What I Would Do with the Coke Freestyle

One of the best features of the new building that LinkedIn opened up at 2051 Stierlin Court in Mountain View is the new Coca-Cola Freestyle. The Freestyle is a modern soda fountain wrapped in a vending machine. You can order any one of over 100 different varieties of soft drink, ranging from flavored Dasani water to my personal (and discontinued) favorite: Diet Vanilla Coke.

After playing with the machine for a few months, I’ve realized that Coca-Cola is sitting on a massive marketing opportunity with his machine, if they execute it aggressively. Obviously, coming from the social web, I have a particular angle on how I would leverage this new machine in the marketplace.

How It Works

The Coke Freestyle may look like a vending machine, but it’s internals look more like a giant inkjet printer. It seems to have two types of cartridges: large bulky core soft drink syrups (e.g. Coke, Sprite, Diet Coke, etc) and smaller flavor syrups (vanilla, lime, sugar-free vanilla, etc). It combines these with a water source and carbonation on demand based with varying portions of each.

Thus, a small number of core flavors and accent flavors can deliver a truly breathtaking variety of soft drinks. My six year old, for example, delights in flavors of Sprite he never imagined (including a distinctly fluorescent purple “Grape Sprite”).

Most exciting of all, the machine is equipped with a Verizon USB wireless modem, and is IP-capable. Nominally, this exists so that the machine can report daily on its supply levels, allowing service to know which cartridges need restocking.

While the software on the machine is extremely primitive, it’s this networked capability that has the potential to turn the Coke Freestyle into a game changing marketing machine.

Give Customers Choice

The first step in redesigning the software on the Coke Freestyle is to start crowd sourcing new flavors. With a few simple variables, Coke could take this machine from offering 100 different drinks to thousands.

Want a Barq’s Root beer with Cherry? You got it. Coke Zero with Lemon? Whatever floats your boat.

A very small set of options could really open up thousands of possibilities:

  • Pick any base syrup
  • Pick up to two accent syrups
  • Let them “double” a flavor (e.g. Extra Cherry)

Make Customization a Game

Now the fun begins. There are a number of game design principles we could apply here.

First, the machine could highlight the “top” custom flavors that have been recently ordered on the machine. This would serve as a mechanism to obtain “votes” for new flavors that expert users create.

To help mix up selection, the machine should also highlight recent choices or randomized choices to help ensure that a few custom drinks don’t runaway with the voting.

In a perfect world, this voting would be personalized. Maybe people can name their drinks and take credit for their creation. This could be done by making the machine accessible to nearby smart phones. (BTW This might be a great reason for people to have an account with cocacola.com, tied to their Facebook or Twitter accounts)

Very soon, machines would develop their own popular custom flavors. Machines near each other can pick up flavors from the same geography. Local variations in preferences and popularity can turn into realtime market research and crowd sourced product development. Who knows? Maybe root beer with cherry syrup is a winner in East Texas? The best flavors can then efficiently be produced and promoted in geographies pre-tested by the Coke Freestyle network.

In this world, rather than devoting R&D effort to new brand extensions, Coke can focus on new base and accent syrups.

Stoke Distribution

The Coke Freestyle, by virtue of being a networked device, can also promote drinks effectively and price dynamically. If there is a big push for Diet Coke Vanilla, it can be highlighted and discounted appropriately. More importantly, like Starbucks, members with accounts can get promotional discounts and rewards to keep them coming back to Coke.

Price Aggressively

Given the incredible market research and distribution benefits of the Coke Freestyle, pricing becomes a really interesting question. Compared to “dumb” vending machines, these networked devices might enable heavily subsidized pricing. Given the relatively lower marginal cost of goods for a fountain-based machine, Coke might be able to fundamentally alter the dynamics of vending distribution by deploying machines in shopping malls and high traffic locations and undercutting competitive machines.

Who is to say that they couldn’t offer drinks at 25 cents each? If the primary goal of the machines is to generate and test brand extensions, there is a powerful motive to generate a large a volume of frequent voting.

This is the real strategic question for Coke: are they willing to disrupt well known and established vending machine economics to build out a realtime market research platform? How much is this data potentially worth?

Does Coke Get It?

For the last few months, I’ve been trying to get network access to the Coke Freestyle to experiment with some of these concepts as a Hackday project. I was disappointed to find out that the machine currently has extremely limited services exposed over the network.

I hope Coke realizes what a winner they have on their hands with his machine.

