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To QR or not to QR ? Part 1 of a 2 Part Series

QR codes have been met with mixed reactions, from delight at the success of QR-based campaigns, to a total dismissal as an ineffective fad. There seem to be few ‘middle of the road’ opinions.

It helps if you know what it is!
My apologies to William Shakespeare for mis-quoting one of Hamlet’s most famous dramatic lines as the title, but it seemed appropriate…

QR codes have become a familiar item to many of us, but it’s amazing how few people know exactly what they are and how they function; and how often codes are used to create an impact without putting the correct support processes in place. It’s particularly alarming when those who have no idea of the QR function are the market to which QR campaigns are being targeted.

Sean X Cummings in his article entitled ‘Why the QR Code is failing’ tells how he hit the streets of San Francisco and asked 300 people to identify the picture he showed them – a QR code. Of the 300, only 11 percent identified the code correctly; the balance of the answers ranged from a 3D picture, to an aerial street map, to a secret military code. However, he didn’t stop there. Of those who identified the code, only 45 percent could access the required app on their cellphones – and it took them an average of 45 seconds to do it.

So what exactly is a QR code?
The Quick Response Code was originally developed in Japan by Toyota in 1994 to track its vehicle parts. QR codes are small squares, jam-packed with data. They are two-dimensional, designed in a matrix style and are able to contain far more information than its closest cousin, the USB scannable barcode. Marketing and advertising agencies thought it was a brilliant idea and adopted the concept a few years later: it quickly became the fashion in the creative world. QR Codes appeared all over the place – in newspapers, in magazines, on buses, and even on billboards.
The concept itself is excellent. Scan the QR code with your smartphone and get led to something of great interest that will entice you to buy, use a service, or just have your interest piqued as part of a campaign.

A more detailed explanation is offered by Wikipedia: QR codes (abbreviated from Quick Response code) are a specific matrix barcode (or two-dimensional code) that is readable by dedicated QR barcode readers and camera telephones. The code primarily consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background (can be customised, though). The information encoded may be text, an URL or other data and, when scanned by a QR barcode reader or camera phone, it will instruct a user’s device to perform a specific action. These actions can range from simply opening a mobisite or webpage and purchasing a product through to other engaging interactive experiences like gaining access to a venue.

Does it work?
Surely such a simple concept should have exceptionally high ROI possibilities? Yes, it should – if used correctly and creatively.

However, those who dislike QR codes support their lack of enthusiasm with lists of failed campaigns, citing the inability to use the concept correctly. Common denominators in failed campaigns include a lack of: creativity; technology required to access the required apps on smartphones (few iPhones do have an app as standard); and understanding of the market which the campaign wants to reach.


Many QR codes are used to drive consumers to a webpage that they could have accessed via the advertisement URL. Consumers may therefore, use the QR code once, out of curiosity, but there is no impulse to repeat the action. And QR codes that are merely stuck on as an afterthought on printed ads – without an exciting call to action that results in the consumer becoming part of the campaign, or winning and exciting prize – actually has the reverse result envisaged by the agency.

And, of course, once agencies get hold of a ‘new’ marketing concept, it is often used so often that it becomes an irritation rather than a result-driven tool. Often, only result is that the consumer begins to ignore them.

Aaron Strout, in ‘The Death of the QR Code’, underlines the lack of QR popularity with an interesting observation: ‘…I know that there is research that shows that an increasing number of people are “scanning a QR code,” but what I haven’t been able to find are statistics that show repeat usage.’ He feels we should be asking ourselves why the QR codes are not as popular as they should be, given that 50 percent of Americans own smart phones. Lack of creativity is one his five main reasons for non-performance. He has tried scanning codes, only to be taken to non-mobile optimised sites, or worse, to a site where he scratched his head wondering what the original call-to-action was. Cummings agrees that most of the QR codes found in current advertising are – in his opinion – ‘an absolute waste of time. I personally tested over 200 random QR codes I saw in advertising for this article, and it was a wake-up call to how absolutely uncreative agencies and brands have become.’ Another writer, B.L. Ochman points out in Ad Age Digital that ‘codes were deployed poorly in spots where they couldn’t be scanned, like billboards, or — perhaps lamest ever ¬ on license plates.’ One wonders what the creative minds were thinking!

