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iRobot turns attention to consumers

Anticipating a drop in military orders, iRobot targets consumers with $10m ad campaign

YouTube dance sensation Marquese Scott is part of the new iRobot campaign designed by advertising agency Mullen.

iRobot

YouTube dance sensation Marquese Scott is part of the new iRobot campaign designed by advertising agency Mullen.

The Roomba from iRobot Corp. is already an Internet sensation, starring in YouTube videos of babies and kittens ridding the self-propelled vacuum cleaners.

So to create its new ad campaign for the Roomba, the Bedford company returned to YouTube, hiring a dancer whose online robot dance video has 43 million views.

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Beginning Tuesday, the commercials featuring Marquese Scott, with music from Scott Monaghan, another YouTube performer, will launch a $10 million campaign to boost sales of iRobot’s products to consumers as the company anticipates its business with the US military will decline sharply.

The new print ad for the Roomba. Research shows many Roombas have names.

The new print ad for the Roomba. Research shows many Roombas have names.

Colin Angle, iRobot chief executive, said the new ads are intended to convince a wider audience that a Roomba is more than just a “cool gadget that was right for these geeks.’’ Robots have steadily improved, said Angle, who declared “the era of robots is upon us.’’

About the size and shape of a large hubcap, the Roomba vacuum cleaner has inspired late-night television jokes and thousands of YouTube videos. The viral buzz around Roombas prompted Boston ad agency Mullen to design commercials that riffed on the vacuum’s pop culture status. One spot, for example, features several human robot dancers performing with a Roomba, with music from the song “Brand New Friend (Roomba Song),’’ which iRobot executives first heard on YouTube.

Another unusual fact: About 80 percent of iRobot customers give their robots names, according to the company’s research.

“We looked at the relationship that people have with the product,’’ said Brian Tierney, a Mullen creative director who worked on the iRobot campaign. “We started to see that this wasn’t just another appliance in the house.’’

The campaign includes two TV spots, Web and print advertising, and even a page on YouTube where fans can post videos of themselves to join a robot dancing contest. The prize is, of course, a Roomba.

The company has sold 7.5 million home-cleaning robots. The Roomba, which costs between $300 to $600, makes up the lion’s share of its consumer sales. This year, iRobot expects that its domestic robots will make up 65 percent of its revenue. In 2011, total revenue climbed 16 percent to $465.5 million.

But it is the prospect of a steep decline in US military spending that is casting a huge pall over the company, said Angle. It has so far sold 4,500 tactical military robots, mostly to the US military. The machines are used disarm roadside bombs and gather battlefield intelligence.

“We are in a speed bump in the military growth area as a result of all the turbulence in Washington,’’ Angle said.

In February, when Angle predicted the Army would cut its orders of robots by half, iRobot’s stock dropped 34 percent. It also laid off 8 percent of its workforce last October because of the cutbacks. The company has 619 employees.

“There will still be a demand for robots, but they may have reached their high point in terms of sales in their recent conflict because future wars will be different,’’ said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at consultant the Lexington Institute in Virginia.

IRobot’s stock closed Monday at $24.96, up 0.12 percent.

The company is trying to broaden into other commercial markets. In January, it inked a deal with the California medical technology company InTouch Technologies Inc. to use robots in health care settings or assisted living situations.

It also just sold its first robots to an American nuclear power plant operator. Priced between $300,000 and $400,000, the robots that will be used in a nuclear plant in South Carolina are identical to those iRobot sent to Japan for assistance with radiation detection after the 2011 tsunami destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi reactor.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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