QR so beautiful to me

Barcodes and me
In 1992, having saved up my pocket money, I became the proud owner of the pinnacle of early 90s games technology – the Barcode Battler. The machine (which featured on Blue Peter) promised to turn every day barcodes into power ups and characters, allowing cereal packets and washing powder boxes to become protagonists in epic battles. Or so I thought.

The technology, which was a bit hit in Japan, failed to live up to my expectations. Nothing really happened. The screen looked like it had been borrowed from a pocket calculator and I couldn’t find any barcodes that actually worked. The idea of playing against friends proved as exciting as doing a joint sudoku.

Twenty years on and barcodes have undergone a revolution. Barcodes have been replaced by QR (or Quick Response) codes which now appear in magazines, newspapers and posters and can be scanned by modern versions of the Barcode Battler: smartphones.

What is a QR code?
Generally speaking, they’re black and white grids that form a unique pattern. This pattern can be read by a smartphone and can hold web addresses, logos, product pricing etc. They can instantly and freely be created online or can be generated automatically, allowing data to be personalised and specific.

In print they’re used as a call-to-action and a way for smartphone users to jump to the advertiser’s website without having to type in a URL or remember it for later.

QR codes as marketing tools
A number of companies have started to find new ways to use the codes.

Starbucks coffee shops allow customers to pay with a QR code. The firm claim to have made 26 million such transactions in the US last year. A QR code linked to the customer’s Starbucks Card is displayed on screen, this is then scanned at the counter, and funds are deducted from the account.

Starbucks Press Release 24 Jan 2011

The process is straightforward and easy to use. From the company’s point of view, 26 million transactions will provide a considerable amount of customer data. It also takes away the need to provide them with costly plastic cards that will need to be replaced periodically. The company says the scheme will be rolled out in the UK this week.

Taking a different tack, the John Lewis Group has brought catalogue shopping outdoors, covering several Waitrose stores with posters showing products that can be purchased by scanning the corresponding code and collecting them the next day in the shop. John Lewis Marketing Director Craig Inglis said: “The roll-out of our Click and Collect service to Waitrose shops is proving incredibly popular. This new 24 hour virtual shop in the heart of Brighton takes that convenience to another level”. The campaign has attracted significant local interest, but it is hard to gauge whether it has been successful. The local paper reports that few passers by could or would use the service.

Waitrose storefront featuring John Lewis product QR codes
Waitrose storefront featuring John Lewis product QR codes

In Singapore, the government has used QR coding to speed up inspections of the city’s hawker markets. Data on the stalls’ produce allows the inspectors to carry out their inspections more quickly and efficiently. The potential to open this data up to consumers would potentially allow them to make decisions over the quality and nutritional qualities of their purchases.

Calvin Klein has made good use of people’s natural inquisitiveness by using nothing but a QR code to advertise its underwear. Whilst the idea is clever, this novelty would soon wear off. Indeed scanning the code reveals a video which may not be something people would watch as they pass the billboard!

There are a number of security issues. It has been reported that new codes have been stuck on top of codes in public places, directing people to a malicious website or premium rate phone number. It could also be possible to copy the code linked to a credit account (like the Starbucks system), and simply use someone else’s account to pay for your coffee.

Lego Shop Digital Box
Lego Shop Digital Box

Competing technologies are emerging very quickly. Lego shops have stations which allow one to hold up a box and see a 3D model of the kit it contains. This is a great way of communicating what the finished product will look like, which may be difficult to do in a 2D image.

NFC (Near Field Communication) chips are appearing in newer mobile phone handsets. This technology will allow more advanced features including contactless payment and two way interactions with signs and billboards.

QR codes as marketing tools
So are they the call-to-action of the future? There is no doubt that enabling customers to quickly access detailed information about a product and pay for it using a smartphone is going to be good for sales. Indeed, the ubiquity of internet enabled phones shows how important a shopping medium this will become. The question is whether QR codes are they way to do it.

A big risk is actually getting people to use them. Writer Charlie Brooker recently tweeted

“Basically if you’re thinking of putting a QR Code on an advert, don’t. You might as well put up a set of unnecessary stairs for me to climb.”

A QR code on an advert often requires a person to have a specific app on his or her phone and it may not be clear what benefit scanning it will have. From a marketing point of view therefore, it is difficult to persuade someone to scan a poster in the street. Codes in magazines or newspapers may be more appealing, simply because they’re more likely to be read by someone who has a bit more time on their hands.

Sam Beckbessinger writes on the Memeburn blog:

“Dear everyone. Please stop using QR codes. Stop putting them on your billboards. Your posters. Your magazines. Your flyers. Your websites. Just stop. Until you sit down and think about it a lot more carefully. Thank you.”

Appropriate use of a QR code is fundamental. It must

  1. Be located in the right place, ie not on the side of a bus!
  2. Have words explaining the benefit of scanning it
  3. Be easy to use
  4. Lead to content appropriate for mobile internet browsing
  5. Lead to content that fulfils no. 2

So do I need one?
Start from the outcome you want before deciding on what the best tool for the job is.

If you want your audience to know more about a product or service with limited interaction, it may work. Read through the list above and consider your target audience. In many emerging markets, mobile internet connections outnumber home internet connections, therefore a quick way to get information into a device is appealing to both advertiser and consumer.

Write your plan, consider the pros and cons of using a QR code, but don’t include one just for the sake of it. A quick response isn’t always to be a positive one.



    1. Thanks! That looks really impressive, but I can’t help thinking it’ll be usurped fairly quickly. It can’t be long before an app can recognise its surroundings through a combination of gps, signal triangulation, text recognition etc?

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