Everyone loves a vacuum cleaner

6th of October 2022
Everyone loves a vacuum cleaner

Vacuum cleaners catch the imagination in a way that no other cleaning machines can. But why is this the case? And how well do modern machines actually perform when one disregards all that clever marketing? Ann Laffeaty finds out.

Scrubber dryers are highly technical, impressive machines. Sweepers are weighty and business-like. And mops are serviceable and functional.

But vacuum cleaners are another story. Manufacturers work hard to make them appear user-friendly, often giving them brightly-coloured housings or painted-on faces. Some even attribute their vacuums with a personality to help the operator “connect” with the machine.

But why does this happen? Is it all just a marketing ploy to allow companies to differentiate their products from those of their rivals? Or is there something else behind the trend?

Numatic’s Henry model is probably the world’s best-known “friendly vacuum”. But strangely, the company seems to be as much in the dark as the rest of us as to why people connect with “him”.
“Henry has had the same familiar face and smile for more than 40 years, and is unique in this aspect,” said the company’s head of marketing and communications Andrew Ernill. “We find that our customers certainly do connect with the idea of a vacuum having a personality. But as to why, that’s really a question for our customers and the answer is likely to vary between users.”

Ernill believes it is the customers themselves who project a personality on to Henry. “This often seems to reflect the values of the brand itself which is all about simplicity and a no-nonsense approach,” he said.

Another manufacturer placing a high level of importance on personality is LionsBot, whose robot vacuums are programmed to express a range of emotions. “It’s amazing what two eyes and a smile can do,” says ceo and co-founder Dylan Ng.

“An element of personality uplifts the mood – particularly since vacuums tend to be noisy machines and are used in places with a high concentration of people. The use of approachable aesthetics helps to reduce any hostility felt towards them and make people feel more comfortable around them.”

LionsBot’s LeoVac robots have human names such as Alex and Ella and are designed to interact with their operators and to reflect a distinct personality. They can roll their “eyes”, express emotions such as love and affection - and they can also sing.

Ng believes there to be a number of reasons why people identify more closely with vacuums than with other cleaning machines. “Vacuum cleaners are prevalent in homes which means people naturally feel familiar with them,” he said. “There have also been a number of advances in simplifying their operation for the domestic market. As a result there have been widespread marketing campaigns targeted at home users.”

Vacs with personalities

The fact that vacuuming takes up so much of the cleaner’s time is one of the reasons why operators tend to associate more closely with vacuums than with other cleaning devices, theorises executive assistant at Sprintus Luisa Schneider. “The better the performance of the device, the more efficient the user,” she said.

“The overall impression of the machine needs to be convincing and this relates to aesthetics as well as to the vacuum’s functionality, quality and ergonomics. And a modern, appealing design is also important because it reflects the innovative power of the device, while the colour scheme plays a significant role in increasing brand recognition.”

Assigning personalities to robot vacuum cleaners can be a useful strategy, according to SoftBank Robotics’ head of marketing Louise Goldsmith. “There is often a misconception that robotic solutions are here to replace human interaction, but by giving them a personality we humanise the product and make cleaning teams feel more at ease with the technology.”

“Cleaners are also likely to take better care of a vacuum when it is no longer seen as a product, but more as an extension of the human team,” she added.

She claims today’s global staff shortages in the cleaning sector make it more important than ever for users to form a connection with their vacuum.

“Demand for cleaning services is sky-high, but providers are struggling to find the staffing resources to meet it. In addition to providing a partnership with cleaning teams, autonomous solutions can also help to fill the labour shortage gap and provide operators with support for the more menial tasks.”

Lindhaus president Michele Massaro believes that a user-friendly machine can play a pivotal role in retaining staff members. “In my experience, most professional users of vacuum cleaners tend to be women who use similar machines to clean their floors at home,” he said.

“The machines they use at work need to be more efficient and durable, but they should still be as lightweight and as easy to use as domestic models. The old-style, heavier machines may remain popular with buyers, but not so much with users. Since it can be hard to find cleaning staff today, it makes no sense to give them a heavy machine that is not user-friendly. In fact, this could be one of the reasons for losing employees.”

Machine users will bond with a good vacuum whether or not it happens to have a bright colour or a painted-on face, according to Kärcher’s product manager for professional vacuum cleaners Britt Napoleone.

“The aim is to have satisfied users who appreciate the product and who follow the brand,” she said. “This can be achieved by providing a reliable product that fulfils their needs and frees them up for other tasks.

“However, the aesthetics and the ‘feel’ of the machine may also have an impact of its own. In other words, bonding with a vacuum may or may not occur through a painted machine - this is only one aspect.

“The trend is also moving strongly towards connectivity,” she adds. “This allows the customer to track functions such as run-times and fill levels as well as receiving information about the device via an app. And this enables the user to identify even more strongly with the device because he or she will gain a greater control of the equipment.”

End-users tend to connect with their vacuums because they are globally the most widely-used machines in cleaning, according to i-Team Global’s marketing manager Arnold Vleeskens.

“Creating vacuum cleaners with a personality makes sense from a commercial point of view because the cleaner is then likely to recommend the model to their manager,” he said. “It is also good from a maintenance viewpoint because the vacuum feels as though it is their own. As a result they are likely to be more careful with it in use.”

The company encourages end-users to choose their own accessories to increase the bond between the user and the machine. “We also focus on battery-driven vacuums to give the end-user the joy of being released from a cord,” he said.

The question as to whether or not people attribute vacuums with a personality was actually the subject of a 2020 study. Researchers at Oregon State University manipulated the movements of a domestic robot vacuum to give it the characteristics of three of the Seven Dwarves: Happy, Grumpy and Sleepy.

The Happy robot was programmed to travel smoothly at moderate speeds and to seek people out, while the Sleepy robot – which was also people-friendly - was given slower, more staccato movements. And the Grumpy robot avoided people altogether while moving around the room with erratic motions at a range of velocities.

Study participants were then asked to identify which robot represented which character and to rate them for politeness, friendliness and intelligence. Most people correctly identified all three robots while inferring that Grumpy was impolite and unfriendly while Happy was friendly and intelligent.

Study authors concluded people feel more comfortable around robots that have a smooth and reliable operation. And the study also demonstrates just how ready people are to attribute human characteristics to their machines.

Focus still on quality

But will manufacturers continue down the path of creating people-friendly vacuums?  Or in today’s ever-changing world will they focus instead on issues such as efficiency, productivity, low cost, sustainability and ergonomics?

There is no need to make a choice, says Numatic’s Andrew Ernill. “The success of the Henry brand is very simple: it is a good product that delivers on performance, sustainability, reliability and value,” he says. “And it also happens to have a distinctive brand identity that customers find appealing.”

Aesthetics are always taken into account when Sprintus develops new model, says the company’s Luisa Schneider. “But the main focus is on other factors such as quality, functionality, durability, sustainability and ergonomics,” she said.

SoftBank Robotics’ Louise Goldsmith says autonomous vacuums will continue to be marketed to create a bond between the user and the machine. “But given the challenges of the current economic climate and today’s labour issues, machines will first and foremost be required to increase productivity,” she said.

Dylan Ng from LionsBot agrees vacuum cleaners need to perform well above all else. “Factors such as high productivity, affordability, sustainability and ergonomics are a must,” he said. “However, creative manufacturers will always manage to find delightful new ways to personalise their robots – and this means efficiency does not need to conflict with personality.”


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