Coke taps high-tech fountain data for new flavor

Next time you pour yourself a drink from a self-service soda fountain at a movie theater or burger joint, you might be casting a vote for the next new Coca-Cola drink.

The Atlanta beverage giant plans to introduce two new soda flavors early next year — Sprite Cherry and Sprite Cherry Zero — after that flavor combo turned out to be one of the most popular options among customers using its Freestyle soda fountains, which allow people to make mix-and-match drink flavors.

The machines keep track of the flavors people pick and forward the data digitally to Coca-Cola, creating a treasure trove of market research for the company.

“We’re always looking for new innovations,” Coca-Cola spokesman Scott Leith said. He said the Sprite-plus-cherry combo was a hit among people using Freestyle fountains, which offer more than 150 flavors.

“This is like a super fountain machine,” said Leith. He declined to list other most-popular combinations.

The company started installing Freestyle fountains in restaurants, theaters, convenience stores and other locations in 2009, and has since deployed 40,000 in North America.

They dispense about 14 million drinks a day — only a tiny sip for Coke, which sells more than 1.9 billion servings around the globe each day. But it’s still a lot of data.

Sprite Cherry and its no-cal version will be the first official new sodas born from that data. Coca-Cola also said they are the first new products added to its core fizzy drink line in North America since it launched Coke Life — a low calorie Coca-Cola variant with natural sweeteners — in 2014.

Coke has grappled with declining consumption of soda in North America amid changing preferences and health concerns.

Most of its growth has been in non-carbonated beverages based on a virtual grocery store full of ingredients: milk, green tea, coffee, coconut water, aloe vera and other flavors.

Last month, Coca-Cola and Dunkin’ Donuts said they are jointly launching a bottled cold coffee drink aimed at competing with Starbucks’ and PepsiCo’s popular Frappuccino brand.

Coke announced Sprite Cherry and a half dozen new tea and coffee beverages at the 2016 NACS Show, a massive trade show for convenience store operators held last week in Atlanta.