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It’s Time To Get Creative With Your Barcodes

by Chloe Gordon on 11/14/2023 | 5 Minute Read

Because I spend most of my day closely critiquing packaging, I'm fully aware that I grocery shop differently than the average consumer. 

Instead of running through my grocery list to get in and out of the store as quickly and efficiently as possible, I prefer to slowly peruse the aisle and closely examine the packaging design details: typography systems, color palettes, illustrations, and clever barcodes. Sure, I need bread, milk, and eggs, but the gravitational pull toward creative packaging is my kryptonite. 

Fortunately for me, my neighborhood grocery store has an "up-and-coming CPG" section, and I've started to notice an uptick in some of these brands getting creative beyond the confines of what we expect from packaging.

I'm talking about barcodes. Yes, the humble black lines you're currently having a difficult time locating while at self-checkout.

"The subtle things are the things that delight the most," notes Yael Miller, co-Founder and creative director of Vanity Barcodes, an agency that helps brands create custom creative barcodes that are Universal Product Code (UPC) compliant. "These creative barcodes show that your brand is going the extra mile with its packaging to create an enjoyable consumer experience in something you don't have to do." 

While it's more difficult for massive corporations like Nestle or Coca-Cola to use creative barcodes throughout their more than 100,000 SKUs, it certainly doesn't go unnoticed when they can add a splash of creativity to their limited-edition products. For example, the brand added an oven-mitt-shaped barcode to its holiday cookies and TIE fighters to its Star Wars-themed Coffee-mate. They're unexpected, and they can quietly add an extra note of joy and humor.

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Of course, if anyone deserves credit for rolling out creative barcodes across hundreds of SKUs, it's Trader Joe's and Aldi; they do it incredibly well, honoring the visual essence of each product. Trader Joe’s Root Beer Float Bars feature a barcode within an illustration of a classic root beer float (red-striped straw and cherry on top included). Trader Joe’s also got creative with its Sour Cream and Onion Rings, making the bar code an elongated version of itself to turn the images of the rings into a ring toss game depiction. Then there’s Aldi’s Limoncello Tiramisu packaging, which features a barcode with a spoon digging into the top fluffy layer, and its Lemon Swirl Cheesecake features a barcode on a cake stand, with a similar spoon scooping into the top layer. 

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And yet, because larger brands have thousands and thousands of SKUs with separate regulatory and production workflows that can often counter each other, these vanity barcodes are now landing on smaller brands' packaging systems or for brands with fewer SKUs. As many DTC brands expand to retail, we're likely to see even more in the coming years.

In a world where maintaining brand equity is increasingly difficult, especially with the rise of dupe culture, brand loyalty becomes critical. "Custom barcodes send a message that all brands want to give off. They say, 'We take our product seriously, and we want to inspire you and delight you with our product.' So there's a nice, rich, unspoken message when you design a custom barcode," Miller says. 

Small cues, something even as small and seemingly insignificant as a barcode, prove to consumers that the people behind the brands genuinely care about everything that went into the product, so much so that they're willing to spend the time and money on something as understated as a barcode that only a handful of consumers might discover. 

Below is a list of brands with innovative barcodes that you can find on the shelf today. 

Love Corn

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Mike and Ike 

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Belgian Boys

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Icelandic Provisions 

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Quantock Brewery

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Pop Corners 

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Mike's Hard 

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88 Acres 

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Kodiak Cakes

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Bees Knees Spicy Honey 

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Dole Acai Bowl 

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Incline Cider

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Good Pop

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Vermont Smoke & Cure

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Pirate Booty

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Nuxe

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Toni's Goat Milk Yogurt

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Cremo Shaving Cream

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Oikos Pro Yogurt 

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Noosa Yogurt 

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