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Are Stylish Barcodes for Product Packaging Worth the Time and Effort?

Product packaging has become such a creative endeavor that even the style-challenged barcode is getting a face lift. In the past, smaller companies have used stylish barcodes to differentiate themselves from competing products, but now larger companies like Nestlé are trying these out on their smaller brands.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s dig into a fact or two about barcodes in general. We’ve all seen them and understand what they do, but do we really know how they’re designed? GS1, a nonprofit standards organization that builds and manages bar codes, assigns barcode numbers specific to that company. From there, the company creates or hires an outside firm to design the barcode to match that number for the specific product.

Even though most barcodes are identical at first glance, there is some wiggle room for changing barcodes. Some attributes are standard and others fall into a gray area. For example, for a scanner to read the code there should be around a half inch of white space on either side of the barcode and it should not be printed using colors the scanner cannot recognize (like red, yellow or orange). Barcodes allow retailers to track products throughout their stores and allows them to change prices without having to retag each specific item.

Skinny Cow barcode art

Skinny Cow's barcode is shaped like a cow's spot!

Ready to move on to the fun examples of  these stylish barcodes? Nestlé, one of the world’s largest food companies, is trying creative barcodes on their Juicy Juice Sparkling Fruit Juice Beverage and their Skinny Cow low-calorie dessert line. Juicy Juice’s barcode depicts bubbles rising up from the barcode to reinforce its new beverage in consumers’ minds. Skinny Cow’s barcode (pictured right) is a cow’s spot to build up the brand recognition.

When Sixpoint, a brewery in Brooklyn, decided to launch a canned beer line earlier in 2011, they wanted to create a fashionable design for their cans. Shan Welch, president of Mad Scientists Brewing Partners LLC (which owns Sixpoint) was convinced there had to be an alternative for the stock barcodes out there…and there was. Sixpoint’s silver cans now have a barcode that integrates the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline. Much more creative, right?

However, despite the boost in visual appeal, the positive effects of these custom barcodes are perhaps not as exciting as these companies are hoping for. Although positive PR and better customer connections are the main things that companies envision when creating these fun barcodes, there’s no real guarantee that customers would not only notice the effort but also discuss the design with others. After all, when was the last time you looked at a barcode on the back of your candy bar?

I don’t think it’s a good idea to advertise a new barcode design because it seems like you would get raised eyebrows more than anything. Also, if your design looks really cool but doesn’t scan, then what’s the point? You would have spent money designing it (as well as repackaging every product) just to find out that it doesn’t work. Retailers may even get upset and decide to discontinue your product, which will drop sales drastically. These custom codes could end up doing more harm than good if they’re not completely functional, so be careful if you decide to use them for your business.

Curious to see more examples of stylish barcodes? Check out Media Media Inc, one of several companies that can make art from your code (for a fee, of course).

What do you think? If you’re looking at two similar products, one has a creative barcode the other does not, which would you buy?

Image credit to klynslis


Amy Swanson

Amy is one of Quality Logo Products’ content developers and social media coordinators. She is a self-professed newspaper nerd and thoroughly enjoys reading business and financial news and having impromptu discussions about it. Oh yeah, she’s “one of those” people! A true Midwestern girl by nature, she loves riding her bike, photography, and the Chicago Cubs. You can connect with Amy on

Comments

  1. Jana Quinn

    Interesting approach to the topic, Amy. I’ve never seen – or perhaps have never noticed – anything other than the standard design. I assumed that there wasn’t any wiggle room there, but it’s interesting that while there are a few things that must remain constant, there’s still some creative space to play.

    I think it comes down to the target audience – are the customers you’re aiming to snag detail-oriented? Do you want to make the most efficient use of your imprint areas?

    If nothing else, the interesting barcode may get someone to hold a product in their hand a moment or two longer – critical time when it comes to decision making. Perhaps impulse buys near the register would benefit from unique barcodes. Interesting stuff all around!

    • amy

      Thanks Jana! I had never heard of companies doing this either, but how lame would it be for them to advertise, “Hey, check out our amazing product as well as our cool new barcode!” And I can’t even remember the last time I looked at a barcode, so I guess it isn’t that shocking.

      I think younger audiences (tweens and teens) would probably get more enjoyment out of these redesigns compared to older audiences. And you’re exactly right with more detail-orientated people noticing a new barcode over someone who isn’t.

      Excellent points :)

  2. Jenna

    I think that even though those custom barcodes look really cool, they will either be a) overlooked, or b) a hassle. I would say that one way to get the most out of this idea is to put the customized barcodes on products that appear in “self-checkout” lanes. Otherwise once the cashier scans the barcode, it’s not like I spend time analyzing its design.

    Interesting post, Amy! Even if those barcodes don’t work for business in the long-run, they are really appealing to look at even from just a design or art standpoint! :)

    • amy

      That’s a great idea with the self-checkout concept. I use these lanes when I only have two or three items and then I do look at the barcode. I think if I knew the companies that I regularly buy did this, I would be more loyal because I would find it cute and interesting. However, having a fun barcode wouldn’t make me switch brands.

