Irobot: A Great Product line In Need of a Big Brand Idea

I recently got really excited by a vacuum cleaner, the sub-segment it is playing in and by how one brand has the potential to change people’s behaviors and life.

Yes, you’re reading this right, a vacuum cleaner. I used to be this guy who, in his years as a single, would buy a vacuum cleaner for $80 or less, use it for a couple of years without ever emptying it (okay using it maybe a couple of times in a year) and then throw it away once it stopped working.

But I recently purchased an Irobot product, the wifi enabled Roomba 690, and was blown away. If you aren’t familiar with this company and its products, Roombas are basically robotic vacuum cleaners. The Roomba roams around your home on command, learns your house’s layout and vacuums all the dust and debris even in the smallest corners and under your furniture (if it fits). When it’s full or its rechargeable battery is running low, it goes back to its home base, recharges itself and lets you know it did through the Irobot app. When it gets stuck, it lets you know as well. All you really have to do it empty the dust pan regularly, but with their latest model, the Roomba i7+ will do that for you too.

In my opinion, this is not just a new and convenient, nice to have household appliance. It has the potential to become a category game changer. Especially, when like me, you are living in a household with 6 humans (including three children) and two dogs.



The Good: A game changing line of products & an amazing mission

Intrigued, I decided to look up Irobot and its CEO. Irobot is not a vacuum cleaner company, it is a technology company with the mission of designing and building toward a world where humans and robots work together for the benefit of all. Much bigger than just sucking-up dust. It’s founder & CEO, Colin Angle, an MIT graduate shares his ambition on his Linkedin profile: “Since my days at MIT and the co-founding of iRobot, I’ve worked with teams of scientists, engineers and builders who are passionate about making practical robotics a mainstream reality. Today as CEO of iRobot, the scope of that work is larger, but the mission is the same — designing and building toward a world where humans and robots work together for the benefit of all. After decades in this field, I remain incurably optimistic about the future of people and robotics. The Roomba and the Braava are the best-known iRobot products and the foundation of our business, but today with smart homes coming online and connected devices all around us, there is so much more we can do. Together, we are working to build the next generation of intelligent, teaming and purpose-first robots.” 

A game changer indeed, just like the Iphone, Tesla, Uber and AirbnB have been game-changers in their respective categories. And yes, it is just a vacuum cleaner (for now).

Inspired I decided to also look more closely at the category in general (yes that’s the weird type of things I do when interested in something)

The bad: an increasingly crowded environment competing on price and features

The category of robotic cleaners is growing overall and growing faster than the overall vacuum cleaner market. No surprise here. However, the category is already very crowded and increasingly competitive with players such as ILIFE, Neato Robotics, Samsung Electronics, ECOVACS, Hanool Robotics, Pentair, Philips, Yujin Robot fighting for a share of this segment.

The other striking observation is that the category players seem to mainly compete based on product features and price (sales actually) which, as we all know, eats into profits while preventing differentiation and really game-changing growth. And while this might reflect a short-term effort to “buy” market share and growth it is also threatening the players ability to build game changing brand platforms and future growth.

In fact, product features and sales alone are not sufficient to build a differentiated and premium brand in the long term. Even, the ability to sustain a differentiating position through technological innovation is vanishing as demonstrated by Irobot losing a lawsuit in 2017 filed against the Chinese manufacturer Shenzhen Silver Star Intelligent Technology Co Ltd for the infringement of 7 of its patents.

 The ugly:

I also tried to find out how Roomba is advertised and how the brand is being built creatively but couldn’t really find anything. The only ad I came across was this one from 5 or 6 years ago. I am going to let you the reader form your own opinion about the quality of this ad.

So here we have a nascent category with a lead player that has the potential to really revolutionize a multi-billion $$ industry that is stuck in a price and features war with an increasing number of competitors.

A category in need of a big brand and positioning idea

The last brand to really shake up the boring vacuum cleaner category by challenging every single category convention (targeting, communication, price, aesthetics and yes technology) was Dyson, launched around 15 years ago. In 2017, the company still grew by 40% with global sales hitting $4.5 billion while profits grew by 25% to reach $1.1 billion, even though its success has invited dozens of copy-cats. Brands really do matter.

I firmly believe that Irobot as a company (or one of its smart competitors) has the potential to be even more successful than Dyson if it positions itself properly and, more importantly, develops a big (creative) brand idea that helps re-frame the way people look at and use the whole category, that goes beyond its product features and benefit to define a meaningful role in people’s lives and thus sustains its price premium and competitive advantage (Apple anyone?)

Basically, evolve from a great line of products to a relevant and meaningful brand. And in the process establishes itself as the undisputed category leader and trailblazer.

It will be interesting to see how the category overall evolves. A lot of the short-comings in marketing and brand building are still being covered by the fact that this segment is growing overall (even Irobot is growing fast), but I also believe that the first company to really focus on creating an appealing brand platform will be the one winning in the long term.

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