Back in 2001, my 3-year-old design consultancy was excited to start a brand development odyssey with iRobot, a new client of ours making waves in Boston. Having achieved a foothold in the Defense industry with robots that cleared mines from caves in war zones, and with forays into commercial applications for mining and other verticals, the co-CEOs at iRobot were both jazzed to help jumpstart the home robot marketplace.
Our team called on them at their one-story skunkworks behind a strip mall in Somerville, MA. We found the team to be wonderful maker-culture kindred spirits who believed the time was right for mainstreaming a useful consumer robot. They had a prototype for a floor-sweeping robot in place and a roadmap that included a follow-up hard floor-scrubbing robot. They also had geckos climbing the glass walls of a terrarium in the lobby that we took to be long game research for a window washing play. So MIT.
Ostensibly, our branding team was simply asked to ‘name’ the product. But we recognized that the opportunity was far larger than that. We were creating a brand name for a new category of autonomous home appliances. And we believed that buying and owning a seemingly sentient device, that would work alongside you on a task you’d rather delegate, would become a threshold consumer purchase—my first robot.
The company had already decided that iRobot would remain the master brand. As a novel consumer offer — within a portfolio where its commercial, industrial, and military solutions were growing with certainty — a little distance was a good thing. So the new brand would be endorsed by iRobot but eponymous with the product, like a Zamboni.
Our orientation work included audits of likely channels for the retail discovery of a robotic product circa 2001. Category creation would require a resonant backstory and engaged partners. We agreed it would not be found at Brookstone or Sharper Image, as it was not a gadget. It would not be found at Toys R Us, as it was not a toy. It would likely be discovered in an appliance or home goods store, but not in a designer showroom. Unlike the Electrolux® Trilobyte™ vacuum that had recently launched in Europe at 1,200 EUR, our $300-ish alternative would trade on smarts over styling — a robot for all of us.
Positioning and naming ideation for products with interesting behaviors or expressions often flow naturally from the experience of spending time with the new device. So, we were thrilled to get to cohabitate with one of the few available prototypes.
Once we had one running loose in our office, we all became curious onlookers (and then fans), trying to understand how its infrared sensors, having mapped the room and the objects within it, determined its crazy quilt itinerary. Approach it to watch it work and suddenly it was moving directly toward you. Psych! Step aside. Step over. Coming through.
We had been advised that the prototype was quite loud. In the original product tested with consumers, where robotic navigation was its superpower, the cleaning system on board was simply a whisk with a bin. When it became clear that even a minimally viable product at our price point would need to have a vacuum on board, the chassis was retrofitted for that assembly, sans muffler.
There was however a stream of chirps and beeps you could hear above the motor when the device asked to be recharged, lifted off a cord, or emptied. Those cues became part of the charm of the experience, recalling the mechanical patois of “Rosey” in the Jetsons cartoon or the friendly banter of “B-9” with Will Robinson in the Lost in Space TV series. And yes, the name B-9 was intended to be heard as “benign”, a robotic crew member that wouldn’t kill you in your sleep.
It is always fun to go back and revisit a naming time capsule and imagine what might have been. Our process produced hundreds of names in the first round and dozens of names in those that followed. Favored names for our newest crew member began to coalesce around three domains: those tied to the robot’s Cleaning Functions, its Physical Behaviors, and its Personality. We also agreed to pressure test the flexibility of each approach by requiring a name for the wet floor product to come — a one-two punch that we believed would help us jumpstart the new category — provided the original offer found a market.
Based on discussions in team workshops the Cleaning Functions names fell away in favor of Personality and Behaviors, particularly its ‘motions’ and ‘sounds’. The near-final suite of eight names included four Behavior candidates (Rovo, Roomba, Vroom, and Zuum) and four Personality candidates (Botson, Domo, Dustin, and Whirbert).
There was early enthusiasm for Botson among our team. We thought it would lay down a marker amid the friendly competition at that point between Carnegie-Mellon University and MIT about the likely epicenter of emerging robotic science. “Bots” was already shorthand for “robots.” And Boston was a namesake city near Somerville that could make the claim. A simple transposition of letters in “Boston” made it official. Our rationale went on to describe Botson as a butler-like name. That fit. Even further, it evoked the words spoken by Alexander Graham Bell in the first telephone call, “Watson, come here I want you,” aligning it in spirit with another seminal invention. Alas, it didn’t lend itself readily to variants for future robot models (a ‘cul-de-sac’ in naming parlance). So we moved on.
When we asked the question, ‘What would you call a pet that sucked up the dirt off floors and carpets in your home?” Dustin was just too fun not to get behind. How about his little brother who mopped up hard floors in bathrooms or kitchens? Tyler would be perfect, right? But upon further reflection, the team concluded that jumping in front of an opportunity for consumers to give their new robot a pet name felt too heavy-handed. Our goal was to name the category, not preempt that part of the adoption experience.
We were excited about the branding opportunities that the acoustic-kinetic palette offer to convey the charisma of the device’s animated household presence. We converged around three finalists: Roomba, Vroom, and Zuum. All three had a through-line, onomatopoeia. They were names that sound like the action they described, loud like a vacuum and in motion like a vehicle. Each also captured the personality of this industrious helper and included double-vowel sequences that were friendly, memorable and fun to say.
In the end, we agreed that Zuum and Vroom were too “one note” — all motor and no rudder. While Roomba had several layers of meaning that were ideal for creating brand narratives. Some of its cues simply affirmed aspects of the product experience. “Room” indicated the product was for indoor use. “(V)room” indicated that it would be loud. Other nuances revealed themselves over time. Like the rhumba ‘dance,’ we curious overlords had to step lively to avoid a collision. Finally, a discovery we all wished we’d noticed at the time, instead of months later, it had a fitting anagram: “a broom.”
Following the sudden success of Roomba in the Christmas selling season of 2002, the iRobot consumer group began to grow rapidly. A new team of seasoned marketers from the appliance industry included one who felt the Roomba name was a misstep to correct before the 2005 launch of Scooba. He had advanced AquaMaid as a way to get the franchise back on track. Invited to re-present the rationale for Scooba (i.e, it would ride the coattails of Roomba while also strengthening the larger iRobot project to define a new consumer category) we stayed the execution. When Saturday Night Live lampooned Roomba in a ‘Woomba’ sketch later that same year it was clear that the name was gaining traction in the culture.
About a year after the successful launch of Roomba we discovered that a Yahoo group had formed to support Roomba owners gathering online to talk about their experience of adding a ‘robot vacuum’ to their household. (Note: This was well before smartphone videos of cats riding on Roombas like parade floats became a meme.) A thread in that forum was focused on what each had named their Roomba, including this post: “We call our Roomba, Dustin.”
Many years after the launch, a friend of mine who was working on her first novel in a writing program a UCLA sent me a single page from the manuscript she had been workshopping with her professor. The story included a scene where a young woman, who had just arrived for a new job in a city overseas, and still fighting jet lag, “was bouncing around her hotel room like one of those robotic vacuum cleaners.” Kate’s professor had crossed out the entire simile and written in, “just say ‘Roomba’, everyone knows what you mean.” Hello, zeitgeist. Well played, Roomba.