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What is Gym Coca-Cola?  Why would a beverage company embark on a new strategy in a new industry?  And how could a company known for producing high-calorie beverages compete in a market for the mindshare of health-conscious consumers?  After all, isn't "Gym Coca-Cola" an oxymoron?  Maybe it doesn't have to be.  Here’s how the CEO might introduce the project to the world:

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by Brendan Steidle



It is what it sounds like: an interactive gym unlike any gym you’ve ever been to, incorporating some of the most innovative thinking in exercise today.  In this gym you won’t find weights and dumbbells, you’ll find an interactive experience that takes a page from real-world game designers to trick you into healthy exercise by making it as fun as a trip to Disneyland—blending the allure of the amusement or theme park with the compulsiveness of the best video games to get you on your feet and actively thinking.  

This gym doesn’t try to build muscle—it builds your mind and body and makes you want to move again.  I’ll tell you from personal experience, it’s like being a kid again.  In a moment I’m going to introduce onstage a few of our designers who are creating this revolutionary gym experience, but before I do so I’m going to spoil the reveal at the end by telling you the top five things you need to know about this gym: 

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Why a Gym?

In today’s world, gym memberships are expensive in their own right, but just because something is expensive doesn’t mean that you have to pay for it.  The idea of subsidizing a gym through the sale of beverages isn’t as crazy as it sounds.  In fact, this business model has been in operation for centuries, not in the area of fitness, but another area of recreation: alcohol consumption.  

The service provided by the bar is more of a social environment, rather than simply being a place where you purchase beer.  If you wanted to buy beer you could buy it cheaper elsewhere; so you’re paying—through the beer— you’re paying for the ‘rental’ of the premises so you can hang out there and meet people.  That, in theory, is what a bar or club is all about; they charge rental fees through their beverage margins.”  - Horace Dediu, The Critical Path #68 

The Coca-Cola gym would exist using a similar business model — with the exception that the gym isn’t dependent on selling Coca-Cola beverages on the premises.  Instead, the costs of the gym would be paid for by the price of all Coca-Cola products sold worldwide.  The business theory is that you will be able to sell more beverages—or sell the beverages at a greater premium—if the buyer receives not just a product, but a unique service with that sale.  Coca-Cola is no stranger to the idea of offering free services to promote their paid beverages.  In a recent promotion in Brazil, the company installed “soda” machines that dispensed 20 MB of free mobile data credits to consumers who had downloaded a special app on their phone.  The machines were adorned with the phrase: Refil de Feliciadade — Refill Happiness.   In this case, that happiness would come in the form of a unique service: exclusive access to Gym Coca-Cola  Here’s how that gym might be designed: 


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The Design

Following the presentation by the Coca-Cola CEO, the lead designer of the gym steps onto the stage and introduces the concept:  



Why do people go to the gym?  That’s where you have to begin—because when you understand the why, you’ll understand what it is we tried to do with Gym Coca-Cola.  

So let’s look at some common motivations: If you’re motivated by social interest, you’ll go to the gym more.  If you’re motivated by personal gain and transformation, you’ll go.  If you’re motivated by learning something new, you’ll go...but a lot of times you won’t go if those motivations are stymied.  If you don’t fit in with your social group, you won’t like it.  Or if you don’t meet your goals fast enough.  Or if you have trouble learning what you’re there to learn—these are all reasons why people quit going to the gym.  Even if they believe in its value; even if that belief keeps them paying.  

When we started on this path of developing the Coca-Cola Gym, one of the most surprising facts we stumbled on was the number 3.  People generally over-predict their attendance to health clubs by a factor of three.  In fact, most gym members visit so infrequently that it makes more economic sense to pay a “higher price” for a single visit than for a monthly or yearly membership.  But they pay for memberships anyway; they pay in droves.  They’re paying for it, but they don’t walk through the door.  When you ask them, they’ll come up with all sorts of excuses:  

  1. I’m busy.  
  2. I was out of town.  
  3. I could’t fit it into the schedule.  
  4. I had a big project at work.  
  5. I had a death in the family.  
  6. I’m working through some family issues now.  

These are all perfectly reasonable reasons.  All of these reasons, though, are the same for people who do go to the gym.  These other people are just as busy.  These other people go out of town and yet these other people fit it into the schedule.   

