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.