Marketing a complicated product like robots can be as hard as building the machines themselves.
That’s why the Pittsburgh Robotics Network hosted a business spotlight conversation with four local robotics marketing experts on how to build a brand for your bot. Addressing unique challenges with messaging, strategy and more in robotics, the session was moderated by Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute Head of Marketing and Communications Suzy Teele and included marketing employees from Pittsburgh’s Near Earth Autonomy, which specializes in autonomous aircraft development; Warrendale’s RedZone Robotics, which uses robots to inspect wastewater systems; and Massachusetts’ Locus Robotics, which specializes in autonomous mobile robots for use in warehouse operations.
While the marketing tactics shared by each company representative overlap with other industries both within and beyond tech, they also speak to distinctive problems within robotics. For instance, how do you communicate a simple message when a product is a complicated combination of several moving parts? Or how do you toe the line between describing the autonomous functions of a robot without making it seem like that robot will take away human jobs? Plus, each rep — who all come from relatively young companies — shared advice for robotics startups looking to launch a marketing campaign.
Technical.ly tuned in to the discussion and pulled out some of the key takeaways; some quotes have been edited for clarity.
Autonomous tech can be scary. Remember the big picture first: Robots help humans do their jobs better.
Barry Rabkin, director of marketing at Near Earth Autonomy: Usually the jobs that robots are absolutely best at are ones that humans don’t particularly enjoy, and vice versa. And virtually everything I see is that the future is not going to be human versus machine, it’s going to be human versus human plus machine. And if we use these as tools to help us do our jobs better, we’re all going to just be able to do more. We’re going to be more valuable to our organizations.
I think part of it is also making a mental shift and jumping from it. Are you serving a temporary trend? Or are you serving an eternal human need that is timeless and will always exist? So if you say, my job is a carpenter, right, and I normally drill holes by hand, and now a drill has come — well, that might be scary, right? You may see that as replacing your job. But if you say I build homes, which people will always need — you’ll always need shelter. And now this drill lets me do it safer, faster, more efficiently. And I’m now more valuable.
It’s not your enemy. It’s your friend.
When marketing the technical complexities of robotics, focus on customer benefits, and education.
Patty Katsaros, director of market development at Locus Robotics: I think it it comes down to the benefit and the value to the customer of the solution. There’s lots of cool tech that goes into autonomous mobile robots. And seeing the system in person is just amazing, it just works. But there’s layers upon layers upon layers of complexity that goes into it from the software side to the robotics side.
But really, in the end, what does it do for the customer? It comes down to the return on the investment and the value that it’s providing. It all is really about the the underlying benefits to the customer.
Locus is showing customer testimonials so other people can see how [the product] will work for them. I think in robotics, there’s a lot of misnomers and and people that will use video for trickery, whereas with Locus they use words straight from [customers’] mouths to show that we were successful here with this customer, and we can do the same thing for for you.
Teresa Glasgow, marketing manager at RedZone Robotics: There’s a lot of education with our customers in helping them understand exactly what they need. We’ve kind of shifted the focus away from “you need to have this” to “this is the service we can provide you and we have this whole suite of tools.” And then for our customers, there’s the hurdle that is funding, and we have to figure out how to meet them where they’re at so that we can provide them what they need in their specific budget.
Keep the end goal, and cohesion, in mind throughout.
Rabkin, Near Earth Autonomy: If you’re seeing marketing as advertising for a product, that can come a little later, once you have a product or service to sell. The four Ps of marketing — price promotion, place, product — you have to have that from the first day. Any company, even if it’s a super nitty-gritty R&D company, you’re still selling something to someone. They’re buying that service from you and that expertise.
My biggest goal [at Near Earth Autonomy] was to make sure that all the company’s marketing had one unified cohesive strategy and voice and message. That’s powerful for the audience, but it ends up making a much more efficient process as well, where you’re not constantly reinventing the wheel, you have standardized processes and style guides and templates to benefit from.
Katsaros, Locus Robotics: I encourage people to make [their goals] quantitative as well as qualitative. But you can start by thinking about “where do I want to be in one year or two years for the business?” Laying the targets out and then breaking it down into what are the elements that you’re going to need to hit those targets can help you with the strategy.
Glasgow, RedZone Robotics: Solidify your message — who your company is, what you do, and how that directly impacts your customers has to be in front of everything that you do. Because if you have this scattered modeled message out on social and on your website, people will go to your website, and they think you do one thing, but they go to your social media page, and they think you did something different. It’s really hard to sell something if people don’t know what you’re selling. So my first word of advice would be figure out who you are, what you’re doing, why are you doing it.
The best first step: Narrow down your most important goals, and just start somewhere.
Rabkin, Near Earth Autonomy: There’s a common saying from marketing that if you’re not targeting, you’re not marketing. And that’s very true when it comes to segments. And I think it’s just as true when it comes to strategy. If you try to make everything your first priority, then you’re making everything your last priority, too. And I think particularly in a startup, you just have to accept that there will always be more to do and can be done. That’s just a fact. But at the same time, there will always be enough time and resources to do the most important things that you can do. And just being unapologetically laser focused on those few activities that can have a transformative impact on your organization.
Katsaros, Locus Robotics: You’re always investing but it might not be money, it can also be time. And so you can think about what your strategy is and come up with some early tactics so that you can just get started and try things and have a couple key measurements. The more foundational elements that you can build in, that can be measured, that’ll help you to say “OK, let’s try this, let’s try this particular event, or activity” or whatever it might be see how what types of people are brought in. The faster you can get that started and move forward, the faster you’ll get results, and the faster you can make adjustments and hone in and and build that engine so that it is like a snowball rolling downhill. But don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of different things you could do — just get started.Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
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