So what’s the real reason?  Well, the motivations are simple.  A good gym experience is:

  • Engaging
  • Personal   
  • Social  

These three factors—or deficiency of these three factors—are why people stop going to the gym.  

Now, that’s not to say that these are the only reasons why people go to the gym.  Some go just to clear their head, to get out of the house and do something.  Some go because they’ve always gone.  It’s become habit.  But for most of us, if you unwrap all of the layers and get to the bottom of our motivation or lack of motivation you’ll find one of these three factors.  And so we realized what our challenge would be:  

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Notice—in this question—that health and fitness don’t come into it at all.  We’re not trying to create a gym that will help you build muscle faster or lose more weight—that’s up to you.  No, what we’re interested in is getting people engaged in the experience.  The people who don’t think of themselves as “gym” people.  The vast majority of us who don’t go to the gym.  

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We began, then, with basic engagement.  How do you keep someone’s mind entertained and engaged in the fitness process?  This isn’t a meaningless question, because it’s a problem even the best athletes have to confront.  I spoke with a Navy SEAL once, a SEAL in training, who had to swim mile after mile in the open ocean and the worst part, he said, wasn’t the cold or the endurance or the distance from shore—it was the extreme boredom of it.  Arm over arm, stroke after stroke.  Mile after mile.  It was repetitive.  His solution: do very large math problems in his head, like 1,337 times 29,863.  It helped the time pass.  

When you’re working out, you need to have something to help the time pass—something on the mind, which is why so many people run with music or ride their stationary bikes in front of a TV.  But daytime CNN doesn’t always cut it.  To be honest, it very rarely cuts it.  The mind becomes super-concentrated in moments of exercise, and to waste it is a sad thing.  The Pulitzer-prize winning poet Robert Penn Warren used to compose whole poems while swimming in his pool.  Surely we at the gym can do better at putting these minds to work than drowning them with CNN.  

At the same time, you don’t want to bore people.  Engagement can be subjective.  What might be engaging to some—like a class on the chemistry of taste—could be impenetrably boring to others.  For this gym we needed universal engagement, engagement not on the cerebral level of education, but on the same level as a great action movie or thriller.  Something that you can’t help but get involved in.  And so we asked ourselves: what makes a thriller so thrilling?  

What makes a thriller so thrilling.  First, you’re invested in the character.  This is easy enough, because in a gym the character is you.  Second, in a thriller, every decision matters, every decision is life or death.  Now, we couldn’t put you in life-or-death situations, that would be an OSHA violation, but it was clear to us that decisions were important.  Decisions should be a part of our gym’s engagement.  You, the main character, need to decide something—and these decisions should have real and immediate consequences.  But what kind of medium lends itself to this form of engagement?  


We decided to incorporate games into the gym.  But what kind of games?  To answer that, we looked at our next challenge:  

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How do you keep someone motivated to personally invest their time in a gym?  Traditionally, the idea of a gym is all about self-improvement: growing stronger or faster or slimmer.  But if you don’t see your weight on the scale going down after that first hard week, or your arms getting thicker or feet moving faster—if you’re still out of breath climbing the stairs to your apartment, it’s going to be hard to keep that motivation up.  As people, we understand that it’s a process, everyone’s told us it’s a process—a marathon, not a sprint—but we want to see progress.  Even in a marathon you have mile-markers and crowds on the sidelines cheering you on.  

To keep people motivated they need a goal, a real, achievable but still meaningful goal—and they need to be able to see their progress, both short-term and long-term.  So our games would need to track progress, which is easy enough—but that second part was tricky.  The end goal at a gym has to be more than the typical achievements in games—more than winning the car race or getting the most gold coins, because you’re putting in more than cognitive effort—you’re putting in physical effort.  If you put in more, you expect more.  The goal has to be personally meaningful—it has to feel like something real that stays with you the way losing weight stays with you—outside of the gym.  We started thinking, then, not just about small rewards, but what meaningful goal our games could help us reach.

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And finally, social.  It’s the last but not the least-important reason why people go to the gym.  A gym is a social setting, full of great opportunity to meet new people, to make new friends and earn a place among your peers, face-to-face.  The best gym is even better than the bar or club, because the people you see have something in common with you—they’re engaged in something that they care about and are working towards their own goals.  Goals that might just be similar to your own.  And so we had the last piece of the puzzle; we knew that to make these games truly fun and engaging, they needed to have a social component to help build the gym community.  

