The Great K-Cup Backlash: What Every Tech Company Should Learn
When it comes to modern technological conveniences, there are a number of things that irritate people above all others: unhelpful error messages, dead batteries, and cumbersome digital rights management (DRM).
A company that puts DRM in place on their products is very clearly telling consumers that their freedoms will be sacrificed so that corporate execs can make more money — and consumers don’t tend to react very well to this message.
Keurig is the most recent company to learn this lesson the hard way.
Keurig: Hero to Zero
Keurig had the misfortune of being in the news over the past few months for their attempt to add a form of DRM to their coffee makers. In previous versions of the Keurig machine, you put in a small plastic cup that contains coffee grounds, called a K-cup, into the machine. You press a button, wait a moment, and then you have a cup of coffee. It doesn’t get easier (especially for caffeine addicts like me, who don’t generally go for really high-quality coffee ).
But with the introduction of the Keurig 2.0, a new step was added: before the machine brews your coffee, it scans the K-cup to make sure that a special code has been printed on it—if it doesn’t see the code, it won’t brew. And who’s the only company who can put that code on the cup? Keurig.
Before the 2.0, there were a number of third-party companies who also made cups that were compatible with Keurig machines. They offered different kinds of coffee, and, most importantly, were cheaper. Brands like San Francisco Bay and Mother Parker’s could be purchased and used in the Keurig machine without a problem.
That’s all changed now. Because those third-party cups don’t have the code, the machine won’t brew with them. It displays an error message, and the user needs to put in a Keurig-produced or -licensed cup. Keurig says that it’s so the machine can use the proper temperature for each coffee, but few seem convinced by that argument.
Unsurprisingly, people were not very happy. A quick look at the Amazon reviews for the Keurig 2.0 makes it pretty clear how people feel about the DRM: “no value in this machine at all,” “stay away from mandated K-cups,” “hate that you can ONLY use the K-packs,” and other similar comments dominate. Of 603 reviews, a full 233 of them give it only one star. Many people said they would have returned it if they hadn’t received it as a gift (if you were considering giving a Keurig, consider one of these great coffee-related gifts instead).
And it’s not just the Amazon reviews that are taking a hit — Keurig reported a 12% decrease in brewer sales last quarter. And while the vast majority of their profit comes from the cups, and not the brewers, a 12% hit is a big one. Keurig says that getting 2.0-compatible cups onto store shelves faster would’ve helped, but the consumer reaction is clear: “we hate DRM.”
Not the First
Of course, Keurig isn’t the first company to anger its customers with DRM. Amazon’s Kindle books have been the target of a lot of vitriol over the past few years, and people have gotten really good at removing the DRM from Kindle books . Still, if you aren’t aware that it’s an option, you’ll likely be stuck with Kindle DRM. Printer companies have been doing it for a long time, too — they make a ton of money when you buy their ink, so they make it hard to refill cartridges and try to keep third-party ink producers from making compatible cartridges (with some success).
And just about every streaming service, from Netflix to Spotify, has some sort of DRM in place, or they’d go out of business because everyone would download their media and cancel their subscription. Unfortunately, a lot of software DRM actually constitutes a threat to digital security .
Some companies, though, were so impressed by the backlash of their customers that they decided to cancel their DRM plans. Look at Xbox One, for example. When it was first announced , Microsoft stated that the console would have to connect to the Internet once every 24 hours, even if it was only used to play offline disc-based games, that publishers would have control over whether or not their games could be resold, and that restrictions would be put in place over who could give and loan games to other people.
Xbox users were, to put it mildly, outraged. Shortly after this announcement was made, Microsoft admitted its mistake and removed the DRM built into the Xbox One. Unfortunately, few companies have been as understanding and consumer-oriented as Microsoft when it comes to DRM.
A Lesson for Companies Considering DRM
If you’re familiar with the story of the Keurig DRM, you’ll know that a workaround was found very quickly. Not only is it incredibly easy, but it also makes the DRM guys at Keurig look pretty stupid. All you have to do is tape a used K-cup cover over the sensor so it reads the 2.0-compatible code no matter which cup is in the brewer. Which means you can use the Keurig 2.0 with any cup you want, as long as you’ve used one 2.0 cup and saved the lid.
Kindle DRM, though pervasive, is a bit of a joke. The DRM originally used for Blu-Ray discs was cracked quickly. A number of people claim to have broken iTunes and Netflix rights management. And Keurig’s DRM has been countered with a single piece of tape.
No matter how hard companies try to lock us down, there are always people out there who are faster, smarter, and more adaptable.
When consumers buy a product, they don’t want to be told how they should use it. They’re even less inclined to listen when they’re told that how they have to use it. Keurig learned this lesson the hard way, and they’ve taken a pretty significant financial hit because of it. Not only that, but they looked pretty foolish when the workaround spread around the Internet.
There’s an important lesson for tech companies here. We’re willing to give you our money, but not our freedom. If we buy a product, we expect to own it, not to lease, rent, or borrow it. We want to use things in any way we please—and we’ll find a way to make sure that we can. You can either set your company up as a hero and support our freedoms, or as a villain that we’ll continually battle against.
Seems like a pretty easy choice to me.
Image credits: digital printing press via Shutterstock.