The Genius and Failure of Coca-Cola Freestyle

The Genius and Failure of Coca-Cola FreestyleA 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 …

The Genius and Failure of Coca-Cola FreestyleWhat 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 juice. 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.

image credits: and

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The Genius and Failure of Coca-Cola FreestyleEric Sforza is a Brand Strategist specializing in innovation and business design by using design thinking to extend customer experiences. You can connect with him on Twitter @ericsforza

Eric Sforza




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No Comments

  1. Chris thatcher on January 7, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    Hey, HINT water has no juice added. Just wanted to let you know. Interesting article.

  2. Eric Sforza on January 7, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    Hi Chris, poor wording on my part. I took ‘bottled water with just a hint of natural fruit flavor’ to mean it has a form of juice in it. The HINT website doesn’t list ingredients – do you happen to know what they use as ‘natural flavoring’? Thanks

  3. Tim Kuppler on January 8, 2012 at 8:34 am

    It shows how it’s the great idea and great implementation that must exist for great innovations.

    Feel free to participate in a webinar this Wednesday called iCulture.

  4. Chad Steuerwald on January 10, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    It really sounds like you are a Pepsi fan!..if you know equipment..only so many you think Coke hasn’t test marketed?!..PS!…nice plug for a water!..we have enough!

  5. Joanna Kale on October 31, 2013 at 11:37 am

    Coca Cola Freestyle has terrible service!

  6. Mike Rogers on February 7, 2014 at 10:07 pm

    This machine is a momentum killer, only serves one person at a time including ice. The buttons are vague. I observed one machine in use at a very busy 7-11 last summer and the line was out the door waiting for one person at a time navigate this frustrating machine. Customers were giving up and leaving. Tried to use another machine and it would only give one selection per page and it wasn’t what I or the other frustrated customers wanted. Too much tech for a simple need. And by the way the 7-11 used to have Coke AND Pepsi.

  7. j1boogie3 on February 10, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    How about a Reward cards of sort, that people can carry with there saved preferences on it. and scan it to speed up the process of getting (vanilla Coke, Ginger ale, Dr. Pepper, Root Beer)… my fav!

  8. Robert on April 6, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    These machines are very unsanitary wile waiting to use the machine I watched a young boy that was picking his nose the same finger he used to push the button on the drink machine I did touch the machine with bare finger used napkin then i began to wonder how many people used the bath room and did not wash there hands with the old fountain machine the only thing to touch the machine was the cup . I think this is very unsanitary and someone should do something about it.

  9. B-Mo on April 18, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    I am surprised no one brought up the fact that whatever you choose, your drink will taste horrible. The tubes in the machine leave residue from the other selections….your Coke will have the aftertaste of root beer, diet soda, fruit soda, and everything else in the machine!

    • Mike on April 23, 2014 at 9:01 am

      Not really. You can test this out by getting something dark like root beer and then getting something clear such as water. there is not a hint of color in the water, therefore no taste whatsoever of the previous drink. Trust me, I’ve tried this out myself thinking exactly how you thought the first time I saw the machine.

  10. Jeff on April 29, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    B-Mo is correct. I will avoid places that have the machine or drink tea. Mike must work for Coke. The worst if you go thru a drive thru they will not bleed off the previous drink and it taste terrible. Bring back the old machines.

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