Our next challenge was to make it happen: a game with meaningful and recognizable goals that could involve multiple players in the gym and creating a social component and ultimate payoff that existed beyond the gym itself.  

Ladies and gentlemen: Gym Coca-Cola—”


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The auditorium darkens as the curtain behind the presenter rises.  Onstage we see what looks more like an arcade than a traditional gym.  There are four groups of people engaged in activity.  In one group, there are people running, but the machines they are running on look different.  There are people on stationary bikes, but the bikes aren’t completely stationary—as the riders lean, the bikes lean with them.  And these bikes, like real bikes, have brakes.  At each lean or leap from the runner, a large screen in front reacts—except projected on this screen isn’t a landscape of street and sidewalk, but strange shapes and rounded colors that look like nothing in the real world.


The presenter explains:  “What are they doing?  Well, let’s look over here at this woman on the stationary bike.  It’s your ordinary stationary bike, except it’s been fitted with an extra gyro mechanism so you can lean, and it reads your leans, synching them up with the video monitor.  On that monitor is a virtual course to bike through—which is engaging enough, but this isn’t your ordinary course.  It’s not a set loop, and it’s not through a familiar landscape.  The graphics don’t mimic trees or buildings because these aren’t trees or buildings you’re navigating through.  These are pathways in the brain.  

The woman on the bike is exploring new pathways in the synaptic cortex of a brain patient.  The raw data was scanned and then automatically reassembled into this maze-like format.  The maze isn’t made by computer algorithm; the structure itself is based on scientific imagery—that’s what a brain looks like.  But a brain is a complicated place, and we haven’t figured it all out yet, which is where our biker comes in.  Based on her turns, on the decisions she makes following like and unlike colors through like or unlike structures, we are literally mapping the interlocking mechanisms that underpin human thought.  The runner is doing the same, choosing direction with a lighted button on the console as he runs.  In fact, the biker and runner can even compete.  Let’s look over here at the group with the blocks—”


The presenter points to a second group: four people standing in front of a stack of boxes.  The boxes are shaped like diamonds and stacked in a curious configuration.  The people are talking and arguing amongst themselves, moving one heavy box after another, reviewing the move, and then returning it or setting it aside.  As they do so, the floor flashes with different colored light and they react to these flashes in some strange choreography.


The presenter continues: “You can see that they’re not all getting along; they’re arguing and hashing it out, heaving one block onto the next, building and then demolishing a variety of structures.  The blocks are heavy and they’re getting a good muscle work-out in the process, but what’s it all about?  Well, what looks like blocks to you or me is something different to them—they’re actually organizing gene sequences into novel configurations.  It’s true, right there in front of you, people with no training in genetics—just a handful of simple rules—are assembling and then disassembling the genetic code of a pathogen to help scientists better understand its structure and vulnerabilities. 

See the lighted floor flashing?  Those colors mean that sensors have logged the configuration, and whether the structure is actually new or a repeat of something they’ve tried before.  If it’s new, they’ll explore it further; if a repeat, they need to think of something else.  Using three-dimensional shapes and interfaces as proxies, and arguing in real-time, they’re able to do in one hour what would have taken a week for a whole team of flat-screened computer-based engineers.  Let’s look to the side at these two people playing the Olympic version of the game Battleship—”


On the other side, two people face one another across a table, dueling computer monitors set before them.  The are standing, not siting—but they aren’t standing for long, because in a split second, they break into a sprint in opposite directions.  They are sprinting to a bookcase—one on each side of the stage.  Panting, they begin flicking through pages in a frenzied search.  They seem to be racing one another to find...something.  And sure enough, one is successful.  With a sheet of paper in hand, he races back to his computer and frantically scans it in.  There’s a pause.  He seems to wait as his opponent returns with her sheet of paper, scanning it in.  They both tap their feet impatiently until a light flashes, and the first player leaps triumphantly.


The presenter explains: “You’ll notice that before they run both players focus on their own computer screen.  Here’s what they’re looking at:  

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It’s a star-field, a picture of the stars in our night sky.  But in this star-field you won’t find Orion or the Milky Way because the stars in this star-field are out of range of the naked-eye.  They were photographed by the Hubble Space telescope and each one of these stars has a name like HR-5340.  Not exactly catchy, and not particularly recognizable, even for the astronomers studying them.  It’s hard to believe, but that randomness is what the real night sky would look like to you today if no one had taken the time to connect the dots, to add shapes and stories to the confusion.  Shapes and stories help us make sense of chaos, they make the randomness look more familiar and help us orient ourselves in our surroundings.  But there are no shapes or constellations for these out-of-reach stars; not yet at least.  

