Remember that kid in your class that always had a "dog-ate-my-homework" excuse when it came time to turn in an assignment? That child most likely did not grow up to become a Coca-Cola employee.
The beverage behemoth didn't grow to represent a 70% share of its industry without plenty of homework along the way. But the company's approach to data gathering regarding its latest product launch, the Coca-Cola Freestyle, takes market research to a new level.
In case you haven’t been to one of the 940 locations sporting one of the new machines, the Coca-Cola Freestyle is, at the most basic level, a vending machine. But unlike every other vending machine out there, the Freestyle offers a personalized experience to every single customer, allowing said customer to choose from 125 flavors. Want more than one flavor? Sure thing — the Freestyle lets you mix and match to create the perfect combination for your palate.
The Freestyle already has its own Facebook page with more than 35,000 “likes” and atrendy website, but Coca-Cola is only just starting a marketing campaign for the new machine. First, the company spent three years gathering information that answers the Sacred Five Questions: who, what, where, when and why?
Who? So far, the machines have made a splash among the fast-food and restaurant industries. In addition to Wendy’s, Burger King, and Five Guys, the Freestyle is set to become a presence in all 437 Firehouse Subs by the end of this year. Regarding actual consumers, the “who” factor seems to be mostly teens and multiculturalists.
What? With more than 100 flavors available, it’s important to know which flavors sell well and which, well, don’t. The beauty of the Freestyle is that it automatically chronicles sales, including combinations that people make.
Where? For now, the Freestyle is an American style, mostly in the South, New England, and California. Expect rapid growth.
When? One of the most telling perks of the machines’ data-collecting system is that marketers not only know what sells, but when it is most popular. For instance, Coca-Cola executives learned that Caffeine-Free Diet Coke sales are at their peak after 3 p.m.
Why? This question is two-fold. First, marketers need to ask why a store manager would want to add a Freestyle to his or her storefront. Second, they need to know why customers purchase beverages from the machines. Market research has answered both questions. Consumer Edge Research reported that 20 percent of consumers said they would be very likely to switch restaurants or convenience stores due to the presence of Freestyle. Firehouse Subs has seen this firsthand: “Even without the benefit of advertising, it hasn’t been unusual for restaurants to see [overall sales] rise 20 percent to 30 percent when they put the machine in,” Firehouse CEO Don Fox told AdAge. And why are consumers so drawn to the machines? Fox has a theory on that, too. “When word gets out, there’s a great curiosity factor, and it really doesn’t seem to recede,” he said.
Armed with this valuable information, Coca-Cola is now ready to launch a substantive marketing campaign for Freestyle. In addition to the already existing online presence, developers are working on a new Facebook and mobile app that will allow people to mix and share favorite concoctions. Digital will be a critical channel for the overall marketing strategy, but standbys like outdoor and radio will be just as important.
Powerhouses like Coca-Cola can afford three-year pilot runs to ensure the success of a product launch, but the little guy can learn a thing or two from the cheap seats. Most secondary information regarding an industry — any industry — is available online for free; the only cost is the time it takes to find it. Once you know industry trends, you’ll be in a better position to create targeted, relevant surveys to gather primary information for your specific business. And while calling individual clients can be expensive (you have to pay the employee making the calls) Surveymonkey.com is a free alternative if you can’t afford the more personal former option.
So what's the lesson here? Regardless of the size of your budget, you can’t afford not to do your homework.