– 10 April 2013


Back in the ancient history of the internet (we’re talking 1982 here), four students at Carnegie Mellon University designed the first ‘internet appliance’ – an internet-accessible vending machine. The story goes that these computer science students were working quite far from the departmental cold-drink vending machine, and would have to deal with frustration and disappointment when, having made the trek across the campus to get a cold beverage, they would find either an empty machine or one that was filled with warm drinks.

So the people others would say were ‘geeks’, but whom I’d call pure genius, got together and hacked a solution. They installed sensors in the vending machine that interfaced with their departmental mainframe, a DEC PDP-10. From then on, these four students could be anywhere in the world and by merely using a program called Finger they could to get the vending machine to tell them exactly how many drinks were available, and how cold they were. To appreciate the marvel of this, we’re talking a time when most people had faxes.

The very first internet-accessible vending machine spawned many successors, making it—in effect—the first ‘internet meme’: vending machines in campuses across America, coffee pots being watched by webcams, a toilet being watched by a webcam (a gag – this was just a single pic, so nobody’s privacy was invaded) . Oh, the fun that was had in the days of the Arpanet (aka the pre-Internet).

Well, times have moved on and the internet has changed. Now we have Twitter. And yes, vending machines have evolved too: they have LED displays, soft lighting and wonderful clear-glass fronts, so we can watch the robot arm as it reaches up to the correct place and collects our desired beverage (or snack) for us.

In our modern era, we also have clever marketers who don’t miss a trick, like BOS’ digital agency Cow Africa, who were asked to come up with an original marketing tool to persuade people to try the product out.

According to Cow Africa, “Our job was to come up with an innovative sampling mechanic that would put BOS Ice Tea a step ahead of the crowd and introduce it to the rest of the world. We wanted to link the real life experience of tasting BOS Ice Tea into something that is immediately share-able via people’s social networks.”

In the old days, to get people sampling would have involved sexy girls in skimpy outfits handing out free samples, but why get a human to do what a robot can do, only better? Cow Africa, together with designers Marc Nicholson and LyallSprong from Thingking, got their hands on a Bevmax 4-45 vending machine – very shiny-shiny – and tricked it out with microphones, cameras, screens, LED lights and speakers. UK-based social media agency, RAAK, was called upon to develop software that would achieve full Twitter integration.

The resulting robot was renamed ‘Bev’, and she was introduced to the public for the first time at the 2012 Design Indaba. Bev was an instant hit with consumers. Some jumped for joy and some squealed with delight when their tweet triggered the machine.

The overall design keeps with BOS’ unique African-flavoured brand, mashing in a sort of 8-bit digital robot vibe that works surprisingly well. BEV ‘knows’ through geo-location services if the Tweeter is in front to the machine or not, and screens display what is going on inside, while the LED display counts down the seconds until your cold iced tea is delivered. A robotic voice says, “Enjoy your drink… human,” – which seems to delight young and old alike.

The campaign spread quickly through social media across the globe and was featured on the BBC, Forbes and AFP, amongst others. Best of all, it was featured on Google’s Creative Sandbox, which describes itself as “A showcase of marketing campaigns that blend creative genius with digital innovation.” High praise indeed! Coverage also appeared in France, Italy, Spain, China and India, and Cow Africa received calls from a number of brands who wanted tweet-activated vending machines of their own.

So if you haven’t met Bev before and you’re in Cape Town between now and Friday 22 June, visit her at Wembley Square, where you can tweet in exchange for a free BOS Ice Tea. Not in Cape Town? Well, have a peak at the Bos infographic created by Cow, marvel at how smart the brand and its agency are, and then go and get yourself a nice, long, drink of cold tea.

bos ice tea