Package design has become so artful, it has come to this: Even the barcode, the style runt of product labeling, is getting gussied up.
Beer, granola, juice and olives are sporting barcodes that integrate famous buildings, blades of wheat and bubbles into the ubiquitous black and white rectangle of lines and numbers. Consumer-goods companies hope these vanity barcodes will better connect with customers.
The trend is popular with smaller companies, and even one of the world’s largest food companies, Nestle SA, is trying out vanity barcodes on its smaller brands.
When Sixpoint Brewery planned to launch a line of canned beer this year, the Brooklyn, N.Y., company set out to fashion the perfect can design. It soon realized, “you need this big, ugly barcode so people can scan them,” says Shane Welch, president of Mad Scientists Brewing Partners LLC, which owns Sixpoint. “I thought, why can’t we do our own custom barcode?” Launched last month, the silver cans bear a barcode that integrates the Statue of Liberty and skyscrapers.
A handful of companies that specialize in making vanity barcodes have cropped up in recent years, though some companies create them in-house.
More companies are choosing specially designed vanity barcodes on their grocery and drug store products. Sarah Nassauer shows us some of them.
Some vanity-barcode designs aim to be elegant, others quirky. Design Barcodes Inc., a Tokyo-based ad and design firm, created barcodes with lines that look like water flowing over a waterfall or the rails on a train track. Yael Miller, co-owner of Vanity Barcodes LLC, in Lakewood, N.J., says one of her favorites is a hand mixer design she created to look as if the barcode is mixing up the numbers below it.
Some companies are hesitant to tinker with the barcode, says Steve Rosen, co-founder of Pacarc LLC, which distributes Japanese products in the U.S. and is the exclusive U.S. partner of Design Barcodes. If a barcode doesn’t scan it could “really put the retailer in a pinch,” says Mr. Rosen. A manufacturer might have to reprint all the packaging. He says Design Barcodes’ products are tested before going on the market.
Barcodes are what allow retailers to track products through their stores and change pricing without needing to retag every item. Alan L. Haberman, a supermarket executive from Massachusetts and the person credited with bringing the barcode, formally known as the universal product code, to retail prominence, died last week.
Every retail barcode number in the U.S. and 107 other countries is assigned by GS1, a nonprofit standards organization created in the early 1970s when barcode technology entered the retail landscape. A company applies to GS1 for a barcode number specific to that company. It then creates (or hires a firm to create) the barcode to match that number.
Adding a vanity barcode can be expensive because new packaging is needed.
Nestle has gradually included vanity barcodes when redesigning packaging or launching new products. The company started in 2008 with smaller brands and those that don’t come in many flavors (and therefore require fewer barcode variations). Nestle’s Juicy Juice Sparkling Fruit Juice Beverage, which comes in three flavors, has bubbles rising up from its barcodes. Its Skinny Cow low-calorie dessert line is currently rolling out barcodes shaped like a cow’s spot.
Bear Naked granola added a blade of wheat grass growing out of its barcodes during a package redesign in 2007. Bear Naked is currently owned by Kellogg Co.
Food manufacturer GLK Foods LLC had initial concerns that tinkering with its barcodes could interfere with their ability to scan, says Ryan Downs, vice president of the Bear Creek, Wisc.-based company. Ms. Miller of Vanity Barcodes, who is also a principal at branding and design firm Miller Creative LLC, suggested GLK add an olive tree to the barcode of its Verdi Italian-food line. After testing, the olive-tree-adorned barcodes scanned properly.
Since then, GLK has also added olives to the design of its mobile barcode, a different type of ID increasingly being used on consumer products. Shoppers are able to snap a picture of the code with a smartphone and automatically be directed to a website about the product, a coupon or a marketing campaign.
Breaking Out of the Box
On a barcode, “there are certain things you can change, certain things you can’t and then there is sort of a gray area,” says Ms. Miller. For a scanner to read a barcode it usually needs to be about a half inch high, blank space is needed on either side, and the lines can’t be made out of some colors the scanner can’t see, like red, yellow or orange, she says.
GS1 tests barcodes in a small lab in Lawrenceville, N.J., that is filled with new and old flat-bed scanners, hand-held scanners, and overhead scanners. For a fee, GS1 gives each barcode a grade—A through F—based on how consistently it scans. Many of the vanity-barcode designs go against GS1 guidelines, says Jon Mellor, a spokesman for GS1’s U.S. arm. For instance, some new designs are shorter than the organization recommends, even though they may scan the product information accurately, he says. Still, GS1 doesn’t object to vanity barcodes because its role is to help companies create the barcodes they prefer, he says.
Meanwhile, Walgreens Co.’s Duane Reade chain likes the vanity-barcode concept so much it added classic New York scenes like the Manhattan skyline and Brooklyn Bridge in a barcode design to the packages of its store-brand products in 2009. The vanity barcodes aren’t meant to scan.
“It’s not functional, and it’s not intended to be. It’s being used as a unique design element,” says Paul Tiberio, senior vice president of merchandising and marketing for Duane Reade.
The simple rectangular barcode, which the cashier swipes at the checkout line, is still on the back of each package.
Corrections & Amplifications
Design Barcode Inc. is a Tokyo-based ad and design firm that creates artful barcodes for consumer products. This article misstates the company name as Design Barcodes.
Sarah Nassauer is currently a reporter at Wall Street Journal since 2008. Before she landed the New York desk job, she was an assistant reporter at WSJ at its Paris bureau. She also worked for Dow Jones News Wires in 2005, also in Paris. She was a producer at CNBC Europe for 2 years. She graduated Bachelor of Arts, Major in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and also took French History at Cours de Civilisation Francaise de la Sorbonne in Paris.