Is a thirst for Alpha status behind Coke's high-tech talk?

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Everybody's jumping on Coca-Cola Co. for its plan (or non-plan) of coming out with vending machines that automatically increase the price of its soft drinks when the weather turns warmer.

So what's wrong with that? Marketers have long adjusted the price of merchandise based on demand, availability, etc. The latest toy craze costs more than yesterday's hot seller. And, presumably, Coca-Cola could adjust the price of Coke downward if we hit a cold spell (hey, you never know).

Simply put, products are worth more to consumers at certain times, and they're willing to pay the difference. There's not much haggling over a hard-to-get Plymouth Prowler, and marketers can manipulate the price by making the merchandise scarce. That's what Beanie Babies and Pokemon are all about. And how about what the airlines do?

The head of Coca-Cola Co., Douglas Ivester, was quoted as saying that since the desire for a cold drink increases during the summer heat, "it is fair that it should be more expensive. The machine will simply make the process automatic."

For some reason, people objected to Coke's pricing strategy. A couple of days later it was forced to "clarify" the matter. In a statement on its Web site, Coca-Cola denied it would introduce vending machines that raise the price of its soft drinks in hot weather. But it did say it is "exploring innovative technology and communication systems that can actually improve product availability, promotional activity and even offer consumers an interactive experience when they purchase a soft drink from a vending machine."

Translation: We can't afford to put our vending machines in out of the way places, but if we can automatically raise prices to $80 a can when a herd of camels come by we can enhance the availability of our fine products in an economically feasible manner.

My friend Mark Vittert is somewhat skeptical about where this new-found pricing flexibility could lead. He visualizes "the ultimate in scarcity marketing;" VP-disasters ready to punch up the price of products sold through vending machines in areas hit by earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts and other calamities of nature. Mark, God help his depraved soul, even foresees the day when the price of handkerchiefs at funerals will be determined by the mourner's level of grieving.

I, myself, having a much sunnier disposition, only see opportunities for astute marketers. For instance, the makers of Snickers could up the price of their candy if vending machine sensors detected a purchaser's empty and gurgling stomach. Or the people who sell packets of soap at laundromats could adjust the price based on the dirt and stain level of the laundry. "Need" marketing will become the order of the day.

I admit Coca-Cola is riding a thin line between exploitation and ridicule here. And ridicule is by far the more serious problem.

A case in point is Al Gore, on the brink of becoming a buffoon in the eyes of the electorate for trying too hard to project a hipper version of himself. First he takes credit for the Internet. Then he takes credit for inspiring the movie "Love Story." And recently he hires a consultant to transform him from a passive Beta man to an active and virile Alpha man.

Maybe Coca-Cola, after enduring problems with contaminated Coke cans in Europe, wanted to take more direct charge of its somewhat muddied personality by turning itself into an Alpha company on technology's cutting edge. Mr. Ivester bragged about the wireless wizardry of its vending machines to a Brazilian magazine, but back home the variable pricing scheme didn't play very well.

We don't know quite what to make of either Al Gore or Coca-Cola these days, and both the man and the company seem uncertain about how to win our favor. I suggest they start by realizing the New Al Gore won't be any more successful than was the New Coke. If you're a Beta kind of guy, or company, learn to live with it.

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