Review: Tab Energy

Yes, I know Tab is not Diet Coke.

Tab is a drink that I don’t even remember… after all, I was all of 7 years old when Diet Coke came out and crushed Tab into the pavement.  Tab was the 70s, Diet Coke was the 80s, and lets be honest, you’d rather have the 80s ten times than the 70s even once. Tab was saccherine, Diet Coke was Nutrasweet.  A triumph of technology and taste.

So it’s a little weird, but the truth is that I have a soft spot in my heart for the Tab brand.  I’m not really sure why.  Maybe it’s the hot pink can.  Maybe it’s the cool pseudo-high-tech, Star Wars font for the logo.  Don’t know.

When I heard that Coke was going to revive the brand, I was intrigued.   An energy drink made sense to me – why not turn Tab into a low-calorie, high-caffeine brand, like Jolt cola but with style, finesse, and no calories.

Tab Energy.

I hadn’t seen it anywhere, and I can’t confess to looking that hard.  But when I was buying ice for my 4th of July BBQ, I bought a couple at the local Albertsons.

The good news?  I liked it.  Oh sure, as a guy, you have to get over the pink.  The can is hot pink and slender.  The drink itself is pink.  It might as well be called “Barbie Energy” for the masculinity it eminates.  Check out the corporate website… safe to say, it doesn’t speak to me.

But it tastes good.  Something like Strawberry/Watermelon.  And it has a kick.  If you’ve ever tried any of the diet energy drinks, they are absolutely foul.  I tried Diet Red Bull at the eBay Leadership conference in December, and I literally almost threw up.  But Tab Energy is really drinkable…

Unfortunately, I can read the tea leaves, and my guess is that it isn’t doing well.  It’s not stocked in many places, and the price is high.   The marketing campaign for it has been terrible – so ultra feminine and pseudo-urban, it feels like they were trying to make it a fashion accessory instead of a drink.  Oh well.  If Coke can drop Diet Vanilla Coke, the best Diet Coke ever, they can easily lose Tab Energy.

Too bad really, because I could easily see making this my energy drink.  Super low calorie, tastes great, good kick.  I’d happily give up the Diet Mountain Dew for it, and pay more in the process.

Go try it while you have the chance.  🙂

Review: Coke Zero VaniLLa

Blogging is really funny. A lot of people really liked my post on Diet Coke Plus. I think it’s because it turned into somewhat of a rant about how much I loved Diet Coke, and how much I hated Coke for killing my favorite variant, Diet Vanilla Coke.

Well, I found out I wasn’t the only one ranting about Diet Vanilla Coke. In fact, this guy actually wrote a heart-sick letter to the Coca-Cola Company about the cancellation, back in 2005.

Anyway. The same guy wrote a review of Coke Zero VaniLLa. It was hilarious, so I had to get it and try it for myself.

Look, Coke Zero isn’t Diet Coke. It’s not just a branding exercise, the sweetner formulation is a different. Instead of Nutrasweet, Coke Zero uses a blend of Nutrasweet and Ace-K to get a taste that is supposed to be more like regular Coke. In fact, they have a whole ad campaign about this which I think is hilarious. (Since I used to manage a sub-brand of eBay, I find these type of marketing problems really interesting.)

Anyway, back to the new abomination Coke Zero VaniLLa.

I should have known what I was getting into when I saw the two capital-L’s in the title.

Rating: 6. It’s sad, but this is actually worse than Coke Zero. I don’t think I’ll be buying this again, but I would drink it ahead of other variants in a pinch.

I knew it wasn’t going to get higher than an 8, because the Coke Zero base is just such a bad start. But I was surprised to find out it doesn’t taste like vanilla. It only smells like vanilla! It was so bizarre, I had my wife confirm it. Very strange, and it grows annoying to have this wonderful vanilla smell, and then not have any taste to back it up. It just tastes sweet – but a fake sweet. Too much fake sweet. It over-promises and under-delivers. At least Coke Zero under-promises and under-delivers.

Update (6/14/2007):  OK, OK.  I’m upgrading this to a 7.  I’ve had a few more of these now, and I think I’m getting used to it.  Not as bad as the first one.

Coke, just bring back Diet Vanilla Coke already. Own up to your mistake.

