Food and beverage companies across the CPG space are constantly on the lookout for real-time data they can put to work in developing new products that resonate with consumers. For beverage giant Coca-Cola, its Freestyle has proven to be the holy grail.
The touch-screen beverage dispenser, which was introduced in 2009, is now present in tens of thousands of restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters and other establishments across North America.
There are more than 50,000 Coca-Cola Freestyle dispensers in use today that pour more than 11 million drinks daily, according to Coca-Cola. Each pour from the 32 different brands available generates a treasure trove of valuable data that the Atlanta-based company combs through each day.
Coca-Cola can see what drinks are poured most often, what time of the day they are consumed how it varies by location. In some cases, the data can show an opportunity to bring a popular beverage flavor from the Freestyle machine to the beverage aisle.
“The data really gets us to the heartbeat of what our consumers are really drinking,” Felicia Hale, vice president of equipment strategy for Coca-Cola Freestyle. “We’re able to use that data to help inform some of our innovation strategies in our bottle and can line of business.”
Coca-Cola is very methodical when it comes to bringing a flavor profile from the Freestyle to store shelves, with new offerings making the leap every few years.
Following the Coca-Cola Freestyle’s debut 13 years ago, the beverage giant has brought four creations to bottles or cans, starting in 2017 with Sprite Cherry. Since then, it has also introduced Coke with Cherry Vanilla, Coke with Orange Vanilla and Sprite Strawberry with Lymonade, the latter of which will roll out next spring.
Each of the three launches remains on shelves today, a period of longevity that gives Coca-Cola confidence that when it takes an already popular offering from Freestyle dispenser and packages it, the beverage is going to have a high likelihood of succeeding.
“It’s helped with the innovations that we’ve launched,” Hale said. “Those are still round, those are sustaining SKUs for us.”
Coca-Cola Freestyle acts as a way to not only find and test out ideas but gather data in real time.
The experimentation that occurs with consumers using the device is emblematic of the tendency across the marketplace, especially among younger shoppers, to experiment and try new things. While Coca-Cola moves quickly to bring new innovations it creates to store shelves, the Coca-Cola Freestyle allows the company to do it more quickly, and in a way that is uniquely tailored to each individual consumer.
“We’re finding that when a consumer goes up to our Freestyle, they’re almost looking for what’s new and different,” Hale said. “And that newness and freshness really helps to inform our pipeline and how we think about innovation.”
Charlie Higgs, an associate partner of consumer staples research at Redburn, said while Freestyle is unlikely to ever be a major tool for creating new products, it’s particularly useful for helping Coca-Cola ascertain consumer taste trends.
For example, if the data gathered shows the public is favoring a particular flavor, that information could influence work being done at the company’s R&D labs or to expand the number of SKUs available of an existing offering to meet that demand.
“Freestyle is a slightly underappreciated asset,” Higgs said in an email.
The touch-screen dispenser also offers the company a valuable way for Coca-Cola to grab the consumer at another consumption point. While Coca-Cola Freestyle connects with drinkers in places such as restaurants or theme parks, products launched in cans or bottles inspired by the machine tend to be largely consumed by consumers at home, in the car or even at work.
Hale said as Coca-Cola Freestyle looks for ways to “optimize” its portfolio, new product launches developed from insight collected on the Freestyle will “absolutely” play a key role in that strategy.
“It’s kind of built into our cadence for how we think about innovation,” she said.