HELSINKI (Reuters) - In one of the quirkiest book cults America has never heard of, a round-snouted troll is hauling consumers' wallets from their pockets despite the worst recession in decades.
The license-holders for Moomin, who say license sales increased 35 percent this year, are contemplating expansion.
"We want to grow and be as profitable as we have been so far," said Sophia Jansson. "But in a way that increases the awareness of Moomin, starting from countries where books already are sold."
The artistic head and chairman of Moomin Characters, she is the niece of Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson, whose creation, the Moomintrolls, soon turn 65.
Moomins -- whose naive hero Moomintroll was the "nastiest creature" teenage Tove could imagine after a quarrel with her brother -- are a lucrative publishing and licensing niche mostly in Nordic countries, Japan and Britain.
Since the 1945 publication of "The Moomins and the Great Flood," adventures with Moomin and parents Moominmamma and Moominpappa have featured in 13 novels and picturebooks translated into 40 languages, and thousands of cartoon strips.
The characters have also been used to brand a wide range of products including kitchenware, diapers, DVDs and tinned candy.
"They made me feel peaceful," said Tokyo-based Hideyuki Masumoto, 40, describing the characters he called his childhood friends while eyeing gifts in the tiny Moomin shop in Helsinki.
"They remind us of how we used to live in Japan; in a small community where everyone knows each other."
In Japan, children in the 1960s grew up with an animated television series of the trolls and loved Moomin, Masumoto said: his personal hero was Moomin's friend the wayfarer Snufkin, the "wise guy, who plays music and doesn't belong anywhere."
Inhabiting a land called Moominvalley, Moomins play into a similar vein of comfort to Disney's "Winnie-the-Pooh," revived by publishers Egmont in an October 5 sequel. But the deeply Finnish characters tap much darker mysteries than Pooh.
Bjorn Lindergaard, 30, a Dane in Helsinki on U.N. training, said he liked that the tales were inventive and realistic, and none of the characters were perfect: for example Little My, a tin-sized, fierce girl, with a positively aggressive temper.
"The Moominvalley looked very friendly, but there was also a darker side to it. life was not just plain idyllic," he said.
Peaceful and realistic is how people see Moomins, but they are not human, says Jansson, whose firm manages the Moomintroll legacy and copyrights including up to 300 licensees.
"The Moomins are not people. You can't send them up the Eiffel Tower, they don't speak on cellphones, drive cars, or carry guns," she said.
Moomin Characters' chief executive Roleff Krakstrom said he is eyeing the U.S. market. Moomin books were sold there half a century ago but the firm has no licensees and animations have aired only on Hawaii. But he is cautious.
"It is possible, but not obligatory," Krakstrom said. "We are reluctant to start a big project that could fail and label Moomin for a long time."
Last year Moomin Characters, which was founded by Tove and her brother and co-illustrator Lars Jansson, collected $6.69 million in license income and sales from its three brand shops in Helsinki, with operating profit at $2.18 million.
"Some think Moomin is only for the smallest family members, but for instance in Japan our main target group is 20-35-year old women," said Jansson: products for adults make half the firm's sales.
Technologies such as digital media are helping characters cross borders, said Marty Brochstein, senior vice president of the international Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association (LIMA), but warned cultural characteristics are important.
In Japan, Moomin plays into a long-running craze for cute things, said Roger Berman, managing director of the Japanese branch of LIMA: it was a similar story to many characters seen in the west as targeting children, such as Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter or The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.
"If it looks cute, Japanese adults will buy as much as a child will. They will happily display character hangstraps from their mobile phones without self-consciousness," he said.
But Martin Olausson, digital media director at Strategy Analytics, pointed out that with Disney recently agreeing to buy Marvel's superheroes, the consolidating industry is tending to focus on established characters to minimize risk rather than introduce new ones.
"Profitability depends on how strong the brand is," he said. "There is a very wide spectrum, but firms like Marvel, with a library of globally big characters, can charge a lot."
In North America, character royalties slid 3.9 percent to $2.6 billion last year. Giants like Disney and Marvel have suffered as consumers reined in purchases.
The Moomintrolls -- curious, bohemian, generous -- may be a bit more edgy and eccentric than the American mainstream.
Moomintroll is friendly, wide-eyed; he picks flowers and likes to fish. Besides Little My, who plays pranks, his friends are oddball. Snufkin smokes a pipe.
Where Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood has Eeyore the grumpy donkey, Moominvalley has a melancholy scientist, the Hemulen. A hill-shaped, lethal spook called the Groke invokes all winter's pain. Even the comedy Hattifatteners -- finger-shaped electric creatures which move in a flock -- are unsettling.
Tove Jansson, who died in 2001, said her own experiences were the basis for her work, and the experience of war may be one distinguishing factor making Europeans and Japanese susceptible to her sense of shyness and feelings of disaster.
Some experts, like Chris Anderson, author of "The Long Tail," have said technology now allows firms to cater to increasingly fragmented audiences, boosting niche products.
But Strategy Analytics' Olausson, while not ruling out that Moomins could catch on, said there was little evidence to show a niche product can thrive in the profit-driven U.S. market without the backup of a big player.
Lana Castleman, managing editor of Canadian trade magazine KidScreen, was also cautious about the chances of success for Moomins in a market that has traditionally favored princesses and spidermen above new characters.
"It's a completely different mindset," she said. "They (Moomins) are very different from current and historical American characters, such as Mickey and Winnie, both in the way they look and content of the stories."
Editing by Sara Ledwith