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At Hartman Group, we've always taken a conservative, "wait and see" approach to technology, innovation and change. Cool gadgets, shopping technology and e-readers are all fine and well, but the important question is what will be the overall impact on the way we work, live, play and eat.

E-readers, for example, have altered the way we consume our media content and text. But the net effect is still largely the same. I recently revisited much of David Foster Wallace's work on a friend's Kindle and the majesty is still there, paper or not.

So it is within this context that we've been sampling Coca-Cola's new Freestyle machine, which is currently in testing phase in several regional marketplaces. The Freestyle is a freestanding beverage dispenser that allows customers in fast food settings to create more than 100 customized beverages by interacting with an (not so) intuitive touch-screen interface.

Want Sprite? Great. Next you are shown a menu with dozens of potential flavor additives. Lemonade Sprite? Cherry Lime Coke? Whatever, the choice is yours.

After several test runs we can say that it really is pretty cool. It falls into alignment with the current customer fascination with customization. And, more importantly, it seems to inject some life into an increasingly tired category in foodservice. While food retail and convenience stores have been offering their customers many dozens of beverage choices, foodservice has always lagged behind. Freestyle closes that gap.

As you might guess it is the kids that are most smitten with this technology. After fiddling with the touchscreen and looking at all of the colorful circles and logos, they're anxious and giddy as they wait to see how their creation tastes. But while the Freestyle will surely be a hit with the kids, one wonders what the reaction will be from those concerned with childhood obesity? The PR piece from Coke notes that there are more than 60 low- to no-calorie drinks. But I suspect the fact that the kids are the ones playing this game, the outcomes will never be in-line with critics. But those are future discussions.

Meanwhile, the challenges.

We pretty quickly realized that "maximum choice" comes with a certain degree of responsibility. There are very good reasons that we outsource most of our clothing design responsibilities to other people. The six of us comprising our highly scientific test panel all managed to make mostly undrinkable concoctions across several visits. Of course, we were test-driving the technology and probably not giving careful thought to our creations. Then again, fast food restaurants are not really conducive environments for creative exploration. In the end, we all decided we'd probably revert to our traditional flavor choices: "Diet Cherry Sprite with lemon was kind of cool, but only for about five minutes..."

The touchscreen interface is clumsy and unintuitive, like most touchscreen interfaces. We kept finding ourselves "stuck" in places we didn't intend to be, which required us to have to start the whole process over, adding additional time.

And this gets us to the most troublesome problem with Coca-Cola's Freestyle technology. Compared to existing fountain drink dispensers, there is only one tap available, which means that a not-insignificant line quickly forms as people tinker around with the machine to build "their own personalized beverage experiences." Imagine standing in line behind a couple of families with kids as each child plays around with a machine full of endless possibilities. In all of our visits there was never a line of less than four people waiting for their customized experience

These challenges can undoubtedly be addressed. It's taken most airline travel sites several revisions to create a decent interface. I suspect the designers working for Coca-Cola are already addressing these issues as of this review.

And an obvious answer to long lines is to simply add more machines, assuming the numbers work out.

Most exciting about Freestyle is that it represents the first wide-scale test of the consumer co-creation platform we've all heard so much about. Every PowerPoint deck or analyst presentation in the past five years always includes a recommendation for consumer co-creation. According to Google, there are 285 academic articles on the topic.

So now we get to see what happens when push comes to shove and consumers get to create their own beverages on what NPD estimates to be 38 million occasions per day.

How this plays out is anyone's guess. And we will be watching closely.

One thing we can say is that this will not be a revolutionary moment in foodservice history. But the higher-ups at Coca-Cola obviously believe otherwise. Their PR brief observes:

"It's an experience no other fountain dispenser provides and represents a major shift in the way consumers interact with restaurants."

This is the fallacy that accompanies the practice of forever focusing on change and revolution at the expense of inertia and stasis.

Since the 1950s, Americans have been driving to fast-food restaurants, ordering their food, paying for their food and then eating their food—be it at the restaurant, in their cars or at home. A complete package of American cultural behavior, of which very little has truly changed.

It used to be more common that we'd order our food from waiters who came to the window of our parked cars—sometimes on roller skates! Now if we want to order our food from a car we talk into a cryptic speaker and arrange our cars in a line as we wait for our food. In the 1950s it was common to request customized soda orders—adding different ingredients or flavors based on our whims. Much of that level of customization has been absent for a while. Now Coca-Cola seems to be bringing it back.

But this is simply not a major shift in the way consumers interact with restaurants. That's like saying that all of those silly informational kiosks that were all the rage in the 1990s would cause a major shift in the way travelers interact with airports. In fact, the only change those kiosks brought about was the frustration we experienced the first few times we tried to use them.

The lesson, once again, is to always evaluate changes, alleged revolutions and new technologies within the larger context of lifestyle and culture. Many may seem important. But the vast majority is simply not.

My new 52-inch Internet-capable plasma television is a pretty darned cool thing. It's much nicer than the TV of my youth: a 19-inch Sylvania with rabbit ears and those click-knob channel changers that sometimes slipped out of alignment. But the overall behavior associated with these TVs has changed very little.

What has changed in all of this was the advent of a co-axial cable infrastructure that completely reconfigured the variety and quality of available content on our TVs. The televisions themselves are simply black boxes we stare at. My new TV is 3D capable—a technology Sony believed would be both "revolutionary" and "game changing."—but I've never bothered using that feature. Apparently most other consumers seem uninterested in the proposition. So much for the 3D revolution.

There is little question that the Internet has fundamentally changed the way we live, shop, work and play. What remains unanswered is how important all of its various "features" will prove to be as we move forward with our lives. Is Amazon.com poised to replace the suburban shopping malls many of us grew up with? That would be a big deal. Alternatively, will Facebook someday be about as relevant as public access television?

Or will it end up being the case that the Internet itself proves to be the only revolutionary, game-changing moment?

I've always found it more than a bit ironic that most of our TV signals and Internet content come to us through coaxial cables strung throughout our neighborhoods. I remember how excited I was when we finally got cable television in 1982. I stood outside and watched the guy at the top of the pole connecting the wires. He smiled and waved back.

Little did I know that I was watching one of the few truly "game changing" moments in 20th century culture.

For better or worse, the Freestyle pales in comparison. Or, as Lloyd Bentsen might proclaim "You sir are no coaxial cable."

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Melissa Abbott
Melissa Abbott, Hartman Group’s Director of Culinary Insights, dishes up the latest in food culture and its impact on the food industry. Hartman Group is a leading consumer culture consultancy and primary research firm utilizing a multidisciplinary approach to understand consumers, identify growth opportunities, re-energize brands, create relevant experiences and fuel strategic thinking.
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