Back in January 2017, when I first joined Kinova as senior marketing director, I knew I had an interesting strategic challenge ahead of me.
Having worked for years in B2C (business to consumer) contexts across industries like food/beverage and telecommunications, you become used to certain constants: promoting products and services that are easily accessible and have reference points for comparison, customers demanding newness as much as brands crave loyalty, and everything moving at the speed of light. In that sense, there was only so much that could prepare me for what was ahead.
Now that I’ve had just over a year to become quickly immersed in the language of robotics and observe other companies in our industry with a more critical eye as to how they sell their own products, here are a few lessons I’ve learned thus far on how to go about marketing robotics and — just as importantly — how not to go about it.
What Affects One Can Greatly Affect All
While robotics companies have been around for decades, the spotlight on the industry has only really intensified in recent years as new technologies become more readily available and more implicated in the lives of humans.
Because sustained mainstream attention hasn’t been given to the industry for all that long, and because the worldwide robotics community is as collaborative and close-knit as it is, we’re still very much at the point where the actions of one can have a ripple effect on everyone else.
Say, for example, the next self-driving car kills a driver because the technology makes a poor judgment. If that were to happen tomorrow, suddenly that entire industry and the potential of artificial intelligence would come into question. The same rings true for all of us in robotics: if, one day, a robot is working in collaboration with a human and something harmful happens, morality and the process for security is all going to be questioned.
We’re opening up an industry in which there are still a lot of unknowns, not just for individual customers, but for the governments, industries, and others that may use our products and determine how they are regulated. As such, we’re all equally responsible to be respectful of how quickly the rest of the world can adopt what we’re all trying to accomplish.
That means, at this moment in time, companies can’t afford to get fancy with their communications strategies and, instead, need to work on promoting education and value.
When Robotics Marketing Misses the Mark
Arguably, the biggest mistake one can make in marketing robotics is to try and fabricate an air of credibility around their product that simply doesn’t exist.
At Kinova, that means not crafting a message or a campaign that’s too flashy, that seeks to merely attract a lot of eyeballs, or that’s too much of a stretch in terms of what we’re trying to achieve. If what you’re putting out into the world lacks credibility, your company and your product won’t be perceived as credible — and, going back to my earlier point, it can affect our fledgling industry as a whole depending on the scale of untrustworthiness.
Another point of contention when it comes to marketing is, for example, when a new video of what we famously call “dancing robots” goes viral and thrusts robotics momentarily back to the forefront. While public attention does focus squarely on our industry, reaction to these videos is generally split into two camps: “Wow, that’s really cool!” and “Goodbye, human race…”
Exploiting virality as a marketing tool does create interest in the eyes of the public and, as such, decision-makers and influencers may realize sooner that they need to invest more money. At the same time, however, I believe it’s our collective responsibility to educate those paying attention by having your main messaging always circle back to “this is what we can do today, but we’re still trying to make it work for actual human evolution.” Just because your robot does backflips doesn’t mean it does anything other than entertainment.
What’s lacking in that type of messaging is that people aren’t given a chance to understand why the robot in question was made and for what real purpose it’s going to be used. There’s almost no transparency present in quick viral hits and their veil of cuteness does nothing to help people get away from those fears of “holy smokes, look at what a robot can do today.”
And it is very much our job to be the ones who educate the public, in order to create demand for our products and for our industry. At the end of the day, it’s society’s collective movement that will force the hands of the powers that be — governments, industries and academia alike — to bridge the gaps between accessibility and relevance.
Because robotics are constantly evolving, marketers need to find ways to address this more clearly in their communications strategies. Products are living, breathing things, and part of a roadmap for human interaction stretched over years. By having a stronger message of design thinking (following a proof of concept) and filtering this message to the public, one can achieve a more holistic understanding of product development and, more importantly, the rationale for it.
What Does Go Into Good Marketing, Then?
Marketing is more complex than just messaging — especially when you start bridging multiple worlds: tech, medical, end-user, and so on. When promoting products related to health, there is much in the way of rules and regulations to consider.
Once you’ve sorted out those hoops and successfully jumped through them, good marketing always links back to values — specifically, those of the company and the individuals who represent it. The ways in which you present your product need to shed light on the service and on the offering, as well as what you do in robotics, in a clear and objective way.
Everything Kinova makes needs to have a human behind it. From the ideation stage to well beyond the release of a product, as much as possible, there will always be the need to integrate our clients into everything we do.
We serve as guardians to ensure our products embody the Kinova brand as much as they embody a vision of what they should do functionally. Our own products must represent Kinova’s culture and perspective, starting with product design and ending with our communication pieces.
We can’t necessarily come out and say that our products or solutions are going to revolutionize the world. We’re only attacking a portion of any given problem in the best way that we can, and we have to be humble about that in how we conduct ourselves — and the same goes for anyone else in the robotics industry.
Marketing Strategies Will Grow as the Industry Continues to Grow
In general, I believe that robotics companies have yet to find a winning marketing formula that combines simple messaging, the coolness of what robotics is and the emotion behind why we do what we do. If you take a look at the major players in robotics right now, they’re purely product-oriented. No one has found quite the right combination to make robotics accessible to Mr. and Mrs. Everybody in a way that relates to them on all possible levels.
We’re constantly striving to meet that challenge. The way we market is about more than just a top-down portrayal of a message. It’s about education. It’s about building a community. It’s about closely establishing relationships with those within the community to provide complete service.
In the same way, we design a product with simplicity and versatility and the client first in our design thinking, we want to apply that same culture to the way we sell it. Whether it’s education-related, creating community programs or something else, it will only allow us to evolve our own capabilities.