're sick (teen-speak for cool). Salman Rushdie is a self-proclaimed master. Even Kimi 'Iceman' Raikkonen isn't afraid to display his allegiance. And these are only four of the 26 million daily active users of Angry Birds.

Henri Holm, senior vice-president of Rovio Asia, was a fan even before he joined the company in June 2011. "I played the game and I really liked it, " Holm says, as he sits watching the Mumbai traffic pile up one car at a time. "I loved all the little details. I got involved as a fan. And to tell you the truth, getting three stars for clearing each level did become an obsession, " he answers with a wink. The ability of the game - it basically involves turning scowling birds into projectiles aimed at guffawing pigs - to draw and engage fans has made it one of the largest mobile app success stories. It is the world's most favourite pastime - especially that of millionaires, according to a Luxury Institute study - and has made Rovio Mobile Ltd, the Finnish game developer company, very rich. Zynga, the social network game developer, allegedly offered Rovio $2 billion for Angry Birds. Rovio, who spent just £100, 000 on developing Angry Birds, understandably refused.

Released in 2009 through Apple's iOSdependant iPhone and iPad, today Angry Birds is available on every feasible platform - Android, Facebook and the PCfriendly Chrome. Conceptualised by senior game designer Jaakko Iisalo, the team at Rovio liked the look of the angry-looking birds, even without knowing how the game would be played. The pigs became the enemy to be vanquished because of the swine flu epidemic. And the fundamentals of petrary, good old fashioned slingshots, became the key to the game.

The initial iOS version of the game included a single episode entitled "Poached Eggs", which contained three themed chapters, each with 21 levels. Two years and four months later, the Angry Birds Space, its fifth avatar, became the fastestgrowing mobile game when in 32 days it surpassed the 50 million downloads mark.

The reason why Angry Birds has clicked across cultures and all ages is simple, according to Holm. "The highly engaging characters tell a simple story, " he states. "There's an inherent story and engaging personalities and the game leaves a lot of room for imagination and creativity, " the Harvard alumni adds.

Creativity is a feature common to all Angry Birds fans. A quick Google search for Angry Birds fan art takes you from cute nail art to intricate tattoos to an old Volkswagen fan painted in the red bird colours. Holm, who was earlier posted in Beijing as Nokia's finance head in China, is quick to mention other examples.

"There's everything from cute to angry. A fan made a flight simulator game and gave airplanes Angry Birds colours. So we ran a campaign with Finnair where hardcore fans got to travel on an Angry Birds branded plane with the game's theme music and Angry Birds pillows. It was a one-off, completely different but memorable experience, " he says.

Rovio takes pride in engaging its users. Holm tells the tale of five-year-old Ethan from Texas who sent a drawing of his vision of an Angry Birds level replete with a TNT box and diamonds. Rovio featured young Ethan's idea in level 8-3 and in gratitude, the word Ethan was designed into the game.

Rovio, unlike most brands, has been able to build and develop an emotional connect, which is so important for the longevity of a brand. For the launch of Angry Birds Space, Rovio partnered with wireless carrier T-Mobile to erect a 300-foot tall contraption, with a 35-foot tall red bird resting in it at the Seattle Space Needle to make it look like a giant slingshot. They even got a NASA astronaut, Don Pettit, on board the International Space Station, to appear in a promotional video. The collaboration helped NASA reach the Angry Birds community, which varies across age groups, and helped educate them on NASA's programmes.

"The marketing strategy for Angry Birds Space took months and months to develop because it's very important how you introduce a product, " says Holm.

The Angry Birds franchise today covers everything from regular merchandising fare like stuffed toys and lunch boxes to cookbooks (Bad Piggies' Egg Recipes) and even soft drinks (Olvi's Angry Birds Tropic ). There are cool YouTube videos, online walkthroughs, online forums, blogs and discussions, a Hollywood production and the latest, Angry Birds theme parks.

"The Angry Birds brand is owned by the fans and fuelled by the fans. To us anybody, young or old, who has heard of Angry Birds is a potential fan. We've 18 million following us on Facebook. Not everyone can understand what the other is saying but they're all consuming the same media and they're all commenting on the same brand. One comment on the game or brand has many followers, " Holm explains, echoing the theme of the MTV Youth Marketing Forum in Mumbai where he was a speaker.
"Our fans in Korea have asked us to make gloves that will allow them to play the game on their iPads during winter. Why not? You have to listen to your fans, " he adds.

Whenever fans have wondered what next, Angry Birds has come up something more challenging or just more fun. Rovio understands that getting people to play the game is just the beginning. "Engage them, hook them" seems to be Rovio's philosophy.
In Asia, where the company is bullish about its expansion plans - it launched its Facebook avatar in Indonesia which has 43. 1 million Facebook users - it has customised everything from a transportation card in Hong Kong to a credit card in Thailand.

"Such innovations are fun and scalable. The idea of merging insurance and Angry Birds came about when an industry professional scoffed at it. His opposition to it made us aware that a business opportunity exists. We issued Angry Birds themed cards, called My Card from K Bank and decked out all 1, 800 ATMs across the country in Angry Birds colours, " Holm reveals.

So is India likely to feature anytime soon in an Angry Birds game? Holm plays it safe. "Our plans for India are ambitious. Could India feature in a game? Why not? We have to be open to everything. "

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