Farewell to that doggie in the window

AiboSony Corp. has officially euthanized the Sony AIBO entertainment robot … the company said today.

The "announcement" was slipped into Sony’s 2005 third-quarter earnings report, which also detailed a number of plant closings and a refocusing to core businesses like entertainment, pictures and music.

A couple of years ago I bought an Aibo in Tokyo.  I found him on the third floor of a crowded department store, surrounded by people transfixed by his smallest gesture.  I knew I had to own one.

It was Christmas time, and I came back through Victoria, B.C. to see my family for the holidays.  At first, I thought I would leave Aibo in my luggage, but wiser heads prevailed and pretty soon Aibo was doing tricks in the middle of the living room floor. 

The men in the family dismissed Aibo immediately on seeing him and the women, all three generations of them, watched him with an air of what I can only describe as fond expectation.  Aibo wasn’t actually doing anything that charmed them, but something about him persuaded them he soon would. 

My family is not big on gender orthodoxy (descending from a Victorian feminist, we have our own orthodoxy), but Aibo split the family right down the middle.  The men thought he was a machine flawed by improbable sentience.  The women thought he was a machine improved by nascent sentience.  This turned out to be one of many Xmas disagreements.

But who cared, really.  Not me.  I got bought Aibo mostly out of guilt.  I was travelling a lot, and this meant neglecting Daz, my very talkative, very companionable, Siamese cat.  When I saw Aibo in that Tokyo department store, I thought, "perfect, a pet for my pet.  Daz will love him."  But Daz was true to the gender orthodoxy in effect.  After one good sniff, he dismissed Aibo completely. Aibo was consigned to a back room, as if he’d done something really bad, and I came to regard him as one of my many failed investments in the field of guilt management.      

Now in the marketing research community, these are called unofficial, anecdotal findings.  But of course that does not mean I don’t intend to run with them. 

I think it’s fair to say, if my "findings" are anything to judge by, Aibo fell between the men who buy computers and the women, in this case, who love them.  I know this sounds like a sexist howler (no pun intended), but ethnographic research in several tech categories persuades me that, by and large, men insist on making household computer purchases.  They may not be smarter about technology than women, but they insist on acting as if they are.  (Women, bless them, look the other way.)

Now this is an interesting marketing problem.  How to find a way to parachute a consumer good like Aibo into the lives of female consumer over the walls of male disapproval and budgetary control?  Everyone’s answer for a problem like this is always, "Oprah."  And that is in fact the right answer, but it is also a lot like the lottery.  Our chances of getting Aibo on Oprah are one in a ten thousand.  Harpo productions looks like O’Hare airport: everyone’s trying to land there.

So what are the options?  We know there are precedents.  Honda launched the Prelude as a car for guys and women took it over.  (Marlboro cigarettes moved in the opposite direction.)  It might be possible to sell it in as the ultimate office accessory.  I like the idea of visiting the office of a high powered executive, being greeted by her exuberant Aibo, and being reassured with a dry, "Oh, don’t be alarmed.  He’s quite harmless."  That would tell us we were dealing with someone with higher orders of intelligence and cultural literacy, wouldn’t it?  (Useful for her, too.)

Sony might have commissioned a transmedia novel called "Raised by Aibo," about a woman who was, like, raised by Aibo.  In fact, there are several movie and fictional properties waiting to happen: "Jane Ford, Aibo wrangler," "Aibo walkies: domesticating your new best friend," "Letting Aibo out: discovering the beast within."   

But in point of fact, I don’t think Sony pitched women at all.  In fact, my sense is they blithely hoped that he would be embraced by the hobbiest lobby, a community that is still largely made up with men.  Weird!  All they had to do was put Aibo in a roomful of women to know that this was the wrong audience, or, at least, not the only audience, or best, a distant second to the real target. 

Aibo’s demise might be the result of bad research, bad marketing or bad management.  But this is a terrible error and a spectacular waste of R&D dollars.  I can’t help wondering whether the research failed to do their due diligence.   There is nothing wrong with this product that good marketing could not fix. 


This story is on many websites today.  My crawling cursor is driving me absolutely crazy and I am putting off all citations till I can get the thing fixed. 

3 thoughts on “Farewell to that doggie in the window

  1. Chuck

    Grant – I used to be a buyer for a regional discount chain. After 10 years I was a broken disillusioned man.

    The job was inordinately challenging, but the stress of always trying to judge correctly what the customer base would purchase YEAR AFTER YEAR became overwhelming. Particularly, because I knew that a pattern of purchasing behavior existed that I knew was within my grasp, but I just didn’t have enough time.

    Perhaps, that is true also for Aibo.

  2. Peter

    Your idea of being greeted by a high-powered executive’s exuberant Aibo reminded me of a cartoon by Charles Barsotti in The New Yorker a few years ago: A human employee is being admonished by his boss, who happens to be a dog in a suit and tie. The dog is saying to the man: “Remember, you weren’t hired to think — You were hired because you have opposable thumbs.”

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