Let’s say you live in the United States and wanted a Diet Coke. No problem — the Coca-Cola Company makes that. Great! But what if you wanted a Diet Cherry Coke? Also, not a problem. A Caffeine-Free Diet Coke? Yep, they make that too! But a Caffeine-Free Diet Cherry Coke? That’s going to be a problem unless you live near one of these:
That’s a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine. It’s a pretty neat contraption if you’re a soda drinker — it’s a touchscreen soda fountain which allows users to mix base drinks with a bunch of different flavors. A Freestyle user can make more than 150 different drinks, including a Caffeine-Free Diet Cherry Coke, a Strawberry Minute Maid Lemonade and a Creamsicle (Orange/Vanilla) Coke.
And it’s also a silent market research tool.
The Freestyle was introduced, originally, in the summer of 2009 in an effort by Gen X marketing executives to embrace Millennial customers; as USA Today summarized, “this teen-targeting, touch-screen dispenser flavors self-created beverages in micro-doses” and it “may be Coke’s best hope to keep Millennials fully engaged, socially involved and buying fizzy drinks.” Like many Gen X-lead, Millennial-targeted marketing campaigns, this doesn’t really make a lot of sense (“socially involved”?). But that’s OK because the Freestyle machines can be used by anyone, and Coke gets more than your money.
The nature of the machine all but requires Coke to keep very accurate records of what syrups and flavors are used, if for no other purpose than to make sure that those flavors which are popular are replenished. (A Freestyle machine that’s out of a few flavors isn’t all that cool.) So while Coke is at it, they also capture all sorts of other usage data. As Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies explains: “the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine records all the sales hourly, morning, afternoon, evening, daily, weekly, monthly, and [yearly]. All these statistics are sent to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia where the data is analyzed. The machine gives information on the most consumed and least consumed brands of soft drinks pumped through it on a daily basis.”
And what does Coke do with that data? It may help Coke figure out which flavor could be the next one to be in your grocery store, in cans and 2-liter bottles. The theory is pretty strong: if a combo is proving popular at Freestyle machines, it may similarly prove profitable at retail. And we’ve already seen one example of the Freestyle machine leading to a wide-release product; Jennifer Mann, a Coke VP who runs the Freestyle business, told USA Today that cherry-flavored Fanta was a hit among the machine’s users. As a result, Fanta Cherry hit store shelves in June of 2014.
Whether this trend continues will, of course, be dependent on the data. But Coke, seeing the value, tried to dip into the data pool again. Quartz reported in August of 2014 that the beverage giant teamed up with the Keurig company (of K-Cup coffee fame) to create “Keurig Cold,” an at-home machine designed “to make carbonated cold beverages including many Coca-Cola products, and will share consumption data with Coca-Cola from consumers who opt in.” The only problem? The Keurig Kold (as it was ultimately branded) proved unpopular; as the Wall Street Journal reported, the machine cost $369 at retail and the pods ran $1.25 for an 8-ounce drink, which is just ridiculous. Keurig discontinued the Kold in June of 2016 — so Coke won’t be getting that data after all.
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Related: Fanta Cherry.