There are a lot of stories out there today about Coca-Cola’s new Freestyle fountain vending machine that will allow consumers in test markets to mix their own combination of flavors. Apparently, if you want an orange raspberry Sprite, you’ll be able to get one, or 100 other choices at a restaurant in the future.

The company press release talks about customer choice and the ability to configure your own caloried or not, caffeinated or not beverage. But behind this ingenious reverse market testing is a whole bunch of technology, including RFID-enabled “microdosing” flavor dispensers (what kid wouldn’t want to get his hands on one of those), and a private Verizon uplink that runs Microsoft mobile software and loads data into Coke’s Atlanta SAP point of sale and Business Warehouse software.

News of Freestyle actually dates to April, but the company has firmed plans to roll out the machines this summer at fast-food restaurants in the west and south this summer. Four years into the project, there’s enough secrecy involved that Coke is reportedly building the machines in its own plant instead of farming production out as usual.

The data will be reviewed in Coca-Cola’s Innovation Framework for brand support, a combination of collaboration, business intelligence and CA Clarity project management that updates and reviews products, of which Coke already has more than 2,800.

There are some obvious benefits in stocking and replenishing fountain supplies and other cost containment in smaller containers of concentrated concentrate. But Coke is hoping for insight that will help bring new products to market and exploit regional preferences and they are going to have all kinds of consumption data to work with.

Some commentators are already calling this a “redefining” of business intelligence, but I wouldn’t go that far. And they will get some odd data, given that your average kid is likely to push as many buttons as possible to come up with the most grotesque concoction possible. Plus, if I decide I want some apple juice in my Coke Zero, I might regret the choice and have no way to let them know they shouldn’t create such a thing. I do imagine they'll use the machine to make offers for new products and flavors but it's not field testing without feedback.

In that sense it is behavioral and not qualitative but it is a step beyond the kind of point-of-sale data presently gathered in fast food chains and a good example of mass customization at work. Unlike the bottlers who mix, package and deliver Coca-Cola products, Coca-Cola Co. is an innovation and marketing machine that measures regional and global markets closely, but it does need its bottlers to be successful and works closely with them because they are Coke’s primary customers. We don’t know the effect on the bottlers yet; Coke says the first machines will appear in California, Utah and Georgia within a few months.

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