In a video taken in an Istanbul shopping mall, you can see a young couple clearly in love. When they embrace and kiss in front of the Coca-Cola vending machine, the device itself seems to applaud them: It offers up several cold cans to the couple.

This is no ordinary Coke machine — it’s an experiment in innovation. In this case, a Valentine’s Day promotion: If a couple showed their affection in front of a machine, they got free drinks dispensed to them. In South Korea, a Coca-Cola machine displayed dance moves and the more accurately a person followed the moves, the more drinks he or she received. These are just a few examples of the creative technology Coca-Cola has introduced in recent years.

Innovations at Every Level

Today, innovation is a major concern in all areas of life as we learn how to make the most of new technology. Such clever and striking cases as the romantic, robotic machine charm and intrigue us. But they make up only a small portion of Coca-Cola's worldwide effort to innovate with technology. One of the key figures in this movement is Tom Boyle, global vice president of commercial leadership.

“Coca-Cola is applying innovation to every aspect of its business,” he says. “At Coca-Cola, while brands drive the train, we need to fuel the train with innovation around those things that help shoppers reach out and buy our brands. What are the things that would help that? Everything of course: It would be things in sales, in distribution and in merchandising to customers and shoppers.”

Innovation in sales, distribution and merchandising at Coca-Cola runs the gamut from the exotic to the mundane and varies somewhat according to geography. “Seventy percent of our commercial innovation is simple, twist-of-the-wrist ideas that can improve sales,” says Boyle, who joined the company in 2002. “We use the overall 70/20/10 framework so about 20 percent are things ‘new to Coke’ and we strive for 10 percent being ‘new to the world.’"

Behind-the-Scenes Advancements

The romantic Coke machine is attention-getting, but Boyle points out that many major innovations are not visible to shoppers. One example is the global program called RED.

RED stands for Right Execution Daily, which is a process that helps with the critical task of monitoring the mix of products on store shelves all over the planet. Keeping drinks available for shoppers means, for example, tracking how many 1-liter containers of Diet Coke are on store shelves compared to the number of 12-oz. cans. Nothing is more critical to managing supply and building sales than staying on top of what is happening in each store — and now there are new ways to do that.

“The headline of the RED story is that managers can see how well ‘the picture of success’ is being executed every day," Boyle explains. "You check on it and audit it at the store level. Where it isn’t in compliance there is a plan to fix it. And, you can continue to improve it.” RED Image Recognition is an innovation for RED which simply takes a picture to track this picture of success.

In the past, Boyle explains, “We would walk into a store with a handheld computer and painstakingly check the shelves. Today, we take a picture of the drinks on the shelf, which is sent to a server where it gets evaluated, essentially, by artificial-intelligence technology.” The inventory assessment that comes from the photo-recognition technology comes back to personnel at retail to make changes. “It improves accuracy, reduces the time in the store and saves money. Before RED Image Recognition, the process could cost $10 to $100 per store. Now it's $1."

This gets to a key factor of innovation in a company such as Coca-Cola: Technology advances can increase sales and reduce costs. "Simply leveraging this data better and faster allows us to grow our business. If you imagine looking out the window and seeing every potential location we could sell product: in the garden store, in the train station, in the gym and so on. If we offer the right product in every store in the most compelling way, well, that has enormous impact.”

Another example of innovation in sales, distribution and merchandising is augmented reality for placing coolers. In tourist areas of Spain, drink machines are installed for the high season and removed when the cold weather comes.

“When you are in tourist zones that are wildly popular in summer but not in winter, you don't need to keep a cooler there year-round,” says Boyle. So every spring, decisions are made about where to place coolers for the high season. Coca-Cola Spain created an iPad app that allows a salesperson to take a photo of the inside of a customer’s store and, using augmented-reality technology, have an image of the cooler superimposed over it, so the resort owner or other business person can decide what looks great in-store.

“It inspires the store owner, takes out some of the guesswork, and enables choosing locations for coolers more quickly,” explains Boyle.

Creating Better Experiences for Shoppers

Just as with the fun Coca-Cola vending machines, there are many programs around the globe that offer something extra for the shopper.

Scanning a can for music and more. A project in the UK, for example, involves a partnership with Blippar, an augmented reality app for mobile phones. When Coca-Cola introduced a new 250ml slim can, the company created special packaging that worked in conjunction with the app. When a consumer scans a special icon bottle silhouette on the can, an image appears on the phone screen. It looks like the can has come to life, wearing headphones and playing music right in front of the real-life background the person is looking at. By aiming their devices at or “blipping” the can, consumers could access five songs from a list of happy songs for free. The can also displays a link to Coca-Cola’s Spotify Playlists, a collection of music reflecting localities. Coke has been working with Spotify linking songs and places to create a global network of music lovers.

Bringing fan photos to the FIFA World Cup. Another innovation tied to new technology was introduced during the FIFA World Cup. It involved a relationship with Walgreens, a major drugstore chain. The company created special codes, so that when you bought a Coca-Cola at Walgreens, the code could be scanned to get free photo prints at the store. Some of those prints, explains Boyle, became part of a giant photo flag, called the Happiness Flag, which was rolled out onto the pitch at the FIFA World Cup.

These are just a sampling of ways Coke is innovating in sales, distribution and merchandising. Of course, such moments have marketing value but they also represent innovation at its most human and most emotional. Innovations grow out of our relationship with the newest technology, but at best they touch the oldest magic.