Business

HELLO ROBOT

Let Aibo tell you about brand image

by Rob Gilhooly

Ku-Ku the kitten was top cat in the battle of the robo-pets in 2000, but guess which bionic beast got to snuggle up to Janet Jackson?

Aibo ERS-210, Sony’s second-generation “entertainment robot,” couldn’t even claw its way into the Nikkei Business magazine’s top-10 best-selling robotic pets of 2000.

Nor did it appear in the top-30 hit product list of Nikkei’s Trendy magazine. (Sega’s Poo-Chi robo-dog panted home at No. 16).

But when it came to publicity and brand image consolidation, it was Sony’s cute cub that grabbed the lion’s share of attention.

For example, Aibo got a paw in the door of the human entertainment business, appearing in promotion videos with U.S. dance diva Janet Jackson and Japan’s music mastermind, Tetsuya Komuro.

Sony officials had predicted commercial spinoffs when the consumer electronics giant unleashed its robo-cub in October, and a number of them have indeed been realized.

Aibo character goods — T-shirts, mobile phone straps, mouse pads and so on — were put on the market in November, while an “Aibo clinic” has been busy fielding calls from “Aibowners” whose robotic lion cubs are feeling a little under the weather (one said his Aibo is more inclined to dance when it is ordered to sit).

Several Aibo-related events have been scheduled for early in the new year, such as the Aibo Expo in Tokyo and Aibo World in Nagoya.

There is a monthly Aibo magazine, Aibotown, and a store of the same name that stocks Aibo-related products and provides a meeting point for owners.

Indeed, if Sony’s plans to bring out an Aibo book or movie go ahead, the robot may soon be in need of a manager.

“It’s possible to employ Aibo as a kind of celebrity . . . for example, in movies,” said Yuka Takeda of the creative department at Entertainment Robot Co., which was established in August as an independent internal company of Sony.

“We have created a new licensing business, which, while controlling Aibo’s brand image, will allow those who want to use Aibo (in commercial enterprises) to do so freely,” she said, adding that inquiries from companies wanting to lionize the cub have been flooding in.

There was good reason to throw customers a bone in the form of character goods — Sony has been inundated with requests for such products since the first generation of Aibo robots, the ERS-110 robo-puppy, went on the market in October 1999, Takeda said.

“We have received numerous requests from Aibo fans who cannot afford the real thing,” she said, adding that some Aibo owners have long been making similar products themselves.

While Takashi Kawanami of ERC’s marketing department said he expects the character goods to reach a wide audience, Chisato Ganryu of Sony Creative Products Inc., which bought the licensing rights for the character goods, is not so sure.

“We see the goods as targeting owners who are absolutely mad about their Aibo,” Ganryu said. “I don’t think members of the general public will buy them.”

Some industry watchers say the real issue is not about whether the products — like Aibo itself — sell or not.

“It has nothing to do with making or not making money,” said Tadashi Nishi of Sakura Institute of Research. “It’s all about brand image, a brand image that shows you have strength in new products.

“That alone will give consumers a sense of security,” he said. “In one sense they (events and character goods) are an advertisement of that image.”

Of Japan’s consumer electronics makers, Sony alone has succeeded in promoting a brand image, Nishi said.

“Somehow, it feels like Japan’s (other) electronics makers have come this far without possessing a brand image like, for example, (Macintosh’s) Apple mark . . . preferring to go with cost performance strategies instead,” Nishi said. “I get the feeling that from now on, this will change.”

However, for Kazushige Hata, a senior analyst with ING Baring Securities (Japan) Ltd., fringe businesses like the character goods and events are not the cat’s meow, but simply an attempt to revitalize a project that he believes has not exactly roared into life.

While Sony has set a sales target of more than 45,000 — the total units sold of the ERS-110 worldwide — Hata believes it is “struggling to stimulate customers’ demand” and is thus trying to popularize the product with character goods strategies.

Hata recognizes that the robot’s core technology could serve as a “base” upon which Sony could build in its future forays into robotic components and software. But the robo-pet will have a short life span because it “cannot appeal” to the general public, because it is both too expensive and nerdy, he said.

“Sony is always one step ahead when it comes to creativity and uniqueness, and Aibo is a product that reconfirms that image,” Hata said. “But sometimes it makes mistakes. . . . It’s hard to imagine Aibo as a common household pet. Before long, I think, interest (will dwindle) and we’ll have many stray Aibo wandering around.”

Sony’s Kawanami said almost 40,000 units of the ERS-210 have been sold since the product debuted two months ago.

As production reportedly would have to reach 60,000 a month for Sony to break even, this is hardly a roaring trade.

But fringe businesses like the official goods would both improve Aibo’s image and bring even more attention to the product, Kawanami said.

“There is a market,” he said. “We’re creating it.”