      If nothing else, the design aesthetic is cool :)

  3. Mandy Kilinskis

    I read the back of my products a lot, I actually would find a cool barcode really interesting. But you’re right, they definitely need to be functional: I rather eat my candy bar with a boring barcode than not eat one that won’t scan.

    • amy

      It’s all about priorities :) I think candy companies could benefit from this, maybe not greatly but certainly a little. I can just hear a child at the grocery store yelling, “But MOM! I want the candy with the cool barcode!!!” *shivers up my spine*

      • Mandy Kilinskis

        I couldn’t blame the kid. I really couldn’t. I’ve bought things for lesser reasons than a cool barcode. :/

  4. JPorretto

    This might be extremely dorky, but every now and then when I was a kid, I’d draw barcodes on things I made. I don’t know why…. But this post has brought back that repressed memory. Thanks!

    • amy

      Awww, you’re right. That is kinda dorky. Although, I’d always draw stamps on my envelopes instead of putting an ‘official’ one on because I liked mine better. So I’d say we’re even in our dorkiness ;)

  5. Kyle

    I’ve never noticed these custom barcodes before, but I have to admit they’re pretty cool looking. I think they’re especially eye-catching when they’re integrated into the overall package design, much like the Skinny Cow carton pictured.

    Of course function must come before form, but it looks like barcodes are relatively flexible in how they can be designed so I could see how experimenting with these could be beneficial. I can see where you’re coming from when you say they might be more of a hassle than they’re worth, but personally I’d like to see these more often. Anything to add some visual flair to packages is fine by me. Not to mention it sets you apart from all the other companies that use “normal” barcodes.

    • amy

      I think a lot of niche companies are using these barcodes over the national brands that we see so much around here. Which makes sense since they are competing with ‘normal’ barcodes and any advantage they can get is something.

      Thanks for bringing up those great points!

  6. Cybernetic SAM

    Yeah, I think this is a really cool concept. Being an art person, this type of innovation (for something that is usually overlooked) is kind of neat to see on packaging. I first noticed it when I got my Kindle and I thought it looked so pretty. It is unnecessary, but still a cool way to really represent a unique quality to your product.

    This is the Kindle bar-code:
    http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2507/4174280059_578a34cf55.jpg

    • amy

      That’s awesome! Jana made an excellent point that companies need to be aware of their audience to make sure something like having a stylish barcode would be beneficial. I think your example further proves that point since consumers of e-readers would take more notice of this than other markets may.

      Thanks so much for providing a real-life example from your experience :)

  7. Joseph Giorgi

    Awesome post, Amy! I’ve never seen these types of barcodes, but I’ll be on the lookout for ‘em. :)

    I’m glad you addressed the fact that there’s no guarantee that this type of marketing effort will pay off. Implementing these kinds of barcodes is an original approach to gaining brand recognition, but it probably costs a pretty penny. May not be worth it for some brands.

    That being said, I’d still love to see more of these innovative codes on products of all sorts. It’s fun to mix things up a bit. Some of those barcode designs from Media Media Inc. are pretty interesting — my favorite is “Food 3.”

    • amy

      I haven’t come across any yet either, the hunt is on!

      Companies shouldn’t expect that having a cool barcode is going to be their silver bullet and save their bottom lines. However, when used in conjunction with other marketing practices it could (I emphasize, COULD) have a positive effect.

      You can’t go wrong with anything resembling a piping hot, full cup of coffee :)

  8. Amanda

    Interesting post Amy! I have yet to see these new cool barcodes on products. I think that they’re a neat idea to check out, but I don’t think they would bring new customers or make a person switch brands, like someone mentioned above. But very interesting still! I like how they fit the products–the skinny cow marking bar code is cute for sure! =)

    • amy

      Thanks Amanda :) After researching companies that have unique barcodes it certainly has made me more curious to look now.

  9. Wim @ Sales Sells

    Hi Amy, I live in Europe and haven’t come across unique barcode designs here yet.. As I’m a sucker for design, I actually think it’s fun and creative. While it may not be noticed by too many people, it got you writing about it, right? I didn’t know about ‘skinny cow’ products, but I do now :)

    Wim

    • amy

      Thanks for the comment Wim! You are right about the publicity of a product maybe being increased with the addition of a fun, quirky barcode. Since they aren’t as prevalent, it may give an edge over the competition.

      If you come across any, let me know! I think this could be an interesting version of a scavenger hunt ;)

  10. Karen Kunkel

    Amy, I liked your topic. I didn’t know the barcodes could be artistic, I like them.
    As long as they don’t interfere with the scanner at checkout, to me its great. I wouldn’t buy a product because the barcode is attractive, but it is interesting. I’m all for something a bit different and and I would notice the different-shaped barcodes.

    • amy

      Thanks so much for reading and for the comment!!

      They certainly are fun and unique. :) It’ll be interesting to see if more established products adopt these unique barcodes or if only the lesser-known products take advantage. You’ll have to let me know if Dale’s company adopts any fun barcodes for their products!

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