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In December 2009, Rovio Mobile released Angry Birds for Apple’s iOS. The world hasn’t been the same ever since

It does not have out-of-this-world graphics. It is really a pretty simple game with decent effects.

But Angry Birds is strangely addictive. You feel a rush whenever you make those pesky green pigs burst and disappear. You finally move on to the next level, only to be frustrated because it’s more difficult than the last. However, this excites you, especially since each level is so different, and every colorful ‘angry bird’ has a secret technique up its sleeve.

Yes, Angry Birds is all kinds of awesome. With 12 million copies of the game sold worldwide, it has become a phenomenon. It has become such a huge success that it has spawned a host of merchandise. The official website of Angry Birds developer Rovio Mobile sells t-shirts featuring the game’s logo and characters, while toy manufacturing giant Mattel is set to release a board game called Angry Birds: Knock on Wood.

But perhaps the most exciting addition to the brand is a lineup of plush toys, featuring the game’s characters in various sizes ranging from tiny to gargantuan, attracting both kids and adult aficionados.

China Business caught up with EVP Alec Kessler and Sales VP Roger Ginsberg of the Commonwealth Toy and Novelty Company, manufacturers of the Angry Birds stuffed toys, at the 2011 Hong Kong Toys and Games Fair organized by HKTDC earlier this year. Ginsberg answers our questions.

How did you come to make toys for Angry Birds?
Alec had been playing the game from when it first came out. He loved it and he thought it would be perfect for toys. So we began contacting the company very early on, thinking that it would be a good transition into toys. And they finally agreed.

When did it all start?
We got involved with them in June 2010 and we thought of making the toys that September. It was very recent. Then we started shipping toys, and some of them became available in the beginning of December, but only for a limited supply.

Are these just stuffed toys? Or can they do anything else?
Some of them are stuffed toys, and some of them emit the sounds of the birds in the game when you squeeze them. But we’re also going to be making other types of toys such as collectible figures and key chains.

How are sales?
Sales have been good. People all over the world are very excited about it. It’s been a fun couple of months. This is the first time we’re going for the rest of the world, actually. This toy fair gives us more exposure worldwide, letting other countries that we have not distributed to get a chance to see what we can do.

Do you have other products aside from Angry Birds?
Oh, yeah. We’ve been in business for 75 years, so we have a complete line of hundreds and hundreds of different stuffed animals, some licensed and some not.

Before Angry Birds, what was the product that was most popular?
The latest would probably be the one we worked on with Nintendo: Nintendogs. We also have Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Then, a few years ago we were involved with South Park. So it’s really the branded items that tend to be the best.

How did you get into toy manufacturing?
This is a family business. My grandfather started it in 1934. So I’m the third generation. Alec is also third generation in the toy business.

As a kid, did you have a favorite toy? Did it influence you?
My favorite toy was one my father made. It was called Twinkles the Elephant. When I was about five years old, it was a character that I liked and my father made it. I had a lot of it on my bed. They were orange elephants. And I think it did influence me. It’s all part of who I am. I grew up with it.

What’s your design concept and how do you choose which toys to manufacture?
We have different designers who work for us and we make many, many different designs. We look at what is the best [based on] our own feel. Sometimes, we even bring children in to take a look at it.

How do you ensure safety and quality in your Chinese factories?
Well, there are very strict requirements, and we do testing on a continuous basis. All our factories are certified, and safety is completely built-in in everything we do.

Were you affected by the recession? How did you stay afloat?
Generally speaking, the industry was lowered. But if you have the right character it doesn’t make a difference. We just continued to do our thing. We weren’t really impacted too much. Sometimes orders were a little low, but it all comes down [to the toy’s] design. If you have a good design then people would still buy your products.

What’s the difference between licensed products and those that are not?
When you are involved in licensing, you have to make sure that your products fit within the character of the brand and then they [the brand owners] would have to approve it. So there’s more work to do. Say, if Alec wants to make a teddy bear and he approaches me, I would just say, “Ok, that’s good to go.” But if you’re going with a licensed product, then you’d have to go back to the people who created it and they would have to take a look at it. It’s a longer process. Some companies are very easy to work with, but some are also very difficult.

How often do you encounter copyright issues in China?
It’s a terrible, terrible problem. We have a lot of lawyers who try to stop them, and we’re spending billions. It’s a really big problem that, in my opinion, if any government does not help, then they are going to drive the people away to other places.

Have you actually seen the copycats?
Yeah, they’re all over eBay.

So are you running after them?
We are. We actually found one person here, at the toy fair. We gave them a letter from the lawyers and the lawyers will file the case.

What did they copy?
They copied the look of the characters. It happens a lot. I have friends in Europe who have companies in China and they copy even the name. They ship with the exact name, and he tells me “I cannot tell the difference between their product and mine. Right down to my name and my markings.” Sometimes the copies are really good. But they don’t realize that it hurts brands, it hurts reputations.

On a more positive note, are you planning to expand and make toys that are similar to the game? For example, toys that kids can throw around just like in the game?
Yes. We’re going to be introducing a whole bunch of different toys that are like that. We’re only showing the stuffed toys here. Everything else we’re keeping secret for a while.

Print ed: 09/11

 

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