Design digital experience
at Coca-Cola
Benny Lee

Season 1 / Episode 2

Welcome to the LikeXR podcast season one about the extended reality market from people who really understand the industry. This week we are joined by the Global Manager of Digital Design from Coca-Cola. Benny Lee leads digital design initiatives and 3D capabilities at The Coca-Cola Company. He is a part of the Global Design team. His involvement in projects constantly revolves from industrial designer to 3D generalist. He is obsessed with beautiful and functional concepts, and spends his spare time hiking and tackling a new PR in fitness.

Prior to Coca-Cola, he has designed lifestyle accessories, consumer-facing products, and concept work for featured films.

Benny Lee
Global Manager of Digital Design
Coca-Cola Company
It’s fantastic to see you here. Let’s talk about your work. I’m sure everyone wanted to know what tasks are set for you in Coca-Cola at the position of Global Manager of Digital Design.
— As you already mentioned I’m Global Manager of Digital Design at The Coca-Cola Company. I’m handling most initiatives which include digital capabilities, different aspects of implementations, and exclusions of the global strategies. That also includes product imagery, capability. It’s what you would usually refer to as renders, CGI visuals. I’m a subject-matter expert at such projects and I engage & elevate the consumer experience, interactions between our brands & our products. Other than that, I’m just an initiative responsible for development at the digital market and R&D (research & development) teams internally.

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That’s exciting. Speaking about XR, has your approach to advertisement changed after the advent of immersive technologies such as XR?
— Yes. It makes reality interesting for Coca-Cola. It’s interesting that our product if you look at it is over 130 years. An interesting thing is that it hasn’t really changed in 130 years. When I say I mean the physical product. Today you can get the same Coca-Cola that you did 100 years ago. And were you a millionaire or just a homeless guy if you had a few dollars in your pocket you can get that same Coca-Cola. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Hollywood celebrity or some no-name guy and you’ll still buy that same Coca-Cola. Our physical product hasn’t changed in 130 years but our approach to digital marketing has. What we did is we don’t change products, unlike some companies which make sense for them. They have to evolve and adapt their business models and like Apple with their new iPhone every year or with their computers. It makes sense. We just find different ways to tell our stories based on who the designer or agency is because every new one will see the product differently even if it is the same product. It’s interesting. We just build the product and everything is designed around the product. And everything is designed to figure out different ways to serve the product differently. In India or Asia or America, you’ll be served slightly differently and the stories will be told slightly differently due to the country, the people. But everything will go in any way around the same product.
When we are talking about the new way have you tried to reach an audience using all these technologies is it about a new approach or is it about reaching the audience big companies like Coca-Cola would like to focus on? Because people are very interested in all that new technologies and it’s much easier to reach them out in the places they dwell. What I’d like to know is this about the message, new ways to pack the message, or is it about the audience you’d like to get?
— As I said our product is very much in the physical world and usually people see digital & physical as one entity. But we’d like to mess with the same thing. And there is a term called «Phygital» that is a combination of both. Coca-Cola is a great example of how these two come together and if you find a way to put them together you create a piece of magic in-between. We know that the challenge is how do we take something (not all) with such history like 130 years and try to reach a new audience 5 years ago, currently or it could be millennia. I think we realize our audience has an appetite for something new. They always want to try some innovation. It could be the same thing they’ve been doing in different ways. I think that’s what we’re doing. For example, we have a project called Cobot that is actually a Coca-Cola robot. It’s actually an R&B project. It’s how we can serve differently. We have different touchpoints – different ways of offering products through different channels. There are vending, farm-machine or freestyles the one you see in the restaurants. I’m not sure it’s available in your region yet. But in the US it is the dispenser with over 100+ favors in one dispenser with a touchscreen with Coca-Cola freestyle. It’s a really good turnaround for a number of years. It’s what we serve with and get around with the Coca-Cola robot. So we can set different activations, events, etc.
Your already mentioned Coca-Cola uses XR and robotic. Maybe you know some more new technologies Coca-Cola uses in its work? At work, at advertisement… I’m interested in the usability of new technologies by big brands with great history.
— We’re using them both. For example, at our campus, we have VR for catching cheating employees. It can speak to content; it can be drivers, upgrades. It cuts down the cast, saves the salary if you make a mistake. Actually, if you make a mistake in real life you’ll make a mistake in the VR world. There are different VR applications with mixed reality headset that is closer to hololand. You can project it to your eyes. We have an innovation center where we create actual processes with no physical things and place vendors. Researchers & consumers that come and do tests, place our products and then when they come in they have a look and do a quick study if this stands out among others. In the future, we will project that mixed reality onto a screen and perhaps it can see different signs before they say – look at our products, search Coke Zero – and they can guide you. Those are some examples of our approach. In terms of advertisement and digital marketing strategies we actually have quite a few examples. A few years ago there was Coca-Cola can – a very specific can in China with pop-eye. It had a character that comes out and is based on a specific city or the region because each region or city is made of people who rely on and relate to some landmarks of the city. We hire an agency and free illustrator who creates art for this character and this character completely complies with the city landmarks. This character digitizes into a 3D model to this can it comes out. The latest example – is the Avengers game for we had a partnership with Marvel. We created a similar VR activation when you scan the can and one of the characters (hero character or devils) will come out and we worked together to create this. If we scan a can with Captain America, a shield will pop out with the flag or a bullet. Or a Tanos can where his hand will appear. This is really cool. You should look it out. It goes well in different regions. That’s how we transform digital marketing strategies but the core is that same true Coca-Cola. But it brings a brand new experience. That does well to generations like Tik Tok, YouTube because they want new ways to show teens’ content.

