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4/28/2011
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PepsiCo Debuts Social Vending Machine

The beverage giant sees a new way to connect with customers.

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Social, the buzzword of the moment in Silicon Valley, often masquerades as something meaningful, as an index of human connection in the cold space between computers. For companies, social is synonymous with marketing.

Witness PepsiCo's Social Vending System, a network-ready, touch-screen interactive vending machine designed to foster greater connection with PepsiCo brands. Now that it has debuted at the National Automatic Merchandising Association's One Show in Chicago this week, the vending machine awaits testing with strategic partners later this year. If all goes well, the machine will be deployed more widely and will help build PepsiCo brand affinity by connecting current customers with potential future customers.

The machine allows beverage buyers to purchase drinks as gifts and to offer them to friends, or anyone else, in the form of redeemable codes delivered via text messages. The buyer simply enters the recipient's name, mobile number, a personal message, and an optional video message, and then sends the gift code into the ether. The recipient can then obtain the paid-for beverage at his or her convenience.

There's even some thought to privacy. PepsiCo says, "Email addresses and phone numbers are not stored unless expressly permitted by a user." A PepsiCo spokesperson was not immediately available to clarify whether "a user" means "the user who entered the information" or "the user associated with the email address and phone number."

Those bestowing beverages have the option to engage in what PepsiCo is calling "Random Acts of Refreshment," which involves buying drinks for unknown parties that meet certain criteria. PepsiCo suggests, "a consumer could send a symbol of encouragement [to] someone in a city that has experienced challenging weather, or a congratulatory beverage to a student at a university that just won a championship."

It's hard however to imagine what constitutes "challenging weather." The offer of an ice-cold Pepsi seems like too cold a response to a tornado or tsunami. On the other end of the spectrum, presenting a stranger with a Mountain Dew to sustain him through a moderate breeze seems unnecessary.

In any event, expect this feature to be curtailed after activists figure out how to co-opt social gifting for political ends, like messages of incitement offering the local dictator a cool drink to recover from the taxing job of torturing his people. Social marketing is all fun and profit until someone starts sending "Random Acts of Insurrection."

Mikel Durham, Chief Innovation Officer at PepsiCo Foodservice, in a statement describes the system's goal as a way to extend consumers' social networks beyond the confines of their own devices. The Social Vending System also happens to extend corporate marketing beyond the confines of permission-based barriers: PepsiCo no longer has to worry about consumer resentment of unsolicited marketing when consumers solicit each other on the company's behalf. Better still, consumers pay for the delivery of these marketing messages, in the form of text messaging fees imposed by mobile carriers.

The Social Vending System comes with other benefits. Through the use of telemetry, the machines enable the monitoring of inventory, the remote scheduling of supply delivery, and the refreshment of media content as needed.

The project comes from PepsiCo's newly formed Equipment Innovation Group, which aims to make use of new technology to promote the company's brands. Milwaukee-based DCI Marketing and Protagonist, from Venice, Calif., worked to develop the design and UI of the machines. A spokesperson for DCI Marketing declined to comment.

PepsiCo's foray into advanced vending technology follows a similar project from The Coca-Cola Company, the Freestyle drink dispenser, which debuted in 2009. The Freestyle machine provides consumers with access to over 100 different drinks in a form factor that previously only offered eight or so.

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