By Larry Logan- CMO, Digimarc
Larry Logan, CMO Digimarc

Since 1974, when a pack of Wrigley’s Chewing Gum was optically scanned at a Marsh supermarket register in Ohio, the UPC barcode has had a long and successful history. At the cutting edge of technology for its time, the barcode went on to transform retail checkout and, combined with later innovations, inventory management. Trillions of transactions later, the barcode is evolving again, in perhaps the most significant advancement since its original introduction.

In the last four decades technology has advanced at an astonishing pace, to the point that almost all facets of our lives have been enhanced based on massive improvements in computing power and ever more accurate sensors. These same advancements now make it possible for smartphones and imaging based barcode scanners to surpass human vision in seeing machine-readable signals that are imperceptible to us, enabling the adoption of a new barcode. Yet the familiar zebra-stripe barcode is still visible on most packages, even if it’s not always easy to find.

That’s both an artifact and a limitation that package designers see every day at the store level. Cashiers must find the UPC symbol and orient it toward the scanner during checkout, a process that takes time and is prone to errors. And despite the fact that most consumers now carry Internet-connected mobile devices with high definition cameras capable of rivaling the latest generation commercial scanners, the legacy barcode provides brands and retailers with few opportunities for direct consumer engagement.

But now there’s a new barcode, and it’s something altogether different. It’s literally the whole package. Imperceptible to the human eye but visible to machines, the new barcode is embedded many times across a package, making every surface scannable by both retail point of sale systems and consumer devices. In addition to performing the identification, pricing and inventory functions of the traditional UPC symbol, the new barcode gives brands and retailers their own dedicated channel to connect with consumers. While faster scanning at checkout is a major plus, the ability to provide a new consumer touch point for health information, recipes, how-to videos, promotional offers and more is what makes the idea of the package as a barcode so disruptive.

Now every item can present its own unique Internet identity. The package becomes the portal to the Internet of everything. Consumers can simply point their phones at any facing side of a product – no hunting for the UPC symbol or a QR code – and instantly be connected to a rich content experience from a retailer or brand. From basic information to seasonal and personalized offers, the package-as-barcode turns every item into an opportunity for direct engagement. Brands and retailers will know by their actions when consumers are interested in a product since scanning is an unambiguous signal of intent. That’s pure gold from a CRM perspective. Undoubtedly, as consumers (particularly digital natives) become accustomed to this kind of interaction, the days when packages weren’t Internet-enabled will seem like the Dark Ages.

This, by the way, isn’t some futuristic scenario. The new barcode is already here. Package designers can incorporate it into existing packaging today with minimal effort. It requires no special links or printing processes. The latest generation of image-based POS scanners can read it with a software upgrade. It’s visible to modern phones with currently available apps. The new barcode leverages existing workflows and databases for UPC and GS1 product identification and inventory control systems. Many brands and retailers have either already rolled out or are testing the new barcode with an eye toward deployment.

This is the barcode for the today’s connected mobile world. It’s the barcode of everything for the Internet of everything.

 

 

About the Author: Larry Logan has 30+ years experience as a marketing and brand executive. His background includes roles as the Vice President and Creative Director at PLAYBOY to CMO of the technology company that developed Street View for Google. At Healtheon/WebMD he drove one of Silicon Valley’s most noted IPOs.