Coca-Cola Freestyle Changes the AI Game

Coca Cola is stepping up their creativity game and getting serious about digital transformation. To help drive their digital transformation mission, Coke recently hired its first Digital Marketing Officer, David Godsman, who is responsible for overseeing the transformation of customer experience, operations, new business and culture.

As part of the customer experience transformation, Godsman and Coca Cola’s Global Senior Digital Director, Mariano Bosaz, decided it was time to explore the development of a program that would leverage the two components that have been key to the successful digital transformation initiatives Coca-Cola has implemented across other business segments – big data and artificial intelligence. Their quest for AI innovation led them to examine Coca-Cola Freestyle.

Introduced in 2009, Coca-Cola Freestyle is a touchscreen soda fountain that allows consumers to customize their drink choice through access to more than 100 drink choices that consumers can mix and match the flavors of to create their own custom beverage blend. Coca Cola recognized the potential of the Freestyle fountains in realizing that with each flavor creation, tremendous consumer preference insights were being generated. Wanting to tap into the data collection capabilities of the fountains, Coke missioned to develop an artificially intelligent version of the Freestyle machine that would enhance the interactivity of the customer experience while at the same time streaming new layers of customer data back to the company.

The first step Coca Cola took in making the machines artificially intelligent was connecting them to the Cloud by building a retrofit kit compatible with the most popular machines on the market. Once cloud-connected, Coke could then digitally monitor the machines and allow consumers to buy drinks via phone before reaching the machine. Cloud integration was only the first step though. Chambers’ team then set out to create a digital user experience to complement the enhanced vending machines. He worked to make the fountains a true vehicle for digital transformation of customer experience by integrating three key forms of digital engagement: mobile, social and promotions.

Upon connecting the machines to the Cloud to support mobile payment capability, Coca Cola developed the Freestyle app to give this capability a consumer-facing interface. Through the app, the consumer is able to pay for their drink via smartphone and grab it at the fountain nearest them without even touching the machine screen. The features of the app go far beyond smartphone payment though. When a user downloads the app, they are prompted to create an account or sign in with a social media account. Once signed in, all features of the app become available, including a Freestyle machine location finder, a QR code reader, personalized promotions, and of course, the most fun element, the “Create Your Own Mix” feature. The “Create Your Own Mix” feature allows a user to select up to three separate drink selections to customize their beverage with, as well as the the ability to save and even name their “mix.”

Coca-Cola’s big data initiatives were met by connecting users to the app via their social media accounts, thereby gaining company access to consumer data contained within app users’ social accounts that can used for re-targeting efforts and personalized offers. In addition to supporting consumer insights, the app encourages users to share their custom mix creations through social media platforms or via text, empowering them to be brand advocates and engage with the digital Coke community. But this was just the beginning. Coca-Cola took social ten steps further by integrating chatbot messaging. Through the chatbot platform, users can opt for conversations with the “vending bot” via Facebook Messenger or PandoraBots (an AI Web service). Using data gathered through the consumer’s Facebook activity, current location, and tone of conversation, the bot customizes it’s dialect and attitude to each user, creating a direct line of communication with brand. The bots (Internet robots) develop a cognitive understanding of what’s being said in each conversation, promising a unique experience with every interaction and in turn, enabling two-way personalized communication at-scale.

The app also serves as an extension of shopper marketing, notifying the consumer if there is a promotion going on in partnership with the retailer. An example of this is a consumer receiving a promotion for a movie theater nearest them that reads: “Pour two drinks at participating theaters by 10/31 and receive a free movie ticket.” So how does the consumer redeem their mobile-placed drink order? Through QR code capability, the consumer scans the code found on the Freestyle machine with their phone, and the consumer’s selection of custom mixes appear on the Freestyle screen in front of them. The promotions offered in-app aren’t limited to free movie tickets though. Given that Coca-Cola Freestyle offers a portfolio of soda brands, these brands are able to run their own promotions as well. During the month of October, Fanta ran a sweepstakes that allowed users a chance to win a digital download of the movie “The Mummy.” To enter, all users had to do was try one of the Fanta Eerie-sistable mixes or a Fanta drink. Promotions are also supported through the machine’s ability to remotely adjust the prices of products sold via these machines and offer special discounts on products, making it easier to introduce discounts and promotions at a specific location, while automatically sending inventory and sales information back to the company to support post-promotion analysis.

In 2009, it was hard to believe that the creation of the Freestyle machine would bring this much entertainment and ease to buying a drink, but with Coke’s vision of digital transformation through artificial intelligence, it seems that the possibilities of how manufacturers connect with consumers are endless. As consumer goods companies look to reverse declining sales trends, digital innovations that surprise people through experience might be the key to driving long-term revenues.

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