What Flappy Bird Can Teach Us about Brand Marketing

February 27, 2014
by Kimberly Treacy

    godspeed, flappy birdOur team of content development and SEO specialists at Big Red SEO have been eagerly following the tragicomedy that is Flappy Bird for a while now, and we feel that this story has some important things to teach us about the often unpredictable nature of a brand marketing campaign.

    Even though this mindlessly addictive game had been available since early 2013, its popularity exploded this January, so much so that its developer, Dong Nguyen, pulled the game from app stores despite the game bringing in $50,000 in revenue per day at its peak. His reason? That the game had “ruined his simple life” with overnight fame and the looming threat of lawsuits from corporate giants like Nintendo.

    You see, Flappy Bird “borrows” its art style and sound effects so blatantly from games like Super Mario Brothers (Flappy Bird’s green pipes are so close to Mario’s that they’re arguably direct rip offs) that it can hardly be considered an original game. To top everything off, the game seems to be a direct clone of 2011’s Piou Piou vs. Cactus—both games center on a big-lipped yellow bird navigating obstacles through the same helicopter gameplay mechanic. The only difference? Flappy Bird is poised to make Nguyen $18 million in just a year.

    The Oreo Effect

    We liken this situation to the battle between Oreo and Hydrox cookies that took place in the early 20th century. Here’s a quick quiz: which cookie came first? If you said the Oreo, you’re dead wrong. Hydrox chocolate sandwich cookies debuted in 1908, while the knockoff Oreo showed up late to the party in 1912. So why does everyone immediately think that Hydrox copied Oreo?

    This is a hard question to answer; it may have had to do with a majority of people favoring minor differences in one product over the other. More so than any differences between the products, though, we at Big Red SEO suspect that mistakes in branding led to Hydrox’s downfall.

    In 1908 when the Hydrox brand was revealed, there was nothing wrong with its name. Fast forward 5 years to the debut of Clorox bleach, which quickly became the standard name in cleaning products. Here’s where the problem lies: our society has been trained by Clorox over the last century to associate any name ending in –rox with a cleaning product, a caustic one, one that definitely isn’t good to eat.

    With a direct competitor on one side and a potential branding catastrophe on the other, Hydrox gambled on keeping its name, hoping that its customers would associate the brand more with the original chocolate sandwich cookie than with a relatively new cleaning product, but as we can see today that gamble didn’t pay off.

    The Hydrox Lesson: Great brand names can take on unsavory associations in the blink of an eye through no fault of their own. If you’re caught between a rock and a hard place, don’t be afraid of making a drastic branding change.

    A Major Difference

    Before we get too far out in the weeds, let’s get back to Flappy Bird. Our Oreo-Hydrox analogy breaks down a bit when we realize that the downfall of a brand usually stems from its perception as a knockoff. That’s the story of Hydrox.

    But that isn’t the case with Flappy Bird, far from it.

    Everyone knows that Super Mario Brothers came first, that Flappy Bird is about as unoriginal as game design gets, and yet it defied all the odds and still became wildly popular. Why?

    Again there are many reasons, and it seems that most of the lessons Flappy Bird has to teach us on how to make a successful brand don’t speak very highly of the intelligence of today’s consumer:

    1. Take someone else’s idea and make a direct clone of it;
    2. Make your product as mindlessly addictive as possible;
    3. Take it away when it’s on the cusp of popularity to create hype and scarcity;
    4. Profit.

    Now the good news is that this is the most cynical of cynical approaches, and in 97% of cases these steps won’t work. Flappy Bird just so happens to fall into that 3% of unexplainable successes, a product hastily slapped together that’s simultaneously addictive and insulting to its consumer’s intelligence. There’s no way a product like Flappy Bird should have been successful, but it was, and who knows how much bigger the phenomenon would have grown or how fast it would have fizzled out if the consumer market had been the one to decide its fate?

    As things stand, the untimely death of Flappy Bird leaves us with more questions than answers. While Flappy Bird is one of this year’s most interesting case studies for a brand’s inexplicable success, one we’ll be puzzling over for a good long while, we at Big Red SEO believe that it’s best to take this brand’s example with a grain of salt.
    Sometimes the most important lesson is that there is no replicable reason for a brand’s success, and we’re grateful to Flappy Bird for reminding us of that.

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    Kimberly Treacy


    Kimberly Treacy (Talbot) is an SEO Guru with a ‘no bullshit’ attitude. As the owner of Big Red SEO, she provides companies of all sizes what they need to know to get their business in front of those looking for their services and products. Big Red SEO is one of the few search engine optimization companies that offers ‘industry exclusivity’ meaning we only work with one company within an industry and their market at a time.