Just as Steve Jobs famously separated a design team from the rest of Apple to create the Macintosh, Coca-Cola’s Chris Dennis employed a similar strategy to revolutionize his company’s drink dispenser business. Dennis led a small team that operated like a startup, separate from the rest of giant Coca-Cola.
“We were a startup for five years, and that let us get around the traditional red tape,” Dennis explained during a keynote conversation at the recent AirWatch Connect conference in Atlanta. “It allowed us to move fast and, the big thing, fail fast. We could make quick decisions, adjust, and move forward.”
The group’s goal was to figure out a way to re-energize Coca-Cola’s enormous fountain drink dispenser business. The soft drink giant has over 70 percent market share of fountain dispensers in North America, but it was seeing a decline in how often customers at restaurants and other locales ordered a drink with their meal.
“There was a gap in what consumers wanted in terms of variety and our traditional offering of six to eight different drinks,” said Dennis, who is now Global Director of Product Management for Coca-Cola.
After years of development and testing, the result was Coca-Cola Freestyle, a kind of drink factory in a touchscreen box that lets customers choose from over 170 brands of beverages. Forbes named it one of two “Coolest products of the decade” (the other was the iPhone) in 2011. Freestyle’s impact was readily apparent as stores, movie theaters, and other outlets using it saw an uptick in drink orders almost immediately.
AirWatch Brings New Capabilities
While Freestyle has been on the market for several years, it’s been able to deploy a number of new features and operate more efficiently thanks to a partnership with AirWatch, which VMware acquired in 2014.
When Dennis and his team started developing Freestyle in 2007, reliable wireless connectivity didn’t exist.
“We took the obstacles of technology at the time and said, ‘connectivity is going to be there, the software is going to be there,'” Dennis recalled. “We worked with a couple of partners to build out a wireless network to actually integrate dispensers with our backend systems to roll it out the way we needed to for it to be successful.”
And while that system worked well for several years, it had several limitations. For example, any updates to the machine, like pushing out a new brand or a holiday promotion, required transmission of a new software release and time-consuming regression testing. “It can be very challenging,” says Dennis.
“We needed to be more dynamic because our customers were demanding more from their outlets,” he added. Enter AirWatch. Dennis says Coca-Cola has migrated most of the company’s 30,000+ dispensers in North America from the “old technology” to AirWatch, making updates and promotions vastly simpler. Instead of pushing out 80 megabyte files for a time-consuming software update, AirWatch only requires a small executable and config file be sent.
Dennis says it’s also given Coca-Cola the ability to be more “customer demand driven” and to create new products quickly. For example, Coca-Cola was able to create promotional drinks for the new Jurassic World movie for the AMC theater chain. “Now we’re seeing more demand for promotional beverages; it’s more of a customer pull,” says Dennis.
Also, AirWatch gives Coca-Cola visibility into how the dispensers are performing, when they might need maintenance, and refills on products. One of the many innovations in Freestyle’s design is that the dispenser no longer requires 5-gallon boxes of syrups. Instead it uses cartridges filled with various flavors, much like multi-cartridge printers provide different colors of ink. Then it uses micro-dosing technology from the medical industry to dispense precise amounts of flavors that customers can mix on demand.
Because AirWatch helps Coca-Cola keep track of what customers are choosing, it now has a big data repository of flavor choices to analyze. The company has already used that data to create a new flavor, Coke Cherry Vanilla, after it noticed many customers were mixing Cherry and Vanilla Coke.
Dennis is also pleased he can integrate AirWatch with other software the company depends on, namely SAP and Salesforce.com, to create unique profiles for each dispenser.
“We can get to the point by the first quarter of next year to where every dispenser in the field could be different if we wanted them to be,” said Dennis.
That innovation—and working with partners like AirWatch to deploy cutting edge technology that enables customer choice—figures to keep Coca-Cola well-positioned to maintain its lead in the soft drink industry.
For a fascinating look at the genesis of Freestlye, and to gain insight directly from Coca-Cola’s global director of product management, watch Chris Dennis’s Keynote Session at Airwatch Connect Atlanta 2015.