The Genius and Failure of Coca-Cola Freestyle

A new Innovation in the beverage market, Coca-Cola Freestyle is the most advanced soda/beverage dispenser to date. Equipped with touch-screens that allow users to mix up over 100 different flavors on the spot, the ingenius design is a mix of modern medicine (the machinery was originally developed for dialysis and cancer treatments) and technological corporate strategy. The Freestyle comes equipped with the ability to send metrics back to Coke Headquarters, informing Execs on all the nitty gritty on: what flavors are selling, how much, when, what locations – and even offers a ‘Kill Switch’ to stop any offerings ASAP. This sounds like a Product Managers dream … but is it?

Missing Consumer Needs

When I first heard of the Coca-Cola Freestyle concept, I was really excited. Now, I very rarely drink soda anymore, but I was really intrigued on how the device would work and what types of flavors I could come up with. They even invite you to Customize Your Own Drink On Facebook – what a great idea to increase engagement!

When you get to the machine, you are prompted to choose which Coca-Cola product you want to serve as your base. Ok, that’s not great from a customization standpoint, but not a bad starting point since that can help limit the ‘Paradox of Choice’ for consumers. Now, if you’re a customization buff, you will be greatly disappointed if you select Sprite Zero as the base and you see this screen next …

What started out as an amazing concept to really engage consumers, has instead turned into a marketing ploy that is built instead around control. I saw a lot of promise, but Coke HQ and Freestyle unfortunately missed the boat, and here is why:

  • Failed Customization – Missed the opportunity to learn more about consumer tastes.
  • Uninspiring – Pre-selected options will make novelty of the experience will grow stale – FAST!

I don’t agree with anti-technology or choice stance, but PracticallyEfficient brings up a few great examples of the Freestyle in practice, causing longer lines and the need of staff to be able to problem solve a tricky interface.  Mike Shaw noted similar problems in the inefficiency of having to wait for one person get a drink. These aren’t as big of an issue to me though – the biggest failure is the lack of creating a ‘brand democracy

Where Freestyle Could Have Excelled

Hint Water started out in 2005 as a mothers concern for unhealthy amounts of sugar being added to flavor water, so instead she opted for a dash of ‘natural flavoring’. In 2010, the company has racked up over $20m in sales, including big accounts such as Whole Foods. This could have easily been discovered by the big beverage manufactures, but their innovation is stifled. Here are a few possibilities that could have made the Freestyle an instant hit with plenty of successes:

  • True Customization – Allow users to mix and match drinks and flavors as they choose. Don’t limit it to only current Coke products, but also just have flavor systems.
  • Unique Drink & Flavor Combinations – Users can co-create new flavors and drinks with other enthusiasts via a facebook page or forum. These new combos can then be tied to unique User ID’s or Codes that can be scanned in at machines. Users can create, rate, and experiment … the result — plenty of new drink flavors that Coke can roll out and promote.
  • Brand Engagement – Instead of users having a weak tie to the Coke Brand, they develop strong ties to their own unique flavor brands, and to the co-creation community.

The Freestyle machine could have been the perfect needfinding and co-creation device … unfortunately it has fallen short of the mark. The good news is that Coke has realized this, and is hoping to add 2D scanners retro-fitted to test on a limited number of machines for 2012. With the current limited roll-out, they can delight consumers before they face that initial disappoint of a locked down machine. On the down side – the damage might have already been done – moving too late in innovation is a great way to make it stagnant and kill progress.

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