So what are those players doing?  They’re drawing the night sky.  Each one is looking at the same small section of the cosmos, the same star-field.  And in an effort to make these regions of the sky look more familiar to our working astronomers, they’re drawing shapes; shapes of dogs, fish, calypso dancers, the Eiffel Tower—anything that makes sense.  Even spilled milk.  But this isn’t an art class, it’s a race.  Once drawn, each player must rush 100 meters to a small library of images we’ve assembled—one library for each player, stocked with the same images in the same order. 

Searching through this library, they have to find an analog that approximates their line-drawing.  Then they have to sprint the 100 meters back to their terminal and scan the image into the computer.  Their opponent does the same and then they wait.  Because this game is not just about speed—it’s also about the best fit.  They are waiting for the judgment of a referee, another player who is playing through their smartphone or tablet somewhere else in the world.  This referee decides which image fits the stars the best, and this decision is combined with the race results and timing to decide which player is victorious.  One point is awarded!  It takes takes ten to win.  Now, let’s look at the two runners on the dance-floor, because this one is my favorite—”


Indeed, there’s what looks like a dance floor on the far side of the stage.  The floor is in darkness except for pinpricks of blue and red light—like the ground beneath a disco ball.  Two people stand at one side of the floor and race, but as they run they hop and skip over the lights, twisting through an invisible obstacle course to reach the other side.


“From our vantage,” the presenter says, “it looks like two people racing through an empty disco.  But the dots of light on the floor aren’t from a disco ball; each one represents one of the 1.2 million land-mines in the De-Militarized-Zone between North and South Korea.  The placement is generated based on satellite and thermal imagery.  Every time these two runners race, we project a new section of the 160-mile border onto the floor.  This one now is section BL428 and our two runners are racing to see who can reach the far wall first—without triggering a mine.  If they make a wrong step and disturb one of the lighted sections they lose; if they fail to beat their opponent they lose.  Once they reach the far wall the projected lights are refreshed to show another section and they begin another race in the other direction. 

But here’s the exciting part: each player’s path is added to a database that is mapping safe routes through the DMZ for use by first responders and future generations who will hopefully one day soon be tasked with disassembling the minefields.  At the gym, this game takes place in our projection room, a simple set-up of video projectors and sensors no more advanced than your average arcade but capable of accommodating a variety of game designs.  Which brings me to the tenets of game design.  What do our games have in common?  What have we challenged our game designers to do?



  • Find meaningful problems that can be solved. 
  • Turn the solving of each problem into a game. 
  • Make the game project have a clear and identifiable goal (curing cancer, mapping a certain segment of the brain, etc.).  A game should not exist indefinitely.  It should have a beginning and an end (to allow for new games).  
  • Make the game involve multiple players on-site at the gym.  
  • Accommodate other players off-site, who connect through their mobile devices or a computer at home to participate in meaningful roles such as providing judgment, oversight, or refereeing.

  • Use the space of the gym in novel ways (not every game should be a video projected in front of a stationary bike). 
  • After a game project is completed, keep people updated and informed on the positive result of their efforts.  
  • Find ways for players to get involved with the social causes and topics behind the games (such as promoting the issue, raising funds, or organizing trips).  
  • Encourage and empower players themselves to develop future game concepts, including doing the initial research and ideation.
  • Present new game topics to the community and allow participants to vote on their favorites. 


Now, there are three questions that I’m sure this game structure has sparked.  First, the easy one: What about development?  Will we open these game concepts to outside developers—will we release an SDK, a software development kit?  The answer is yes.  Developing games for Gym Coca-Cola is a great way for a university or non-profit to raise awareness for its cause and enlist our community in solving complex problems.  

But I want to stress that this model is different from your traditional game ecosystem.  There’s no money for you to make here.  So don’t think of game development as providing a revenue source for your cause; think of it as an opportunity to harness the creativity and spirit of the community to do public good.  We’re not here to make money; we’re here to make a difference.  Games that pass our quality assurance team will be piloted in a special section of the gym and then expanded based on popularity.  

