New Bar Code Still a Mystery
Nearly two years ago, Inside Direct Mail reported on a new bar code that surfaced in a mailing from Capital One Financial Corp. ("A New Code in Town," IDM February 2002), and its function is stumping industry experts even still.
We've all seen Postnet codes, required by the U.S. Postal Service on bulk mailings and necessary for receiving postal discounts, and to a lesser degree the newer PLANET Codes, which track mailings en route through the postal system. But the bar code first seen on Capital One mailings, and now on those for Fleet National Bank (544FLEBAN0903), Advanta Bank Corp. (544ADVANT0903) and Children International (613CHIINT0903)the first nonprofit to be seen using the codehas raised a few more eyebrows, as it is neither a Postnet nor PLANET code.
The code has several distinct characteristics from its Postal code counterparts. First, it appears on business reply envelopes, not by the address label or window on an outer envelope. Second, as Dave Lewis of direct mail tracking company Trackmymail.com explains, Postnet and PLANET codes are "height-modulated bar codes," meaning that the codes are interpreted by the length of each bar; the new codes are uniform in height, similar to UPC codes, which are "width-modulated."
"I would be pretty sure this has nothing to do with the Postal Service. To my knowledge, the Postal Service will not read these codes," says Lewis.
All three credit card companies label the code on the BRE:
* Advanta refers to it as an "Application Tracking Code";
* Capital One calls it a "Customer Locator Code"; and
* Fleet calls it a "Customer Tracking Code."
Fleet and Capital One also both run a warning against unauthorized envelope tampering immediately above or beneath the code.
Andrew Davidson, vice president of market-research firm Synovate, says, "We interpreted the [code] numbers as a warning to potential tamperers that they could be traced." Synovate executives "began noticing these bar codes and tracking numbers on offer BREs collected on Mail Monitor back in March 2002," Davidson recalls. (Mail Monitor and Inside Track® are part of Synovate's Financial Services Practice, which provides marketing research, intelligence and services to the banking and payments industries.)
And, considering that the Federal Trade Commission reported that 27 million Americans were victims of identity theft in the last five years, it wouldn't be surprising if financial companies tried to quell consumer concerns about mail transactions.
Lewis says that he could be pretty sure of just one thing: The codes are not for external scanning. "Whether it's a marketing tactica kind of faux personalizationor a fraud deterrent, I couldn't say."
The use of the bar code without the warning on the packages for Children International and Advanta, however, raises some doubt about the code's use as a fraud deterrent, but doesn't discount it entirely, since it still sends out the message that the piece can be tracked.
Wayne Gurley of Gurley Direct Marketingwho has provided direct mail services for many nonprofit organizations, such as the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the March of Dimes, Greenpeace and The Salvation Armyis not exactly sure what the code is either. "It's probably a coding so that a caging operation can track responses before they actually open [the reply envelopes] and deposit funds," he suggests. "I saw one recently with a scannable bar code, and name and address on the back of a BRE, which was tracking responses from a union vote, so it's being used on a number of different applications."
Hopefully, we will soon know for sure the true function of these codesthat is, if one of the companies using them is eventually willing to talk and put this mystery to rest.