How Coca-Cola Makes Life More Bearable During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Coca-Cola recently announced a technology, contactless pouring, that makes it possible for people to choose and pour a drink from a Coke Freestyle fountain machine without needing to touch the display screen. With contactless pouring, consumers choose flavors and pour drinks by using their mobile devices to scan a QR code on the dispenser display. The news generated a few eye-roll responses on social media, including one doubting Thomas who wondered what all the fuss was about:

But I don’t think it matters how innovative or critical the technology is. A contact-free Coke machine is all about making us just a bit more comfortable with life during the COVID-19 pandemic. As I told Adweek, “We’re living in unbelievably stressful times, and if Coca-Cola launches a mobile interactive technology that reduces our stress even a little bit, then more power to Coca-Cola.”

The Freestyle dispensers are usually found in restaurants or workplaces. After their widespread rollout in 2019, they made it more fun for people to select fountain drinks by using a touchscreen to choose from 100+ different Coke products. Part of the joy was exploring all the different flavors in a machine and creating your own custom-flavored beverage (I have always loved combining Fanta Zero Fruit Punch and Peach with Sprite Zero Cherry). But exploring all those flavors also means standing in front of a Freestyle machine and touching a screen, usually multiple times – which has no appeal while the pandemic continues indefinitely. So with people slowly returning to restaurants in fits and starts, Coke created a workaround: just point your phone at the machine and make your favorite mixes without needing to touch a germy screen (and presumably you can have more control over where you stand):

A contact-free Freestyle machine is not going to save the world; touching a surface is not even the primary way the virus is spread, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the customer experience may give us some peace of mind and a sense of normalcy sorely lacking at a time when people’s routines have been altered radically. Life might be upended, but you can still have some of the little routines that are part of your day, such as pouring a drink from a dispenser. As such, contactless pouring addresses one of the troubling impacts of our times: the strain on our mental health caused by COVID-19. 

Consider all the threats to our mental well-being that the pandemic has triggered: the stress of waking up each day knowing that a deadly virus with no vaccine continues to rage; weeks at a stretch lived in lockdown this past spring with the possibility of lockdown returning; parents of children forced to become home schoolers while they hold down their jobs; and millions of people losing their jobs during a recessionary economy. Any of those factors alone would create widespread tension, fear, and anxiety. And we’re enduring all of them and more.  

The stress is taking its toll. In April, nearly half of U.S. adults surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that their mental health had been hurt due to worry and stress over the virus. At the time 72 percent of U.S. adults surveyed by Newsweek said that they would hit a mental “breaking point” by early June if coronavirus stay-at-home orders extended through the start of summer – and we were only weeks into lockdown then. The Lancet summed up where we are now in the dry but still potent language of academia:

COVID-19 has resulted in an increase in known risk factors for mental health problems. Together with unpredictability and uncertainty, lockdown and physical distancing might lead to social isolation, loss of income, loneliness, inactivity, limited access to basic services, increased access to food, alcohol, and online gambling, and decreased family and social support, especially in older and vulnerable people.

And people expect businesses to relieve the strain. More than three quarters of the general population surveyed by Kantar said they would like to see brands talk about how they’re helping people adapt to the new reality of life during COVID-19. Seventy-seven percent would like brands to inform consumers about their efforts to combat COVID-19.

Businesses have responded quickly, sometimes in profound ways, as with Apple and Google collaborating on contact-tracing technology. In the retail and restaurant industries, businesses have focused on making the shopping and dining experiences safer and more comfortable, installing plexiglass shields at check-out lanes, adopting curbside pick-up services, and requiring that shoppers wear masks inside stores. These actions are meaningful on two levels:

  • They could help save lives, especially those regulations requiring that people wear masks.
  • They make us feel more comfortable by giving us a sense of control – thus easing the burden of the life we’re living now,

The contact-less Freestyle machine brings to mind something that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said about the growth of Netflix’s subscribership during lockdown: “Our small contribution in these difficult times is to make home confinement a little more bearable.”

We still have difficult times ahead. Businesses cannot stop the coronavirus. But they can make our lives a little more bearable. And in their humble way, Coke Freestyle machines are doing just that.

