Code Read

UPCs, those bar codes featured on packaged goods, are turning into an unlikely new media opportunity as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft, Campbell Soup, Procter & Gamble and others link with mobile technology providers.

Proponents of the technology say it provides a new stream of consumer communication, but critics say it will be of limited interest. At the moment, many major packaged-goods marketers are dipping their toes in the water with low-key pilot programs.

Perhaps the highest profile use of the technology right now is in the Cola Wars. PepsiCo has an early “strategic partnership” with Stickybits, the provider of a free mobile app that uses bar-scanning technology to attach digital content to physical objects, while Coca-Cola is in talks to form a partnership with Stickybits. Currently, Coke is running a program in which a Stickybits-enabled phone can scan a Coke can and see a stream of comments and content from users and from Coke. Such content includes a “Coke Mythology” video that promotes a summer campaign centered around the soft drink’s “secret formula.”

PepsiCo, meanwhile, is using Stickybits for its Pepsi and Frito-Lay products. Consumers who scan UPCs on those items can find out more about Pepsi Refresh Project community funding efforts. If they scan a Lay’s bag of potato chips, for instance, they can learn about the brand’s partnering with local farmers. Bonin Bough, director of social media at PepsiCo, said PepsiCo is assembling a council, headed by digital influencer Gary Vaynerchuk who is also a Stickybits advisor, to help devise adoption plans and broader marketing and promo strategies.

“There is something so potent here, such a huge opportunity in using universal codes that are already out there. Everything we interact with in the physical world can now be part of conversational media,” said Bough. “Someone can scan in the U.S. and someone can scan in Asia and be part of the same conversation.”

Other marketers like Campbell Soup have also signed up as “strategic partners” with Stickybits (Stickybits’ preferred description of the relationship). Campbell’s first use of Stickybits is expected to appear July 8 in conjunction with a sweepstakes. The interactive use of the scanning technology will also be linked to the company’s fall campaign for its new soups and redesigned labels. Ben & Jerry’s is also in talks to employ Stickybits, sources said.

Stickybits isn’t the first firm to offer UPC-based mobile technology. Earlier this year, a company called CauseWorld offered consumers extra “Karma Points” for scanning UPCs of Kraft and Procter & Gamble products, earning charitable contributions to users’ favorite causes.

“If you’re a P&G or Kraft, you have more than 50 different products in a store, and it becomes like a scavenger hunt for users who probably don’t associate the brands with those companies,” said Cyriac Roeding, CauseWorld’s co-founder, CEO. “You go around the store from [P&G’s] Tide to Bounty to Crest and from [Kraft’s] Oreo cookies to Philly Cream Cheese.” Roeding said  the CauseWorld app has been downloaded 550,000 times.

As opposed to QR Codes—readable designs that marketers put on products and advertising—using UPCs doesn’t require any additional package design.

“The UPC  is part of the infrastructure of commerce everywhere,” said Vaynerchuk, who is a co-founder of VaynerMedia. “If you’re able to redefine the UPC code, you can create a powerful emotional connection at point of purchase.”

For makers of packaged goods, using such technology is a new way to engage consumers in stores. Seth Goldstein, Stickybits’ chairman and co-founder, says with the new threaded enhancement, the technology is less like a bulletin board and more of a conversational channel.

“People will realize the products around them have stories and will interact with them. At a certain point they won’t even need a code. The phone will recognize the object based on image recognition,” said Goldstein.

Not everyone is a fan, though. The public display of geographic information of scanners using Stickybits is already raising privacy concerns among consumers, if reviews on the iTunes App Store site are any indication. For marketers, Stickybits comes with all the inherent risks of social media’s open conversation around a brand. (Consider the possibilities for the uploading of rivals’ messages on their competitors’ products.) While legitimate consumer complaints and scrutiny are legit, anything “egregious” like porn will be removed, Goldstein said.

For his part, Richard Laermer, a social media guru and CEO of RLM PR, said he believes UPC-based mobile apps are a fad. “The one reason it’s not a trend is it has no wide-ranging implications,” he said. “I mean, you do it and then what?”