Engagement and robotics

The artificially intelligent robot dog also known as AIBO

Back in 1993, Sony decided with the help of Docteur Doi to work on artificial intelligence. For 6 years Sony invested a lot of money and gradually came up with good results. One of the first workable “dogs” was a 6-legged animal. Indeed, in mechatronics (technology combining electronics and mechanical engineering), it was then easier to make an object move when the object had several legs. This allowed the team to better understand motion and how to manage intelligently the movement. For example, ensuring that when an object was in the way, the robot would stop or avoid the object. Making a robot move was the first task, and then avoiding or playing with an object was the second task. Finally, making the robot react to its environment was the third task. Parallel to this a team needed to work on Artificial Intelligence and understand how the robot could copy the human neuronal system. All of this needed to be worked on using 0 and 1… not an easy task for back then.
In 1999, the ERS 110 was ready to be commercialized in the US and Japan. 3000 units for Japan and 2000 units for the US. They were sold in 20 minutes, the fastest sell ever according to the Guinness book of record.
At the same time, Satoshi Amagai and Otsuki-san were promoted President and Vice-President of the Entertainment Robot Company. Their roles were to commercialize AIBO, which stands for Artificial Intelligent robot and coined also from the word aibo in Japanese, which means pal or companion. They were to create the worldwide community of users and to improve the technology constantly with new trends.
The head of Entertainment Robot America and the head of Sony Entertainment Robot Europe seconded Amagai-san and Otsuki-san.
In Europe, we started selling AIBO later than anyone else as the initial launch was only for Japan and the US.
Once we had set up our operation (administration, sales, marketing, customer support and technical), we started to build our network using Sony’s network (i.e. we sold AIBO through the retailers that distributed Sony products).
This is where it becomes interesting. Sales people in retail shops had never sold a product that moved. The Point Of Sales were not adequate for the sale of this type of product. The training we had organized didn’t work because while we understood how AIBO functioned, the public did not. We were not talking about features but actions.
When we started to receive deficient products in our factory, we fixed the robots and sent them back with a standard letter stating your robot is fixed. Customers would write back saying that their AIBOs were not fixed but cured. They had identified with their robots to a level we had never expected.
We had to change our overall strategy completely.
First, we decided to change our customer support. The person in charge of “fixing” AIBO became the AIBO doctor. AIBO was not fixed but cured. If a limb was broken, the limb was cured and replaced sometimes. Each AIBO would return to its owner with a letter and a picture taken at the AIBO clinic! We were still at a factory where TVs, Audio sets and cameras were repaired but we had changed the environment to match AIBO owners and to respect their engagement to the product.
So now that we had an AIBO clinic and an AIBO doctor, we had to change the first point of contact with the robot.
We designed Point Of Sales very differently. They were tall with a flat surface and a Plexiglas dome over it with a large hole so that people could give orders to AIBO. Remember, AIBO could understand over 100 commands. If you did not show the public AIBO’s actions, then you could not get people to spend 2000 Euros for such a product. We ordered the Point Of Sales and delivered them to the retail shops.
So now we have the customer support matching people’s engagement and we have the sales environment allowing an initial engagement with the product. Our next step was to ensure that sales execs were trained to speak like an AIBO owner and to respect the engagement the AIBO owner would create with its companion.
We worked hard on delivering a second to none training programme. We explained to the sales teams what engagement was all about. In the case of an AIBO sell, people would spend a lot of money to interact and to engage emotionally with their robots. I knew some owners who had over 30 AIBOs all with a different name and a different attachment.  Most owners I knew had between 2 and 10 AIBOs. 
I became very good friends with some owners mainly in the UK and as of today, we are still in touch. When Sony decided to make some changes to the product or to the community management, we received regularly petitions from the head of the AIBO community.
The engagement was such that we had to rethink our marketing strategy and start implementing personalized and engaged events.
Every month, we used to organize throughout Europe (UK, France, Germany, Turkey, Spain and Russia) a Sunday event where AIBO owners would meet and exchange program ideas. The beauty of AIBO was that it worked on a memory stick with a program based on Software Development Kit (SDK). People could personalize their AIBO and exchange programs. One of my good old friends from the UK programmed one of his AIBOs to drive a model car. AIBO sat down behind the wheel and you could tell AIBO to turn right or left. It was amazing.
The Sunday event served several purposes:
          First to see each other regularly (Sony teams and AIBO owners)
          For AIBO owners to compete against each other (running competitions)
          For AIBO owners to show and exchange their programs
          For Sony to show owners the future developments
          For Sony to gather suggestions from owners
          For prospects to understand the use of AIBOs
This type of personalized and engaged marketing was very valuable. Very often we had journalists come to our meetings to understand how AIBO worked. We had guests coming from all over the world (US, South Africa, Australia…).
Most importantly we brought together a brand and its product with its customers.
If you read my posts regularly you will know that I am a big fan of engagement, marketing and gamification. I was so lucky to find myself in a position where I could live engagement to its fullest. 
Thanks to a high technology product where people could engage and play, we pushed the notion of engagement to every company angle. Everything we did as a team was engaging.
The proof of this is that we are still friends even though we finished selling AIBO in 2005. The engagement was strong amongst us and has continued well after.
In conclusion, if you like marketing, you have heard of engagement and positioning. When you sell a TV set or a camera, how can you get people engaged to an everyday product? This is where people who think outside of the box, growth hackers or marketing hackers, can win the battle. AIBO is a great example of how you can get people close to a product but AIBO is just the beginning. Marketing executives, think twice, find the angle that people have not seen yet and make it special, and make it different. Use gamification (the use of game mechanics in non-gaming situations) and get people engaged to a product, a solution, a service. Engagement can be at all levels and positions. You want your employees to be engaged so that they are more productive. You want the service you provide in your company (HR, Admin, Finance) to be more engaged so that people delivering revenue will get the right information at the right time. They will then be more productive.
I was very fortunate to run Europe with a fantastic team of dedicated executives. It was not easy everyday. But we managed and at the end we were all very proud to have done our upmost to make AIBO a success and the Sony brand shine.