A wise old direct marketer once told me, “Never carry a product with colors and sizes.” The root of this advice, of course, is the complexity and inventory that comes with those product characteristics. A single product can morph into dozens of individual SKUs. Soft drink makers have a little of the same problem. Introduce a product, and some people will want a diet version of it. Some consumers may want it with caffeine, others without. Some prefer cans, other various sizes of bottles. Somewhere in Coke headquarters in Atlanta, there’s an accountant who groans every time a product manager comes up with a new idea, like “Caribbean Coke, with natural pineapple and coconut flavors.” (I just made that up. And remember, you saw it here first.)

Coca-Cola has found one way to solve the product proliferation problem and conduct real-time market research too, by introducing Coca-Cola Freestyle:

Developed on the assumption that there’s no such thing as too much choice, Coca-Cola Freestyle is a new self-serve soda fountain that can dispense up to 100 different drink flavours. The machine is being tested this summer at fastfood restaurants in California and Atlanta, with the intention of rolling out units across the US early next year.

Flavoured teas, waters, juices and soft drinks will all be available from Coca-Cola Freestyle, letting customers select drinks based on brand, calorie content or caffeine levels, all through the system’s touchscreen interface. [From Springwise.com – 100 Flavours in new Coca-Cola soda machine.]

I think the really interesting aspect of this new machine is its potential for collecting real market data for various product combinations. Simply asking consumers what flavors they might enjoy would be extremely unreliable, and even taste test data may not accurately predict long-term market success. (Just ask Pepsi!) The Freestyle machines, though, can both encourage experimentation by consumers, and, over the long run, show which flavors have the staying power to succeed in the market. Regional differences can be explored as well.

Ultimately, I think we’ll see some new national or even regional soft drink products come from the data generated by the Freestyle machines. And the dispensers may well be successful in their own right – I can continue to mix up my Caribbean Coke (extra caffeine, please!), even if nobody else particularly cares for it.

(Thanks to Gennefer Snowfield for tweeting about this.)