Another survey – a more formal, structured one – was undertaken by comScore. More than 14 million mobile users in the USA scanned a QR code on their mobile device, representing 6,2 percent of the total mobile audience in the USA. A whopping 93,8 percent of the total mobile audience isn’t using QR codes.

As much as 49,4 percent of the QR code audience scanned from printed magazine or newspaper and 35,3 percent scanned from product packaging; 58 percent of the QR code audience scanned from home and 39,4 percent scanned in a retail store. The survey showed QR code users are stationary/at home/in the office, yet marketers tend to slap QR codes in high traffic areas with billboards and street-level advertising, as well as on TV and in movie trailers. (Source: Invoke – The Blog)

The stats can be drilled down even further. A survey printed by the DMA (US) in 2012 shows the QR response rate is higher in magazines than in any other print medium at up to six percent as opposed to considerably less than one percent for e-mail.

Ease of technological access
One can understand QR codes having some success in campaigns relying mainly on some form of print – but billboards (with the exception of Victoria’s Secret!), on the sides of buses and on car license plates? I don’t know of anyone who drives through the centre of Sandton, say, with cellphone at the ready – complete with app – just in case they see a QR code on a billboard. I should imagine few motorists would be willing to risk their right arms attempting to scan such codes; and even if they did, there would be many willing hawkers ready to relieve them of their seemingly generously-proffered iPhones! In fact, legislation banning the use of QR codes on highways is being considered in the Netherlands; and in Maryland USA, scanning a QR code while driving is as illegal as texting.

The main problem seems to be the time it takes to download the required app – supposing that the app is available. In the afore-mentioned study on the streets of San Francisco, only 45 percent of those who could identify a QR code were able to use it, but when asked to do so, it took an average of 47 seconds for the phone to be taken out and the required app to be found. As Cummings points out, it was hardly a ‘quick response’, particularly when agencies were placing the codes on moving buses and highway billboards.

Take into account also that so few iPhones come equipped with an easily accessed app…..

In answer to this problem, new technology has been developed, much of which will make QR codes obsolete. No downloads are required: users just run their smartphones over the content, which can be read immediately. Software developed in Japan, for example, has focused on children learning to read by encouraging them to access newspapers. The AR News app gives children with smartphones a child-friendly version of the news within specially-marked ‘boxes’. Blippar and Touchcode are two more recently-developed, brilliant technologies. Strout suggests easier solutions such as SMS short codes, augmented reality apps and mobile apps, arguing that ‘simpler’ is usually more effective.

NFC (Near Field Communication) is another option already in use.

Have QR campaigns made any impact?
There are always two sides to a coin, and for every reason why some people vehemently dislike QR codes (or rather, agencies’ inability to use them creatively to their full potential), you will find just as many admirers of the codes and the campaigns in which they have been used successfully.

Some say Yes…….
Some highly successful, creative campaigns have used QR codes as a way of engaging with the market. They have covered an extensive range of products and services, including: instant access to emergency services (Mercedes Benz), where scanning a QR code in the car gives emergency personnel an essential guide on how to remove people from the vehicle; free music downloads (Mountain Dew/Taco Bell partnership); favourite place restaurants (Google) with small window decals with QR codes in restaurant windows, generated specifically for that business, with reviews, ratings, and other information about that particular establishment. Passers-by scanned the codes to get an idea of where they might want to eat; menu creation – the Café Causette, Hong Kong, launched a mini-burger campaign, inviting diners to use QR codes to become fans of the hotel on Facebook and vote for the burger they would like to see earn a permanent spot on the café’s menu. It was a fun campaign engaging diners in a menu creation while also building a social media community of fans.