The second question: What about people who don’t want to play games?  People who just want to put on their headphones and tune out the world, who don’t want to socialize or engage or interact?  Our answer: they can go to another gym.  This is a different experience.  That’s why we called it a gym and not a fitness center or a health club or a day spa.  With Gym Coca-Cola we wanted to provide something unique, something that returned us to the root of what a gymnasium used to be when it was first invented in ancient Greece— a tool for developing the body and the mind, a place for socializing and a place for intellectual engagement. 

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And now the big one: What kind of difference can this gym make?  A difference of three kinds: first, we wanted to help our customers enjoy healthy and active lives.  Second, we wanted to design it in such a way that you’d look forward to going to the gym not because—like eating your carrots—it was good for you, but because it was actually fun and engaging in a way that no other place was.  And third, we wanted to harness the spirit of our customers and community to do good things.  The good of Gym Coca-Cola—these causes that we’re championing—it’s real.  The problems that the games solve either haven’t been solved before, or couldn’t be solved before, because solving them would take too much manpower.  The use of these games to serve larger goals should not be shrugged off, nor should it be assumed that computers could better solve these problems."


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The Case of Google

Google is at the forefront of computer innovation, but even for Google, there are some problems that can’t be solved without people.  You need people to drive around taking pictures for Streetview in Google maps.  People to write and rate restaurants on Zagat.  And Google needed people to build Google Voice and its other speech-recognition products.  In 2007, Marissa Mayer explained why they developed 1-800-GOOG-411:


“The reason we really did it is because we need to build a great speech-to-text model. ... The speech recognition experts that we have say: If you want us to build a really robust speech model, we need a lot of phonemes, which is a syllable as spoken by a particular voice with a particular intonation. So we need a lot of people talking, saying things so that we can ultimately train off of that. ... So 1-800-GOOG-411 is about that: Getting a bunch of different speech samples so that when you call up or we're trying to get the voice out of video, we can do it with high accuracy.”


Once Google had all of the “phonemes” it needed, the 411 service was discontinued.  But it illustrates how even Google, the epitome of computer innovation, recognized the limits of that power and saw how people could collectively help to solve otherwise untenable problems.



The Gym Development Timeline

Gym development can be managed alongside the eight-year calorie reduction timeline, with the first gyms scheduled to open following the announcement of the Zero-Calorie strategy: 


Year 1

  • Assemble internal Coca-Cola resources, including health advocates, marketers, and those experienced with setting up and managing the company’s global exercise events
  • Research and create a series of gym concepts 
  • Research game development, traditional gym concepts, and the arcade and amusement park business
  • Create the social issues gamification division to include developers, scientists, and philanthropic leaders.  The mission: create engaging games that solve specific scientific or social problems.

Year 2 

  • Calculate the economics of the business plan, making necessary adjustments on the balance sheet
  • Build two or three gym mockups for user design testing
  • Develop the plan for scaling the gym to additional locations
  • Create the first 3-4 gaming concepts 
  • Scope out gym locations (dependent on concept choice) 
  • Buy/lease first locations

Year 3

  • Settle on the final gym mockup 
  • Finalize the first game concepts 
  • Create game-concept tie-in mobile apps (or one Gym Coca-Cola app to subsume them all)
  • Develop Gym Coca-Cola marketing 
  • Begin construction on the first locations

Year 4

  • Begin beta and QA testing of the mobile applications 
  • Hire and train gym staff
  • Launch
  • Refine concept 
  • Begin scaling the program to additional locations

At this point, the gym timeline syncs up with the zero-calorie strategy timeline: 

Year 5 

  • Continue reductions in Coke calorie count 
  • Expand gyms to major metropolitan areas
  • Begin development of “portable gym” concepts (for home use)
  • Develop more unique gym exercise equipment and models

Year 6

  • Continue reductions in Coke calorie count 
  • Expand gyms globally
  • Continue “portable gym” concept development
  • Refine game development model and rules

Year 7

  • Continue reductions in Coke calorie count 
  • Continue gym expansion
  • Refine game development strategies
  • Invest in further development of home-based gym and work-out systems 
  • Develop a revenue stream model for game developers

Year 8

  • Achieve Zero Calories
  • Achieve a sizable gym market-share  
  • Release “portable gym game system” for home use (competes or collaborates with existing console game platforms)  
  • Release a new SDK with direct revenue opportunities for game developers