It seems like no matter what you do or where you go, you will encounter QR codes. Walking down the street in Toronto? QR codes on the bus stop ads! Going to a new restaurant? QR codes and no physical menus. And naturally, why print a piece of paper to provide proof of vaccination, when a quick scan of a QR code on the phone screen will suffice? In short, it seems like this tool is not going away any time soon.
However, this raises an interesting discussion point. While it seems like a common trend now, the reality is that the QR code has been around for many years. So, if adland has always had the ability to make QR-driven content, why was it not received warmly until recently? The answer, of course, is the pandemic. With the need for contactless options, this technology proved exceedingly useful, and subsequently became normalised. But more than that, it proved an opportunity to consider why the QR code hadn’t succeeded sooner, and for the best creative minds in the business to refine its purpose, function and utility.
LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with Wunderman Thompson APAC chief transformation and strategy officer Justin Peyton, FUSE Create director, creative strategy Jacquie Kostuk, Cheil UK head of strategy and experience Michael Chadwick, and Deloitte Digital creative directors Zac Carroll and Lora Faris to learn more about this resurgence, and why the QR code is unlikely to go away any time soon.
Chief transformation and strategy officer at Wunderman Thompson APAC
QR Codes are the technology that everyone loves to hate. Or at least, they were… until the pandemic when they appeared everywhere. After all, why touch something when you can use a QR code and keep your hands clean?
They’ve been around since the mid ’90s, but for the most part, no one paid any attention. Sometimes it takes strange circumstances to kick start the usage of a new technology, but with those circumstances fading, the question is, where do they go from here?
First, it’s worth noting that a QR is really nothing more than a URL. As simplistic as it sounds, it’s true. It’s also why they still have the ability to succeed from here and won’t just fade away with covid-19. Brands want to deep link people to specific areas of a website or to specific content items, and while we’ve used hyperlinks for this for years, they won’t suffice. The digital and the real world are overlapping more and more, and mobile is gaining further ground as the preeminent front door to digital experiences, with QR codes becoming the hyperlinks for mobile.
This sounds ridiculous on the surface, and it is when you think about QR codes for simple things such as viewing a menu at a restaurant. But, when you think about this digital/physical world overlap, the idea that brands might want to use places to trigger digital experiences, or might want to enable AR experiences to augment real world events, QR codes as a trigger - as a hyperlink – start to make a huge amount of sense.
And while they might look a bit dry and boring, there are some fantastic examples of creatively executed outdoor QR codes. For example, we’ve seen drones used to create QR codes in the sky, and furniture used on outdoor billboards to create a QR code made from the product itself.
Director, creative strategy at FUSE Create
It’s funny to think of how unnecessary the QR code felt three or so years ago. It was saved by covid-19, because it forced every cohort to adapt quickly. However, no longer needing a QR specific reader helps significantly, because opening a camera on a phone was already second nature. What it means, to advertisers and brands, is that consumers can take action on a traditional medium call to action almost as easily as digital. There’s no fussing with getting the URL right or googling the product to find it later. People are naturally curious as to what’s behind the code, as they’ve learned it reveals something of interest, like the menu at a new restaurant.
Additionally, the QR code gives us the capability to provide a rich experience in a single symbol like a playlist, shoppable retail, video, games, AR/VR, contest or offer, which can result in a more memorable brand interaction. Pair that with the new-ish partial design flexibility (can’t mess with code aspect), and it’s way better than just another URL, and way stickier for consumers hit with thousands of messages. So have one with it!
Head of strategy and experience at Cheil UK
QR codes are, at their core, a gateway: a portal or teleporter between a physical point and a digital experience. And that’s why their early emergence as a marketing tool proved to be such a damp fizzle, because in the majority of cases, brand QR codes were a gateway with no destination on the other side.
In many cases, the marketer’s impulse was to focus on the application of the QR code itself - ‘where shall we put it’ – rather than its destination – ‘where does it take you’. As such, QR codes in marketing frequently became shortcuts to nothing, when in reality, people needed to be made to look through the QR code to what they could access on the other side.
This is symptomatic of marketing’s use of much tech innovation - a focus on ‘let’s use it’ rather than ‘how can this help us to improve customer experience?’. And what we’ve seen over the last few years, catalysed by the pandemic, has been a flip from trying to find ways to use QR codes to having them as part of our arsenal when we are solving customer experience problems.
The QR code’s journey to utility, in the Western world at least (in other regions, QRs had enjoyed much earlier and more successful adoption), changed trajectory massively with the pandemic, with a number of things driving this renaissance. Firstly, there was the need to connect physical experiences with contactless digital ones. This is the absolute sweet spot of the QR code, and the pandemic has driven a broader rise in connected online-offline journeys across all sorts of categories, with the QR code increasingly showing its value as a shortcut between the two.
Usage throughout the pandemic period also drove increasing consumer fluency in using QRs. But perhaps the most significant driver of all has been that organisations were forced to look more closely and more transformatively at their customer experience journeys. Many had to relook at and redesign these journeys in a way they simply hadn’t needed to in the preceding years, and as a result, found opportunities for step-change improvement. For a good number of those opportunities, the QR code had a role to play in fixing the pain point.
What the brands most successfully utilising QRs have done in recent years is look not just at incremental improvements, but at how these capabilities might enable a fundamental rewiring and reboot of our systems and behaviours. These brands have posed themselves two simple questions. First, ‘if I can open a door directly from this physical space to this digital space, what can I enable for consumers?’. And secondly, ‘how can opening a gateway between the physical and the digital create a more radical change in the customer experience?’.
Here is a great example of a business using QR codes at a more fundamental, rather than tactical level:
- Samsoe Samsoe, a Danish fashion brand, created a ‘Resell Tag’ – a QR code in their clothing labels which, when scanned, auto-generates a social advert to resell the item – pre-populating it with all details regarding the item and connecting to social platforms so that finding a buyer becomes a one-click activity, thus helping to drive the brand’s sustainability and circular economy agendas
In truth, as we move to a world in which the digital world grows ever more omnipresent and immersive, and in which the connections between it and the physical become more and more vital, gateways between these two worlds will become increasingly valuable. At least until we start to see the next wave of AR wearables changing the game in terms of an ‘always-on’ mixed reality experience, we will need more signposts and doorways directing us into the digital layer from relevant places in the real world. By finding and owning those connection points, brands can create not just commercially valuable experiences, but more fundamental changes in the way we do things.
Zac Carroll and Lora Faris
Creative directors at Deloitte Digital
How can a hairy QR code make a dent in pop culture? Facing competitors who outspend them one hundred to one in media dollars, CSAA Insurance Group knew they would never win a billion-dollar shouting match through traditional media alone. So, in lieu of being outshouted, we took advantage of the overwhelming surge of QR code adoption and the anniversary of an iconic and beloved meme. On the 35th anniversary of the internet’s favourite ‘80s song, we painstakingly recreated Rick Astley’s iconic music video for ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ with an InsurAAAnce twist.
But, recreating the video wasn’t enough. We needed to recreate the entire magic of the ‘Rickroll’ experience, and with the mass adoption of QR codes, we had this amazing opportunity to seamlessly Rickroll our audience. But because of that same popularity, we also had to make sure our QR code could stand out and was compelling enough for people to scan it.
Enter Astley’s signature locks. And to further push the envelope, size, scale, placement, and wherever possible, subtle motion, we created a curious and undeniably scannable QR code. The result? While our intention was to ‘Rickroll’ America, our well-coiffed QR code ended up ‘Rickrolling’ the world. A moment of joy from an unexpected place - a regional insurer!