By Tara Nooteboom
“We’re listening carefully and working to ensure that consumers are firmly at the center of our business so we can continue to grow responsibly,” said Coca-Cola President and Chief Operating Officer James Quincey while discussing the company’s growth strategy earlier this week at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York (CAGNY) conference in Boca Raton, Florida. That’s what we like to hear in IMC and it’s exciting to see the different ways that Coca-Cola is putting this consumer-oriented vision into action. For the most part, it means dedicating more resources to creating healthier beverages as consumers become increasingly wary of the sugar-saturated sodas and drinks that make up a big slice of Coca-Cola’s product offering. Investment in reduced-sugar product development, improved product labeling, and nutrition-conscious marketing will all play a role in giving customers what they want: healthier drinks that still taste like treats. However, Coca-Cola is putting their customer-centric approach to good use in other product innovations, too.
Introducing, Sprite Cherry. Earlier this month, Coca-Cola rolled out the first permanent addition to its sparkling beverage line since 2014. Seasonal and limited-edition flavors have come and gone but Sprite Cherry (and its no-sugar sibling Sprite Cherry Zero) are intended to join the ranks of Coca-Cola’s long-term soda varieties.
What makes this product innovation so special? The product’s development was driven by data extracted from Coke’s Freestyle soda machines. Rolled out almost a decade ago, these big, touch screen soda machines allow customers to mix, match, and add variety to their fountain beverages with the swipe of a finger. Consumers can choose a base-flavor, then add additional flavor shots like lemon, vanilla, raspberry, and of course, cherry. Most of the almost 150 combinations available in the Freestyle machine are not available on the shelf. But the machines have gradually been collecting data on customer use since their debut, keeping tabs on the flavor combinations customers selected most. Sprite Cherry was the clear winner and Coca-Cola will now offer this Sprite flavor in a packaged variety.
The choice to innovate in the Sprite brand also comes as no surprise since the Sprite line has experienced 3.4% retail sales growth where overall Coca-Cola revenues continue to dip.
Bobby Oliver, director of Sprite and citrus brands for Coca-Cola North America has expressed hope that the new product development will not only recruit new consumers to the Sprite line but also excite existing Sprite lovers: “[We] know that fans who love us constantly seek variety…We see this as an opportunity to give them new reasons to drink another Sprite or Sprite Zero.” From an integrated marketing perspective, it’s exciting to see Coca-Cola home in on what customers really want in a creative way, and staying focused on that customer need. Leveraging data from the Freestyle machines to guide product innovation seems likely to be a profitable choice for Coca-Cola moving forward.
Given this, the announcement of Sprite Cherry also throws into light what a stroke of marketing genius the machines really are for Coca-Cola. The benefits are multifold. We didn’t realize is until now but, as described above, they are a “fountain” (pun intended) of authentic customer data. Logging customer product innovations without the stuffiness of a survey or contest, Coca-Cola is able to see not just what customers think they want but what customers actually choose. As the machines grow in availability and popularity, Coca-Cola is attempting to capitalize even further on their marketing potential. They’ve created an app to accompany the machines that allows consumers to log, create, and share their favorite flavor combinations. For the customers, it underscores the sensation of personalization, deepening their connection to Coca-Cola, and it also give the company even more insight into trends around their various product lines. These machines may have been out in the market creating relationships with customers and retailers for almost a decade but I think the best is yet to come in terms of the role they will play in Coca-Cola’s customer-centric vision.
Tara J. Nooteboom is a graduate student in the Integrated Marketing Communications program at Medill. Originally from Southern California, she moved to Chicago in 2010 for her undergraduate studies at University of Chicago and has been in love with the city ever since. She currently lives in the Logan Square neighborhood with her two cats, Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. When she’s not thinking about how to use customer-centric solutions to solve business problems for IMC, Tara is working at her job, developing content for industrial supply company McMaster-Carr. LinkedIn