It’s like initial emotion with the audience or the customers because everyone remembers some stories from childhood when we got chips or small things, additional things to core products… and collections. It’s like initial wearies to customers.
— Yes, speaking of collections. I’m not sure if everywhere we recently released first-ever NFT but our auction fetched over half a million. It was interesting going into this digital domain, new open seas. But we want to listen to the consumers. We know they want choices, actions and we’re doing things. But we want to stay authentic to our brands. We’re doing this. So when we launched we made sure that we were separating a good cast. And just a perfect location this last summer is the International Friendship Day when we wanted to do a gift-pack giving it back to the community and people. We chose a long-time partner and we donated our proceeds from the auctions to them. We wanted to stay relevant though it’s just another NFT. We chose gaming coaching as a reference to do an NFT. If you’re a gamer you know the concept of a good box like a treasure box. It could be anything in any kind of game like Fortnite. When you get the loot box it cannot just burn away and it changes into four different NFTs. And this NFT is like a spirit of that. These NFTs include the cooler (Coca-Cola special cooler), a sound visualizer of when Coca-Cola opening & drinking, actual friendship cards. There is a Coca-Cola friendship card that we actually passed around back in the days during WWII. So we digitized and reimagined that asset and you get a friendship card. I think of that as baseball card collectibles and Pokemon cards. The last one that was really cool is an actual wearable jacket you can actually use your avatar in NFT world to wear that as one of a kind. That’s really cool and that’s some of the stuff you can stay relevant continuously.
Do you believe that NFT could be a direction where big brands like Coca-Cola can play some long-term games not a short-termed one?
— Definitely. NFTs are one of our steps. We’re not saying we continue to do NFTs but it’s pretty relevant in the age of cryptos and in all this digitized format. It makes sense for us to do that. But we do not just do for the sake of doing to stay relevant. We also make sure there’s a proper cause. So international friendship was great to celebrate the friendship where we had actual special friends, special updates. It’s not about making money so we don’t lead our proceeds tying our story again. The process of doing that thing is we had this template where we can reuse & repeat for the future whichever that forming maybe in the future could be a Tik Tok themes.
We talked a little bit about history, past, present and let’s talk about the future. Mark Zuckerberg announced that the next stage of Facebook development will be the creation of a Metaverse. How can Coca-Cola’s digital strategy change with the advent of a Metaverse?
— I can tell what we’re doing in VR in that way like NFT or Coca-Cola jacket. In the creation of Metaverse, they are creating something like Facebook Horizon – a virtual world within the Oculus platform, Quest 1 or Quest 2. I know and have taken a look. It is interesting just like anything else content-driven, imagined. Like Uber… They don’t own any vehicles but they are the largest in transportation services. So as Facebook in any other content is largest in content-creation. YouTube is the same thing that is driven by users. I think it’s hard to see what the future is going to be like just yet but I had a look… It’s a good format in the next few years that can be really crucial. They’ll choose an adoptable platform but in the general overview of Metaverse, I can’t say they got those spaces yet.
Can you remember when you first met XR? Maybe some cases. Where and how it was?
