Coca-Cola 'Freestyles' A Smarter Soda Machine

Coca-Cola

The Coca-Cola Company has launched a Twitter and Facebook page to bring awareness to a new soft drink dispenser that relies on radio frequency identification (RFID) technology it has begun to test in the southern California market at a variety of restaurants, such as Carl's Jr., El Pollo Loco, Jack in the Box, and Subway. The smart-machine collects extremely detailed information about drink choices (the dispenser can mix up to 100 different soft drinks) and continually relays it to the company -- the Terminator of vending machines.

While the Facebook fan page has more than 1,000 members since the launch at the end of July, Helen Tarleton, senior communications manager at Coca-Cola, just grabbed the Twitter page, @ccfreestyle, late last week. As of Monday 11:38 PST, Tarleton had only sent a test tweet. "Social media will drive traffic to participating outlets," she says.

Coca-Cola Freestyle, the brand name for the fountain dispenser, dispenses more than 100 beverage brands from one unit. While it took more than four years to plan, the platform's design taps RFID technology from Seattle, Wash.-based Impinj.

Monza tag chips and Indy reader chips provide the core RFID capability for the system. It uses RFID to monitor, track and maintain dispenser operations as well as to provide real-time business analytics about product consumption and preferences.

There are 15 dispensers on the market. The network will include 75 by the end of September, according to Tarleton. "That's when we'll really start to collect data," she says. "Each unit will connect to the Internet and talk back and forth to the main system."

Tarleton says a direct ordering system, Coke Smart, will let customers who use the machine in their store order from an e-commerce site on the Internet. Coca-Cola also can download new recipes direct to the machine.

Freestyle will let Coca-Cola test new drink flavors, such as adding various vitamin combinations to flavored waters and juices. The dispensers contain 30 flavor cartridges tagged with RFID that mix up 100 different drink combinations. Each dispenser unit contains an RFID reader. The dispensers collect data on customer choice. The systems will collect data on sales, which in turn will give marketers information on where to best market specific products.

Brian Garber complains on the Coca-Cola Freestyle Facebook fan page wall that there's "no iced tea on these machines," although he finds the "dispensers pretty nifty." Priya Mapara calls the machine "Amazing!" after going to the Subway location on Golden Lantern in Dana Point, Calif.

Consumers also have begun to video their experience with the Freestyle machines and upload the content to Google's video sharing site, YouTube.

Tarleton believes combining consumer feedback on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter with data from the Freestyle machines will help Coca-Cola provide consumers with more choices. Consumers can find a full list of southern, Calif. locations testing the machine on the company's Facebook page.

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