An Ode to Coke Zero

Back when I was in grad school in Washington DC, I wrote a brief blog post about my love for Coca-Cola Zero.  I didn’t get into much detail there, so 9 years later, as I still drink Coke Zero regularly, I wanted to revisit the topic in greater depth.

I wanted to cover it especially before the rumored sunsetting of the Coke Zero branding, which is being replaced (allegedly), with Coca-Cola No Sugar, which will taste more like regular Coke but is otherwise the same except for lacking sodium benzoate.

To establish my cred, I probably drink Coke Zero every day.  It’s a regular staple of my diet.  If people finally discover it contains carcinogens, I’m most likely a dead man.  I’m sure I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on this stuff.  I’ve got my wife hooked onto it.  At Georgetown, several classmates got hooked on it.

History

I don’t know much about the history of Coke Zero, but according to its wiki page, it was created to be primarily targeted towards men, since Diet Coke was seen as a product for women.  It was released in 2005 but was piloted in several different iterations prior to that.  It got an early start with white packaging.

The Taste

Taste of course is the primary reason I love Coke Zero.  Function is crucial.  For someone who doesn’t want to drink just plain water, who doesn’t like seltzer, who doesn’t like tea or coffee (despite British parents who have long since assimilated into American society), but who needs caffeine for 18-20 hour days, who enjoys a sweet drink paired with even the most sophisticated meal, Coke Zero delivers in every way.  In a post HFCS world, where my taste buds are no longer receptive to 20-35g of sugar in a beverage, the artificial sweetener in Coke Zero (aspartame), is a modern solution to a 90’s and naught’s problem.

In short, we have a sugar-free caffeinated sweet all-purpose beverage.  It checks all the boxes.

And yes, Coke Zero on-par with Diet Coke.  At this point, the main differences between the two come down to taste and availability.  Diet Coke is almost always more available than Coke Zero, but I prefer the taste of Coke Zero.  Diet Coke apparently contains more caffeine than both regular Coke and Coke Zero.

The Bottle

The primary vessel for drinking Coke Zero, at least for me, is the legendary 20 fl oz bottle.  According to Coca-Cola’s official chronology, the contoured bottle first came into production in about 1915.  The plastic variant emerged during the rise of plastics in the 90’s, in 1993.

The perks of this perfect design? The contoured design (along with textured bumps) fit the hand naturally, allowing for less slip and more grip.   The design is a disadvantage for packing and space management, since there’s more wasted space in the silhouette than, say, in the aluminum can footprint.  But that’s not my problem.

The cap of a bottle is crucial.  For me being on the go in school, in NYC, popping my Coke Zero bottle in my bag while on a flight or on the subway, the screwable cap means I can save my drink without having to finish it in one go, like I would with a can.  And as my life is primarily sitting in front of a computer writing code, having a cap means that any slip ups I have won’t spill Coke Zero all over my laptop.

The Branding

Regular (Classic) Coke has traditionally had a red background.  Diet Coke took a silver backdrop to denote its lack of sugar.  The Coke Zero line has been predominately black in color.  Coke Life, added recently and using cane sugar (who cares?), is primarily green.  Coke No Sugar appears to still be predominantly black but with a large red element.

Within those primary delineations, sub-flavors will add minor color hints, such as the Cherry Coke Zero adding a cherry image, or Vanilla Coke Zero adding a vanilla-ish yellow-tan color.  In doing some research for this post, I also discovered that in Europe there’s a blood orange variant, Coca-Cola Light Sango, evidently existing because Holland loves Coke:

I have no real opinion on the branding for the products except that colors largely seem to make sense.  I talked about the Coke Zero label in the past blog post being a designer’s worst nightmare, what with awkward kerning and lettering that gradually increased in thickness from fat to thin from left to right to denote fewer calories/carbs.

Coke has since dropped that original amateurish Coke Zero label and brought the design into the main Coke design fold, but with a black background.

My Coke Rewards

For a while in 2016, I figured I might as well take advantage of the number of bottles I was buying and thus take part in the My Coke Rewards program.

Basically Coke developed a web site where you could enter codes off Coke products in order to translate your purchases into reward points, which were eventually redeemable for Coke-themed products, cash/vacation/etc. lotteries, etc.