— As for my first experience, it comes formally close to the Virtual Boy. And you remember that. Nintendo back in the days had those two successful tools but it was super groundbreaking to people. Virtual Boy was really interesting. Other than that, there were those 3-D glasses and that was the origin of 3D glasses that are today like a VR and subsequently an AR which is kind of mixed. I think that you know that story where blue & red you put on the glasses they pop at you and you eventually took ‘em to the cinema even though they were quite adaptable in my opinion. What was interesting is that it was a better niche back then. Not a lot of people were adapted to it. It was a great concept. There were lots of factors like some people really used that kind of visuals and got sick, emotionally sick. The same with VR, too. I remember when I got the first VR I tried it was probably Oculus (prototype Rift – the first Dev Kit). I felt fine. I remember reading about the framerate that is just different people perceived. I think that we started with this fragile small idea but I think that it mustn’t be mass adoption. It should be as long as it will be enough for people to grab a hole and keep it reading. If you get that one first is that how we got today. If you look back all it’s kind of iteration of something in the past. If you look at VR today and if you look back there’s probably something else we have attempted… VR gaming or not VR gaming but before it there’s whole 3D gaming. And then before 3D glass, there’s probably a 3-story block and before this, there’s something else. As you move more and backtrack a little they started with something so fragile, something that failed many times. I can admit that Coca-Cola had many products that were a learning lesson. We tried it back in the days in the 1980s with the New Coke. It was a good try with marketing and we released it. We were really used to different sides of Coke. But it was all a learning lesson and every company goes through all this experience but if you’ll hold on to something big – it could be a generation or next generation.
Tell us about the most amazing XR case or project of Coca-Cola that the world didn’t see - a prototype or something like that maybe from the past when everybody talked about that but it didn’t reveal.
— Can’t tell about the future just yet but as for things in the past, I’ve mentioned Marvel with their Avengers… And with different advertisements, we explored different assets when you scan it and it turns into different forms or something else that needs activation and different experience. On top of that, there are also things that you scan on a can, packaging, things that can embed. There are a lot of things we can look into but in the past, if this relates to VR & AR I would say that it’s a bit restricted and actually is very exciting because it finally gone to the mass adoption turning point. The way I see it is the mass adoption radius is not that gradual & slow. I think it points up until it hits the tipping point and then everyone adapts to it. I know that it’ll be huge adoption of VR because of the pandemic and everyone staying home. It’s going to be similar with Coca-Cola as we start discovering things and keep eye on them. At some point, we’ll realize there’s an audience with the appetite to complete mass adoption. Maybe in a few years, we’ll have an AR experience reserved for special occasions – holidays, movies. Everyone can have their own story to tell – where are you from, the gate to your region. There’s some experience I can tell about – it’s about FIFA – as you know it’s about different countries that come together in competition. And there’s nice little activation when you scan a can from Argentina and from the USA and then there’s a kind of hidden musical note in Argentinian language songs and one in the US. And somehow you scan both together and get a musical piece as a combination of both. It’s nice and another great way to tell a story.

