Peter Vesterbacka: Angry Birds, Bad Piggies and massive amounts of data

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You may not know Finnish entertainment company Rovio—but you surely know Angry Birds. The company’s breakout hit has been downloaded more than two billion times and spawned a cartoon series and scads of licensed merchandise, from plush toys and soft drinks to a cartoon channel and amusement park rides. But Mighty Eagle and brand ambassador Peter Vesterbacka isn’t stopping there. He’s working on a strategy to build Angry Birds into Finland’s answer to Disney and Hello Kitty—with just as much staying power. Here, Vesterbacka talks about the role product development, experimental marketing and data have played in building the brand behind the world’s most successful videogame.

Can you just wow us a bit with some figures about the incredible growth you’ve seen since Angry Birds launched in 2009?

When we launched the game Rovio had only 12 people. Now we’re at 800. That first year there were about 50 million downloads. In the second year, it was 550 million. We hit a billion a few months later and some time ago we reached two billion. Our toons channel got a billion views in the first seven months. We’re in the top 10 of the biggest licensed brands on the planet. So that’s pretty good. But, it’s still only a start.

Did you have any idea you were on to something so enormous when you launched?

It would have been pretty much impossible to predict the level of success we’ve seen with Angry Birds. When I first told people that we were going to have 100 million downloads, that was considered impossible. Only Tetris had done that and it took 20 years. Now of course 100 million feels like nothing. If somebody had told me four years ago that 94 percent of the Chinese population would be familiar with our brand I wouldn’t have believed them, but that’s possible because of the massive distribution system we have through global app stores and mobile devices.

Still, that massive distribution system is absolutely flooded with games. How does an entertainment brand stand out in all that noise?

For us it started with the characters themselves, the Angry Birds and the Bad Piggies. People love them. At the same time there were a lot of other important things that helped us, many involving product development. We eliminated almost all the text in the game to make it as appealing as possible to people of all ages in every country. It was also one of the first games optimized for touch devices right when we had an explosion in iPhones and Androids. So it was good timing.

What role did marketing play?

We weren’t afraid to experiment, to do things like working with NASA and launching Angry Birds Space literally on the International Space Station or taking over Red Square in Moscow for our Red Bird update. Everything we do needs to be at the level of the fan and the fan experience. If you walk around our offices here in Espoo, Finland you will hear the term “fan experience” a hundred times a day. That’s true for our games, our animations, and our marketing. It’s always the fan experience that has the final say over what we do.

How do you know whether you’re providing a great experience?

It’s about engaging the fans in a dialogue. We reply to every tweet, to every e-mail, to every kind of communication that comes our way. The NASA cooperation is a great example of that. Back then we had only 40 people and I was doing all the tweeting myself. I engaged in a dialogue with a NASA guy who had tweeted about the game and then I spoke to the head of our game studio and we decided right there to create Angry Birds Space, which we launched in March of 2012. By engaging our fans, we learned that there are a lot of Angry Birds fans at NASA and just generally a lot of people on our side who love all things space. So it sparked an idea and it was very easy to get the cooperation going. In fact we now have Angry Birds activity parks at the Johnson and Kennedy Space Centers. We’ve expanded out of the digital realm to building physical parks at NASA. And it all started with a tweet.

How do you use data to understand your fans?

We’re collecting massive amounts of data. We have real-time analytics for everything we do. And that’s something that we built ourselves. One example from a fan-experience perspective is that when we notice a lot of people are getting stuck on, say, level 121 we might release an update that offers instructions on how to get through it. We also do A/B testing to determine what works best in the app stores. We use a lot of data to make the purchase experience better and our own operations more efficient. It’s important to have data to help make informed decisions but at the same time I don’t think we’ll ever be 100 percent data driven. You need to leave room for gut feeling and instinct. Data doesn’t help if you’re doing things that nobody has ever done before.

Are you saying data analytics can get in the way of groundbreaking work?

Sometimes I think it does. Sometimes you need to act without knowing if it’s going to work out. The world is not perfect and no matter how much data you have, you can never have access to everything. You have to be comfortable calling the shots even in imperfect conditions.

What’s your plan to sustain the incredible growth?

We like to say we’re building Angry Birds not for 100 days but for 100 years. So we’re in the very early stages as a brand and as a business and we really think that we can grow significantly. Sure, we have 800 people but we’re still tiny compared to Disney, for example. And if you take Disney as a model, Mickey Mouse has been around since 1928 with Steamboat Willie and Disney built quite a massive business from that. Or consider Hello Kitty. That character has been around for 40 years and it’s still going strong. So character-based businesses have proven they can have a very long reach through history. We intend to do a lot more.

What have you learned from being CMO during such a period of intense growth and success?

Don’t limit yourself as a person or as a company. Attitude and ambition are supremely important whether you’re at a tiny startup or inside a giant corporation. You need to dream big and be very ambitious. Sometimes people don’t dare to dream big because they’re worried that if they fail people will think they’re crazy. But if you shoot for the moon and only achieve a part of that massive dream, it’s still pretty good.


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