Why Kanye West Is Running for President

Kanye West is possibly the most polarizing celebrity alive. He is also a billionaire capitalist, with a clothing line and music to promote. Creating the moment, a tactic Kanye has perfected, serves his business aspirations well. That’s exactly what he was doing July 4 when he tweeted that he is running for president:

Whereupon:

  • Elon Musk tweeted his support.
  • Journalists everywhere, no doubt cranky about interrupting their Independence Day, dutifully covered the announcement. Within a few hours, everyone from The Los Angeles Time to USA Today covered the news.
  • Social media exploded, including speculation that West, who cozied up to Donald Trump in 2019, is trying to siphon the Black vote away from Joe Biden. It was as if Kanye provided a welcome distraction from a somber Independence Day amid a pandemic and social unrest.

In other words, Yeezy did what Yeezy does best: create the moment. It’s a skill he’s mastered for years.

#Kanye2020

This is not the first time Kanye has talked about running for president. In 2015, he announced his #Kanye2020 bid at the 2015 MTV Music Awards, and the reaction was just the same as it is now: social media lit up, and everyone with access to a keyboard (including me) fired off an analysis. At the time, I wondered how Kanye was any different than Trump, as both were (and are) known for their erratic comments and actions. This is what I wrote in 2015:

. . . the media coverage of #Kanye2020, which has put Kanye West on a platform alongside Donald Trump, forces you to ask: why is the white guy with the big mouth a real presidential contender gaining in polls, whereas the black guy with the big mouth is, at best, a farce? When Kanye disrespects Taylor Swift or Beck on TV, he is scorned. When Donald Trump makes disparaging remarks about women, insults Mexican immigrants, and kicks people out of press conferences, his popularity seems to rise. If Kanye were white, might he be treated seriously as a real candidate as Trump is? If Trump were black, where would he be in the polls?

Not much has changed since then, has it? And yet everything has changed. This, after all, is 2020, and anything goes. Trump has demonstrated that the Kanye approach — create one outrageous distraction after another, each one more outrageous than the last — builds loyalty among his core base. So what is Kanye’s rationale to announce a presidential bid, even though he’s missed the filing date to run as an independent in many key states?

First off, it’s useful to view the announcement in context: it’s the latest of many “look at me!” moments dating back many years. Within the past two years alone, Kanye has been all over the map, appearing with Minister Joel Osteen to announce that he’s both the greatest artist who ever lived and a servant of God, wearing a MAGA hat, referring to President Trump as his brother, and, most controversially, referring to slavery as “a choice.” Meanwhile, his business empire has expanded because of the popularity of his Yeezy line of sneakers. His new gospel musical has received mixed-to-lackluster reviews.

What does Kanye want? Is he serious about running for president? This much I know: for Kanye, being outrageous usually means he’s got something else to promote. Unlike Trump, Kanye uses outrage to build visibility even at the risk of alienating his core fans. So what’s Kanye selling these days? Let’s look at the two things he’s most serious about: being respected as an artist and as a business person. As to the latter aspiration, he said in 2015, “One of my dreams was to be the head creative director of the Gap. I’d like to be the Steve Jobs of the Gap.” Well, guess what: he’s just about getting his wish. He just signed a deal to bring his Yeezy line of clothing to the Gap in 2021, and as part of the relationship, he’ll have creative input into the merchandising. His financial stake in the deal is worth about $100 million.

But the Gap is in financial trouble as COVID-19 rages on. Kanye has every reason to promote the deal. And part of promoting the deal is drawing attention to himself. How does he do that? Through the art of outrage, a tactic that has worked well for him in the past. The numbers speak for themselves; Forbes recently announced that he’s officially a billionare, with his Yeezy sneaker line generating $1.3 billion annually in revenue. Kanye needs that Gap deal to work if he’s going to bring Yeezy clothing to the masses through the Gap.

As to Kanye the artist? Check this out: Kanye has new music out, a collaboration with Travis Scott known as “Wash Us in the Blood,” and he has announced a new album coming, “God’s Country.” He also said he will join his longtime Kid Cudi to voice characters in an animated show inspired by their 2018 album Kids See Ghosts. He’s also badly wanted respect for his forays into gospel (read more about that in my post, “Kanye West and Al Green: The Sacred and the Profane”). With music, it’s all about relentless promotion, especially when you’re taking your sound in a different direction, as Kanye has been doing with gospel (traditionally a niche form of music at best and hardly a money maker). When Kanye cozied up to prosperity minister Joel Osteen to raise awareness for Kanye’s gospel in 2019, the two talked seriously about going on tour together in 2020. COVID-19 put an end to that talk. Kanye running for president is Kanye’s solution. He gets the stage all to himself, and he can rely on digital aggressively as the two current candidates are doing.

Now it all makes sense, doesn’t it? Kanye has irons in the fire. And the fire needs stoking. Kanye has created his moment once again.