Talking about XR, what do you think is the biggest obstacle that does not allow XR to grow in particular and in general?
— My experience at the moment is there are more people who are into this technological advancement. I'm pretty open to it but I’m not XR-related. But maybe you know PayPal cash app? In the US there is a cash app that IDK how it is available in different regions. It’s actually a PayPal but is simpler when you own a phone, just pop & pay for stuff. My family had to adapt to this technology because you’re putting your money on a phone and your wallet is here now not in a bank… It takes something convincing. If someone convinces you I’m something like – wow, I’m not going back for I’m paying this way by tapping. Just paying 10 USD through swiping is just fine. VR is a little bit similar because of this use case. The biggest obstruction for AR & VR maybe is the restriction mostly to gaming because most gamers are really keen and not like PC gamers that rebuild PCs in a new way. PS or XBOX players know the concept of things, controllers and are open to this kind of technology. If you look at most VR or AR consumers they are very tied to that in the beginning but I’m trying to see a shift – a tipping point. When this shift from gaming to say fitness games and then it’s going to be a meditation & traveling in more something that’s not game-related – a workplace. I think they are exploring different virtual workplaces you can have meetings. As you adapt to this with more purpose it’s going to destroy that obstacle, barrier, entry for people to gain this. That’s the main obstacle for XR but it’s really shifting and going to tip over very soon.
In general, what do you believe more – in AR or VR? Let’s say if it’s versus…
— I have another question back – what do you need it for? What case? What is the context? It’s hard to say if orange is better than apple… It’s really hard to compare in that way. I wouldn’t say I like one over the other but at the same time, I would say it depends on the context. I know Apple is strongly leading towards AR, Facebook is VR. I think I’ll use them both but I’ll be more on the AR side, to be honest. This is because I was very much grounded to the reality. I give augmenting a real physical line with frictional assets and it’s really cool. Let’s say in the world of RoboCop you see how he sees the world, enemies, and things that pop out, his life points. It’s all very cool and I enjoy augmentation. But I think that we’re more after VR these past two years. There is a world for it and it doesn’t have to be Coca-Cola – we could have both. It’s the beauty of AR. If you find a way to combine them both there is some magic you can find between.
In the last episode with Ted from Paramount Pictures we had a very interesting discussion about ethical questions in Metaverse for it is a very social moment. Because Metaverse is a new virtual world with its own rules and he revealed some moments about ethical regulations. But who do you believe should regulate all that is happening in Metaverse – should it do the Creators (Facebook as an example) or should it do some third party who is independent and is involved in this world not directly but officially?
— Well, you’ve seen Ready Player One and you know ‘bout Ready Player Two (I’ve read a book)… All this is very much governed by the Creator in first where you regulate people with people’s voice… Historically speaking, Metaverse is not something that ran by anyone really. The same with other communities, Darknet. It’s really user-driven, it has an upside and downside. In Facebook they try to do the same thing, they want to be non-centralized and not be under one company. It’s all about concern and, personally, I don’t have anything to hide, so when you see a picture of me somewhere it’s ok. Some people know a bit more and I think they prefer that kind of restriction when there is more made by the people for the people. So it’s a bit hard to say which is better but at some point, as you grow big enough and if it is controlled by users in a centralized net you may need to have some form of a rule. For example, I have some friends from Facebook who started with a few hundred or thousand people. And they are just casually letting everybody do their own thing in the group. As you grow big and start to gain people who don’t play nice, they want your profanity, curse, stress other people… What would you do? You’ll implement rules about them or you’ll kick them out of the group? Is this you still do to grow? And as you grow more and more then you’ll have to worry about people who set at people externally. And then you involve police officers, a government that might shut your group down if you don’t get your group under control. What would you do? You’ll start worrying about needing rules, moderators, and people in the police? Otherwise, these people will grow big enough and can again shut down your group. But I don’t want this group to go away! So what would you do? You’ll start putting more to grow big before you’ll know what it becomes? And it becomes an organization. When you grow big you still want to play but you still need to be sure that you have some kind of rules set. You start this way but as you grow big you have to make some hard decisions. Someone has to say something and speak for the rest. And then it somehow becomes not so much made by people for people.
What about self-regulation by communities, people themselves? For in virtual world to be turned off (I mean user if he is out of this universe) is not the same as in real life where you can go to prison. Here it’s easier to do and maybe the community can be obliged by more self-regulation rights or not? What do you think?

— This core is not a messaging app but a community app. There are many communities and each community is self-regulated whether you are a game server or a product. All these smaller communities are not really governed by a bigger one. This core could shut down the community or put it on the side but may let other communities run themselves. It is possible. But at the same time when hindering growth… I guess it depends on the end-go. If you just want to play, have fun, kill then everything is tied to finances. But if you want to make money in business sometimes you have to make some decisions or give up. If you want something you have to give something but if you just want to play & share & enjoy… I think it is totally possible.
What about self-regulation by communities, people themselves? For in virtual world to be turned off (I mean user if he is out of this universe) is not the same as in real life where you can go to prison. Here it’s easier to do and maybe the community can be obliged by more self-regulation rights or not? What do you think?

— This core is not a messaging app but a community app. There are many communities and each community is self-regulated whether you are a game server or a product. All these smaller communities are not really governed by a bigger one. This core could shut down the community or put it on the side but may let other communities run themselves. It is possible. But at the same time when hindering growth… I guess it depends on the end-go. If you just want to play, have fun, kill then everything is tied to finances. But if you want to make money in business sometimes you have to make some decisions or give up. If you want something you have to give something but if you just want to play & share & enjoy… I think it is totally possible.
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