Retail 1 – Gillette used ads promoting a new line of razors via QR codes – and sexy models! The codes connected users to items of value such as videos, product reviews and the ability to buy merchandise right from a ‘phone.

Retail 2 from Heinz, who used QR codes with tremendous success in two campaigns – on its new environmentally-friendly ketchup, linking to a green knowledge competition and to support the Wounded Warrior campaign (consumers could use the code to thank military personnel and send a $1 donation – they collected over $250 000).

Retail 3 – during last year’s New York Fashion Week L’Oreal put QR codes in taxis, targeting its market demographics to go to a website featuring how-to videos featuring Yves Saint Laurent and Lancôme beauty products, with an option to buy.

Successful campaigns

Some campaigns received ‘Ohhhhhhh YES!’

Some say No….
As mentioned previously, amongst the reasons why QR codes fail is the lack of direction; users are rarely led to a call-to-action. Instead, they are either linked to the website – which could have been achieved with a simple URL – or, as in a couple of the campaigns mentioned below, there was no follow up at all!

This was the case in Buick’s print advertisement featuring a QR code. When scanned, the code led the reader to a short video explaining the car’s eAssist technology. BUT, when the video finished, the reader had nowhere else to go. That was it. No further information from a linked website, no links to dealers, no descriptions of the car itself, no incentives…; Goldman Sachs, the US investment giant, ran a series of print advertisements, each with a QR code. Scanning the code led only to a corporate video – nothing else – a total waste of time and money.

The problem with consulting firm Grant Thornton’s QR print campaign was very basic – the code couldn’t be scanned! The technology was obviously not neither researched nor understood, as it had so much information on it that the modules became too dense and too small to be scanned. One wonders why it wasn’t tested before it went to press…… Someone should mention to the agency that ‘Less is More’, particularly in marketing.

Some evoke both negative and positive reactions
Some QR campaigns evoked a mixed response. Some people loved them, while an equal number thought they were a waste of time.

And then there are some that are just SO ridiculous……

…….that the only reaction is unbelieving amazement! For a really good laugh, go to WTF QR Codes, a Tumblr site that features off-the-wall campaigns that are so hilariously stupid that you wonder what the agencies were smoking.

Have QR codes made an impact in South Africa?

My interest was piqued by Sean X Cumming’s survey on the streets of LA, so I put together a few questions.

Although my survey was a lot smaller (walking around the streets of Johannesburg asking 300 people questions is not exactly the safest thing to do!) and much simpler, the results were very interesting. Either South Africans are more ‘au fait’ with marketing practices, or the type of person questioned was one who would have more of an understanding of consumer campaigns. It’s even more interesting when one considers the relatively low penetration of the smartphone in the South African consumer market.

Of the people questioned, 90 percent own a smartphone and of those, only 45 percent have downloaded a QR Reader app. The ‘repeat’ scan theory was supported by the dwindling numbers of those who had last scanned a QR – from 20 percent over six months ago to only five percent in the last month. A whopping 45 percent, however, had never scanned a code. Sixty percent of the respondents noticed QR codes in campaigns; when asked in which medium, 47,37 percent answered ‘magazines’. South Africa is obviously following the trends shown in the DMA (US) illustration earlier in the article.

To answer the question…to QR or not to QR

I don’t know if there is a definite answer, as the reaction to the codes seems to be firmly on either side of the fence…..very few opinions are sitting on it.

If the code is used with intelligence, and with an understanding of its role in a campaign – that of a call to action – then there is a future. However, the software development available makes even that future somewhat uncertain.

For those of you who feel they are a waste of time, I leave you with my favourite……

Part 2 of the series on QR codes covers the technological advances that could make the QR codes obsolete, with a focus on their use in South African campaigns. Opinions from local agencies will feature.                      
By Nicholas Marini

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