I was pretty impressed that Coke was able to put together a team which built this online platform and had it working fairly well.  The site was slow to a degree (as is common with leviathan companies which create promo sites) but it worked for the most part, though I’m fairly sure its internals felt like a mid-naughts-era web design stack.

I entered a ton of codes, which meant I had to sit there with bottle caps on my desk and type in all the codes on them.

Obviously this became too laborious and I was pretty much entering sweepstakes with my points anyway, as the platform had little stickiness or payoff.  I eventually stopped using it.

Availability

This is the biggest thing that sticks in my craw when it comes to Coke Zero.

Why is it that pretty much any store I go to, there are shelves and shelves of classic Coke and maybe Diet Coke, but there’s always a sold out shelf of Coke Zero?  If you were selling your product at stores, would you not readjust your inventories to reflect customer preference?  Would you not allocate more shelf space towards Coke Zero and stock less of the other versions of Coke?

This has happened to me at enough different, scattered locations that there is only one explanation:  either Coca-Cola or the stores who sell its products do not see Coke Zero as a viable product outside of being an alternative to classic Coke to capture a specific demographic, or Coca-Cola believes that even its own alternative products (Coke Life, Coke Zero), are threats to the sanctity and bona fide original classic Coke flavor.

I could understand that if, in Coke’s world view, a Coke product became more popular than the flagship classic Coke, then this would spin the company into an identity crisis where it was no longer known for whatever “Coke” means these days as an international brand but instead as a beverage company rotating through easily replaceable drink brands.

Whatever the motive, this often means that I have to plan out at least a small bit about which store I go to, depending on the reliability of that store to stock Coke Zero for me whenever I may want it.

Final Words

For me, Coke Zero is one of those few consumer goods I would legitimately classify as deserving of brand loyalty and fanaticism; it hits the mark in every category.  While we live in an era of unlimited choice, what that often means is we’re forced to make compromises.  But Coke Zero is a legitimate 10 out of 10.

Final Proposal for Redial: Hermes

My Redial class is awesome.  We’ve set up Rackspace servers with Asterisk telephony software and now we’re executing shell/ruby/php scripts through phonecalls which are now interacting with node.js servers to execute web site interfaces, Arduino RC car controls, etc.

I really want to focus on using node.js and socket.io with Asterisk/phonecalls for my final project.  So here’s what I propose:

Hermes

Hermes is an ordering interface for bars and restaurants.  When you sit down and order food, or when you’re standing at the bar trying to get a drink, you dial in with your phone to the establishment’s screen/s to place an order.

Say you sit down at a table and the table either has a built-in screen (like those old Pizza Hut arcade games where you could play Pac-Man using a joystick and buttons underneath the table surface), or it has a monitor or projection on the wall.  It will have a phone number for you to dial.  When you call in, it begins to interact in real-time with you both by voice and with on-screen instructions.  By pressing phone keys, you can place simple orders from simplified menus displayed on-screen.

Multiple people can dial in to the same line at the same table.  The screen will split depending on the number of people, allowing people to tie their orders to their phone number and to order independently of each other.

At the bar, when it’s packed, a projection above the bartender area will have a number to place calls.  The bartender can then cue drinks in the order they’re received in a fair way.  People can auto-order favorites or have drinks set to order every x minutes.  Complex group orders are handled digitally.

Multiple screens can be installed around the establishment so people don’t have to wander too far to place an order.

The screens can also be used for entertainment, as people could play phone trivia or mini-games via their phones, browse the news, change TV/music stations (handled via weak FM signal?), etc.

Why Hermes?

Hermes was recognized as the God of commerce and social interaction, and patron god to diplomats, messengers, and heralds:

Due to his constant mobility, he was considered the god of commerce and social intercourse, the wealth brought in business, especially sudden or unexpected enrichment, travel, roads and crossroads, borders and boundary conditions or transient, the changes from the threshold, agreements and contracts, friendship, hospitality, sexual intercourse, games, data, the draw, good luck, the sacrifices and the sacrificial animals, flocks and shepherds and the fertility of land and cattle. [Wikipedia]

Problems of a Hermes-Less World

  • Ordering food and drink is still a primitive process.  McDonalds has figured out how to move a lot of customers through quickly and efficiently with minimal job training.  But most restaurants and bars suffer from bad image and service because overworked waiters, waitresses, and bartenders can’t keep up with everyone’s needs 100% of the time, particularly when customers are fickle, intentionally hard to please at times, etc.  Streamlining the ordering process so that people can order as much food and drink as they would like, without inconveniencing themselves or waiting for some attention from an employee would increase business and increase consumer satisfaction.  There’s a problem when people discuss strategies to elbow their way into a bar just to maybe get a drink in 15 minutes, 15 minutes spent away from the party they came to attend.

