Update 11/8/11: A BevReview reader provided us with the following photo of a Pepsi Fusion machine installation at a Quiznos restaurant:
According to the reader, "Pepsi Fusion was at my local Quiznos about 1.5-2 years ago until a few months ago when it was removed."
Original Story 9/1/11: Earlier this week, John Sicher of the industry publication Beverage Digest teased that "Pepsi recently tested fountain equipment designed to compete with Coke's Freestyle."
For those not familiar, Coca-Cola's Freestyle is a type of beverage dispensing machine that custom mixes drinks using a series of cartridges, allowing it to serve up 100+ different beverages, all ordered from a touchscreen interface.
We spent a lot of time last year learning about how the machine worked at the National Restaurant Association show.
Video: Coke Freestyle at NRA 2010 Show
While it originally was hard to find in various markets, Coke has stepped up the rollout of these machines, and according to the official Coca-Cola Freestyle Facebook Page, is currently in 1000+ locations.
Overall, it's a clever concept to mix-and-match flavors from established brands, and Coke sure does have a lot of them! The big appeal, I believe, is creating drink flavors that don't currently exist in the mainstream marketplace. For example, I remember trying out a Grape Vault not too long ago. You'll never see that flavor on the shelves!
The one challenge I would see with the Freestyle concept is that it's a very niche device, not really designed for quick service. The touchscreen interface is clever, but not designed for speed.
One hopes that as Coke further perfects the technology, we'll see a device that can better handle a large audience over a short period of time (i.e. sitting in your local McDonalds).
Is it any surprise, then, given the buzz that the Coke Freestyle has been generating that Pepsi would want a piece of that action as well? During the 2011 NRA Show, I got to spend some time with Pepsi's own new vending concept, the Social Vending Machine, but it focuses more on friends and relationships vs. actually revolutionizing the beverage flavor experience.
Sources pointed us to an obscure Facebook Page called "Pepsi Fusion Machine only 3 in the country, only at Culvers and I tried it." Granted, we're talking a Facebook source here, but just to play along, the "About" information reads as follows: "Ever dreamed of having a drink with almost any flavor. How about a pepsi, seira mist [sic], amp, brisk tea or lemonade, with the flavor of lemonade, lime, grape, orange, cherry, strawberry, raspberry, and wild berry." Well, it was a starting point, I guess.
Exploring filings with the US Patent and Trademark Office, there actually is a trademark filed from PepsiCo for the name "Pepsi Fusion" (#77897923), falling under the classification of "Refrigerated beverage dispensing units" (the exact same classification as Coke's Freestyle, by the way). Coke applied for their trademark on the "Coca-Cola Freestyle" name (#77897369) on December 18, 2009, while Pepsi went after "Pepsi Fusion" on December 21, 2009. Pepsi seems to still be working through the registration process, as back in April they applied for an "Extension of Time to File a Statement of Use."
It should be noted that another name to keep an eye on is "Drinkfinity", as Pepsi seems to have some machine and "essences for making non-alcoholic beverages" applications out for that phrase, whatever it is (#77561469, #85156726, #85156728).
Other pieces of online evidence that seem to validate the "Pepsi Fusion" name are Twitter references from what appeared to be a test location, a Culver's restaurant in Downers Grove, IL: "Pepsi Fusion is here! 100+ choices to make your own! You have GOT to check this out!" (January 9, 2010). Unfortunately the image referenced in this tweet is no longer available.
Chicago-based medical fundraising firm GiveForward, Inc. also tweeted regarding the abundance of flavors associated with the Pepsi Fusion machine: "Pretty sure this Pepsi Fusion machine has more possible flavor combinations…" (September 29, 2010)
Additionally, the blog of Wheaton, IL-based band 'Sleeping At Last' noted in a May 27, 2010 posting: "Pepsi Fusion Soda Machines (okay, so you get to choose what brand of soda AND then you can add a flavor to it! what!?!? amazing. grape mountain dew, please)" No doubt that last comment refers to Mountain Dew Pitch Black.
As recently as July 2011, it seemed a Pepsi Fusion machine was spotted at a Quiznos by a Twitter user by the name of Jonathan Butler, who notes Chicago as his location: "Sad day for Quiznos – they got rid of the Pepsi Fusion machine." Based on this social media-oriented evidence, it would seem that Pepsi was conducting some tests on this Fusion concept near the Chicago area starting in 2010 up through this year.
We discussed these reports with the editor of the former Salute to Soda website, Terry Knab, who mentioned that Pepsi has a disadvantage when compared to Coke on the basis that their "flavor roster" is much smaller. Coke has an abundance of brands, both domestic and international, that can easily keep the flavor options on Freestyle fresh. Pepsi's has a significantly smaller amount to work with.
Additionally, it should be noted that when the flavors on the Pepsi Fusion machine were mentioned, you didn't really see Mountain Dew come into play. Everything else was listed. Odd, huh? A niche device such as a Freestyle-type machine could be a great way to test concept flavors as part of a on-location "Dew Labs" installation. That would be one way Pepsi could counterbalance their lack of flavor depth. Another option could be licensing flavors from another company, such as the Dr Pepper Snapple Group. It should be noted that Pepsi currently distributes DPSG's Crush flavors to compensate for their own lack of fruit-flavored beverage options.
So what does this all mean? It could just mean that Pepsi was testing the concept and that's it. Or there might be something in the works. But the initial research conducted by Beverage Digest's find does seem to open the door for a lot of options. It will be interesting to see if anything develops in the coming months!