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Can This Company Become the New Disney?

Maeghan Ouimet, INC
Wednesday, 4 Apr 2012 | 3:58 PM ET
Angry Birds
Photo by Adam Jeffery for CNBC.com
Angry Birds

It all started with one angry bird and one very addicting mobile game. Two years, multiple birds, and millions of downloads later, it's clear that Rovio's ambitions are much bigger. In fact, CMO Peter Vesterbacka has been very open about the the fact that the Finland-based company doesn't just want to go big; it's gunning to be the next Disney. "We definitely look to Disney as a model," Vesterbacka said recently at Business Insider's IgnitionWEST conference in San Francisco.

Some key pieces of the strategy are already in place: Memorable animated character? Check. A profitable product line that you'll soon see stocked at Walmart? Check. Theme parks? Those are coming, too.

Here's a look at just how closely Rovio is following in the footsteps of Disney.

Focus on a star, then bring in a supporting cast

Like Disney, Rovio had a rocky start. Cousins Mikael and Niklas Hed started Rovio with little capital, relying on funding generated mostly through selling ideas to gaming companies like Electronic Arts . Brothers Walt and Ron Disney began much the same way, pitching ideas to bigger companies who were able to fund them with limited success.

After many failed attempts, the success that came for both was less about being in the right place and more about being at the right time: Both companies identified an opportunity on a growing platform. For Disney, it was animated film. For Rovio, mobile gaming. Because they both entered at a relatively early stage, each company succeeded in building a fan base and innovating a product that fit what its fans were seeking.

The first step was to successfully build a story around one key star before expanding the franchise. This is where Rovio diverges from other mobile gaming powerhouses like Zynga and aligns more with Disney’s early model. Disney kept Mickey as its star, introducing new players later on to enhance the story line. Rovio has done the same, creating new birds to fight alongside the angry red bird and bringing them to new game locations like Rio de Janeiro and, now, Space.

Go beyond the original platform

As early as 1930 (two years after Mickey debuted), Disney began a consumer product business to capitalize on the story. So, too, has Rovio. With its new partnership with Walmart, Rovio hopes to bring Angry Birds fans (not "users"—an important distinction, Vesterbacka says) offline into stores—and back online to the game. Some of the products will have special levels that can be unlocked on the game when purchased, keeping an open, running dialogue between the physical products and the original platform.

Rovio has also partnered with Barnes and Noble and National Geographic to release Angry Birds books, a similar play to what Disney did when it released the first Mickey books and comics in 1930. Rovio worked with NASA to bring an educational component to Angry Birds Space. As, too, did Disney during World War II when it collaborated with the U.S. State Department to release two informational films about South America.

Integrate the fans

Disney realized early on that its fans were its most important business partner. Integrating them into the story was important, so in 1955 the company introduced the Mickey Mouse Club. Rovio's strategy is similar but geared to the digital age: It lets fans make suggestions and even create new characters and gaming levels. Vesterbacka says engaging and activating Rovio’s fans are key to the company’s success. "We only care about two things," he says, "our fans and our brand."

Disney’s plans to invite fans into the world of Mickey Mouse and friends took on a whole new meaning when Walt Disney came up with the vision for Disneyland. He intended for the park to be a place where both children and adults could cultivate an interactive experience with one another. Rovio has recently been hinting that they are planning to create something similar, but on a smaller scale. Vesterbacka calls it an "activity park" (a cross between a playground and arcade) and he wants to see them in neighborhoods all over the world.

To infinity...

Rovio earned an estimated $100 million in revenue in 2011 and Angry Birds has been downloaded a reported 700 million times across multiple platforms. With the company in talks to produce a full-length movie, potentially go public, and launch a new franchise ("not just a game," Vesterbacka promises, "but more than that"), you might say the company is taking a cue from Disney’s “Toy Story,” aiming, quite literally, to go "To infinity… and beyond!"

But it's still early yet. Angry Birds staying power is hardly guaranteed. In fact, just in the last few days Angry Birds Space has left customers, well, a little angry. Apple app store reviewers criticized the company's moneymaking strategy of charging fans to buy levels to advance in the game. Disney's original playbook unfortunately doesn't offer much advice in the way keeping this new generation of digital natives happy—and paying customers.

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