Problems of a Hermes World

Hermes is not without its limitations.

  • Screen readability is limited by the size of the monitor, the customer’s ability to see clearly, the design of the interface, and how much text can be displayed at once.
  • There is also a problem linking orders to phones.  While something like Google Wallet, where one could pay via phone, would be preferable, at this point the phone number would only be an identity link to the customer and his order, and for reaching the customer afterwards for non-payment.  There are most likely large security/spoofing vulnerabilities in this approach unless a credit card number is somehow associated with the phone number.
  • Why would one find that dialing on a phone is a superior interface to asking a person, or using a touchscreen, or even using a custom web-app or mobile site to order?

Benefits

  • Tests with digital ordering systems seem to indicate people will order more food and drink if they can do it quickly, digitally, and without pause.  The systems seem to increase efficiency and overcome social shyness.
  • People strongly and affectionately associate with any actions involving their own phones, so using their phones as an ordering device empowers them.  It also is a potential bridge to have “preferences” that people can set and save with their “account”, linked through their phone number as identity.
  • Digital ordering produces a digital record, which is better for book-keeping and for validation of records in the event of disagreement between employees, customers, and management later.
  • Projections could be expanded upon — when people aren’t ordering food, they could be consuming news, shows, art installations, using Kinect-ish hands-free interfaces, messaging other tables, etc.  There is an exciting potential for linking different tables and screens with each other, via competition, flirting, or just networking or social lubrication.
  • Client interface consists of normal 1-0/*/# phone pad, can work with installed phones or smartphones or even simple cellphones, while all the customized, complex work can be handled server-side

Technology

  • Flowroute number linked to an Asterisk server installed on Rackspace
  • Asterisk dialplan forwarding to a ruby-agi script that sends data to a node.js instance
  • Node.js instance that takes incoming phone commands and passes instructions via socket.io (real-time, no polling) to the client that is installed on the projection/screen
  • jQuery/UI/AJAX/node.js client interface that handles order entry and routing, and can run multiple instances via the node.js cluster module, and can also forward to other instances for video, news, chat, etc. while keeping order entry instance CPU/memory load available just for order entry/processing

Long-Term

  • Tie-in to payment system/gateway?
  • Data saved into MongoDB
  • Employee and management interfaces to see stats on sales, database analysis, modify orders on the fly

Research Links

My Chipotle Theory

Eating out is expensive, especially if you have a few drinks.  The nicer restaurants run even higher in terms of price.  I’ve been able to go to some very nice restaurants for special occasions, but most of the time through grad school, I was eating sandwiches from the school co-op food store for meals.  After living by myself for a while, I still buy most of my meals as I eat them, instead of getting groceries, though I certainly get groceries more than I used to.  Living in DC is not quite like NYC, but I can still scrounge up a meal nearby if I need to.

But these expensive meals.  Yes, they use unique ingredients, and they are well-cooked.  But are they marginally worth the large increase in price?  Is the service so good that one enjoys a meal quantitatively better, as if as respite from a harsh day of mistreatment?  Are there so many people paying for meals on corporate cards/on someone else’s dime that price is meaningless?

I do like to apply the Chipotle Theory to meals, when I go out.  The theory is as such:  am I enjoying this expensive meal, that I had to wait for the kitchen to cook, to deal with waiters and whatnot, more than I would just going to Chipotle and eating a $7 burrito?

Most restaurants can’t come close to equaling the happiness/dollar ratio that Chipotle has.  Granted, some people don’t like Chipotle, and others require Chipotle-Away:

But I love Chipotle.  And only a few places have been able to surpass Chipotle’s deliciousness for me.

It’s a simple test that you can apply to your dining experiences as well.

Come to think of it, maybe we need a new resource that will help us evaluate true economic utility of the goods and services we like to buy.