Coke adds contactless tech to Freestyle machines to meet COVID-19 challenges

Brief:

  • Coca-Cola is adding contactless mobile technology to its Freestyle soda fountains to address consumer concerns around contracting the new coronavirus, according to a news release.
  • Freestyle machines’ digital screens will display a QR code that can be scanned with a smartphone to open a selection of drinks for users to choose from. The interaction does not require downloading an app, though Freestyle app users can also access the functionality and apply it to pouring pre-saved drink mixes, Coke said.
  • Coke plans to have the contactless software available in 10,000 Freestyle machines by the end of summer, and all machines by the end of the year, per the release. Coke operates roughly 52,000 Freestyle machines in the U.S., Business Insider reported.

Insight:

While not strictly marketing-related, Coke’s integration of contactless technology into its self-service soda fountains shows how mobile innovation is playing a role for brands as they look to address pandemic-related consumer anxieties.

Freestyle machines are offered at restaurants and entertainment venues that are among the categories hardest-hit by the pandemic, and represent the type of high-touch surfaces many people are looking to avoid for fear of contracting the virus. In the race to develop new safeguards that allay such concerns, contactless solutions — which for years struggled to take off meaningfully in the U.S. — are seeing increased consumer adoption and investments.

Whether the interest will stick around after the pandemic passes is an open question, but companies like Coke have the chance to lay a stronger foundation with the technology now, when demand is high, and as contactless solutions could play a crucial role in helping restaurant partners convince customers to come back into stores.

“We’re excited to get these in market, see how consumers engage with them and adjust accordingly,” Chris Hellmann, vice president and general manager of Coca-Cola Freestyle, said in a press statement around the news. “The technology and resource investments we’ve made have enabled us to be nimble and innovate quickly, proactively and with scale.”

Coke started developing the mobile web-based experience for Freestyle just over a week after coronavirus lockdowns went into effect in the U.S., the announcement said. The QR-code powered activation was piloted in the soft drink giant’s hometown of Atlanta with restaurant partners Wendy’s, Five Guys and Firehouse Subs. In not forcing customers to download an app, the offering is focused on ease of use, though Hellmann told Business Insider he remains unsure of how much people will actually engage with it.

With its spotlight on digital and mobile tech, the Freestyle upgrade mirrors other investments Coke has made in response to the coronavirus. While the company froze its marketing in the early days of the pandemic, it has recently restarted some spending, but pivoted focus to areas like livestreaming, which are experiencing a boom among stuck-at-home consumers. In May, the soda maker signed on as the exclusive launch partner of BeApp, a platform that features gamified and social media elements as part of the virtual concert-viewing experience.

Coke is also patenting the development of a touchless solution for legacy soda fountains that relies on sensor-enabled levers, according to the announcement Monday. The rollout of the new Freestyle tech comes as coronavirus cases are again surging, leading some states that had eased or lifted restrictions to reinstate some lockdown orders, including for bars and restaurants.

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