So, here is my updated ranking of the Diet Coke universe:

  • Diet Pepsi (1)
  • Diet Coke with Lemon, discontinued (3)
  • Caffeine-Free Diet Coke (4)
  • Diet Cherry Coke (5)
  • Diet Coke with Lime (6)
  • Coke Zero VaniLLa (7)
  • Coke Zero (7)
  • Diet Coke Plus (7)
  • Diet Coke with Splenda (8)
  • Diet Black Cherry Vanilla Coke (8)
  • Diet Coke (10)
  • Diet Vanilla Coke, discontinued (11)

Diet Vanilla Coke forever, man.

Review: Diet Coke Plus

This one might seem a little out of left field for my regular readers. After all, I’ve done movie reviews and book reviews, blog reviews and website reviews. But I haven’t done any soda reviews… until now.

First, a quick disclaimer: I am an unabashed Diet Coke fan & addict. Truly, it’s a sickness. I think I’ve been drinking Diet Coke for at least 20 years, and I truly prefer it to Coke, Pepsi, or pretty much any other soft drink. I appreciate its subtleties – the taste of can vs. bottle vs. fountain. Ice cold vs. cool vs. room temperature vs. warm (yes, there is a time & a place for warm Diet Coke. Almost supernaturally, Diet Coke can hold its fizz for hours and temperatures that render most other soft drinks into warm syrup.)

So, Coca Cola has gone a product extension tear lately, and when I go to DietCoke.com, I find no less than seven varieties of Diet Coke on the market:

  • Diet Coke
  • Caffeine-Free Diet Coke
  • Diet Coke with Splenda
  • Diet Black Cherry Vanilla Coke
  • Diet Coke with Lime
  • Diet Cherry Coke
  • Diet Coke Plus

(Note that Coke Zero is not included, since that’s not under the Diet Coke sub-brand)

Now, let’s talk Diet Coke Plus.

My wife picked up a 12-pack of the new Diet Coke Plus this week, so I’ve tried it out. If you are not familiar with the new drink, the idea is to take the Diet Coke and make it healthier by adding vitamins & minerals. As noted in Carbwire:

According to the nutritional label, Diet Coke Plus includes 25% of the recommended daily allowance of niacin (vitamin B3), vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 as well as 15% of the RDA for magnesium and zinc in each 12-ounce serving. It is sweetened with an aspartame/ACE-K blend that has become the industry norm for just about every diet drink nowadays.

Low-carb blogs have been talking about this for a while… check out this one, for example.

Anyway, fundamentally, if you are going to drink Diet Coke anyway, it might as well have something nutritional added to it. But how does it taste?

Answer: On a scale from 1 being terrible (Diet Pepsi) and 10 being terrific (Diet Coke), I give it a 7. It’s OK, but it’s not Diet Coke.

The problem is their move to sweeten the drink with an Ace-K & Nutrasweet blend. Ace-K is the sweetener that debuted with Pepsi One, and for some reason, it seems like most soft drink companies have decided that this is a superior sweetner. Not in my book.

One of the great things about Diet Coke is that they specifically do not try to make it as sweet as normal soda, but with artificial sweetener. Instead, they just dial down the sweetness altogether.

Diet Coke Plus tastes like Pepsi One. Not terrible, but I’m not sure the relatively tepid health benefits of adding a B-vitamin complex, magnesium and zinc is worth it.
Still is coke, so maybe is not that healthy to use it as an everyday drink, unless you want to use one of the Top 9 Best Wrist Blood Pressure Monitors For 2017, but maybe the diet part helps a little.

Anyway, it’s worth trying.

Since I’m on the subject, I’ll just take a moment to post a desperate plea to the Coca-Cola Company to re-instate Diet Vanilla Coke as a shipping product. This was the single best product extension ever, and I genuinely preferred it to Diet Coke. (Yes, this means on my scale, it went to 11.) It never got significant distribution, however, and they cancelled it after only a couple years on the market. Instead, we now have to live with Diet Black Cherry Vanilla Coke, which is OK (It’s an 8 on my scale), but just not the same.

Here’s to you, Diet Vanilla Coke:

Here is my complete grading scale, for all versions of Diet Coke, and a few related drinks:

  • Diet Coke (10)
  • Diet Pepsi (1)
  • Caffeine-Free Diet Coke (4)
  • Diet Coke with Splenda (7)
  • Diet Coke with Lime (6)
  • Diet Coke with Lemon, discontinued (3)
  • Diet Coke Plus (7)
  • Coke Zero (7)
  • Diet Cherry Coke (5)
  • Diet Black Cherry Vanilla Coke (8)
  • Diet Vanilla Coke, discontinued (11)