We ask a bumper crop of marketers from The Drum Network why the humble QR code it still enjoying its long renaissance, and where the tech will head next.
Packaging, payment, a gateway to augmented reality worlds, and a star of the organized response to the Covid-19 pandemic: the QR code has emerged as the little technology that could. But, deep down, is it all just a gimmick? Is it living on borrowed time? Or is there more growth on the horizon?
Here, leaders from The Drum Network tell us why that relatively low-fi tech has become quietly indispensable to advertisers despite being almost 30 years old, and what tricks it’s still got up its blocky sleeve.
Alessandro Camaioni, UK strategy director, Momentum Worldwide: “February 2022. The humble QR code, mocked for a decade as a useless gimmick, was rescued by turning into an unlikely metaphor for social distancing, eventually surging as the most popular and talked about ad of Superbowl LVI.
“Was that the peak of QR fever? No. As one of the most democratic forms of smartphone technology, it will only become more ubiquitous in line with universal smartphone adoption.
“QR code payments alone are projected to grow from $8bn (2020) to $35bn (2030).
“Behavioral science can explain why QRs are the perfect marketing tool. Visual, immediate, able to offer a kick of instant gratification and reward our curiosity: QRs cut through the noise in a way no other medium can (until AR contact lenses enter our lives).”
Jim Hare, digital creative director, Bulletproof: “Over-communicating the ‘reason to scan’ remains the key challenge – otherwise all content stays hidden. People are happy to scan if the execution is novel enough. Cygames’ drone show, forming a QR in the Shanghai night sky, is a spectacular example.
“But, like anything that takes effort to engage with, QR codes are only as effective as the payoff they provide. Ritual driving is where we’re headed now. Codes that recognize how many times they’ve been scanned and serve up new, sequenced content, provide people with a fresh reason to retain and revisit QRs. Repeated scans form habits and therefore give the tech a longer, more meaningful lifespan – brilliant for brands seeking to drive ritual building or instructive learning.”
Yahye Siyad, diversity & accessibility lead, Cyber-Duck: “As someone with a serious visual impairment, if QR codes (as typically used today) died out tomorrow, almost nothing would be lost in terms of my engagement with brands. Blind people simply don’t know they’re there unless we’re told, and they mostly link off to sites incompatible with screenreaders. For people with motor control impairments, it’s hard to hold a phone (and the object the QR code is on), and scan it. And taking people who’re deaf to audio descriptions or videos without captions is a dead end.
“It wouldn’t take much to rethink this to deliver brilliant, inclusive brand experiences. QR alternatives like NaviLens can be used at long distances, scanning the environment. Near-field communication (NFC) integration could directly ‘ping’ a disabled user’s device via assistive technology rather than having to scan.
“QRs should lead to a choice of accessible content. Without this type of inclusive design thinking, any brilliant potential QR use cases are simply beside the point.”
Del Credle, head of strategy & media, Laundry Service: “Having lived in China, where QR codes are part of daily life, I’ve seen their potential. I used them multiple times a day: buying groceries, exchanging personal details, renting bicycles, opening doors, and paying bills.
“They are not yet being fully realized here in the US. And, while there are endless implications for marketers, the meaningful opportunities lie in their potential for e-commerce and to ease our use of technology in everyday living. We should push to integrate them natively first in our social ads and organic posts.”
Josh Kirby, associate programmatic director, M&C Saatchi Performance: “QR codes are a brilliant concept, bridging the gap between the online and real world.
“But they are being used as a gimmick over performance. In most use cases (CTV, DOOH), the QR code sits at the end of an ad with no time for consumers to interact. Tracked tests show that the number of people willing (or able) to use the QR code is so small that marketers can develop no real insight into the performance of that campaign. If QR codes have a hope of lasting, advertisers need to rethink their delivery, and make usability a priority.”
Jonathan Izzard, strategy director, Wonder (part of the Amplify collective): “It’s easy to feel underwhelmed by the sight of a QR code. It’s the visual embodiment of rigmarole: dig out your phone, open the camera, pinch to focus, and launch a link, all while wondering whether the end will justify the means.
“But, for brand experiences, QR codes can help offer more enriched and inclusive moments. NaviLens (souped-up QR codes) at exhibitions and events provide blind and partially sighted audiences with vital wayfinding and experiential narratives.
“QR codes offer a universal baseline for connecting audiences and a lo-fi conduit to whatever’s next, from mobile payments to location-based interactions; AR to AI.”
Caitlin Lacey, senior director of product marketing, Niantic: “Mainstream adoption of QR codes during the pandemic has led to the ability to provide interactive experiences almost anywhere. Now a globally recognized portal that delivers useful information and experiences (and with new features and improvements in the pipeline), they will get more versatile, more secure, and more personalized still.
“Launch a webAR experience via your QR code on branded packaging and provide consumers more context for your product or delight them with a map to a physical location. QR codes can invite folks back; the hard work of showing people what to do and when to do it is behind us.”
Nick Horne, creative director, True: “Perhaps the value of QR codes has been misplaced – note their superfluous use on the side of lorries whilst driving down the motorway.
“More recently, we’ve seen QRs used as ‘likeness tests’, when a person is being authenticated by on desktop. Now, with AI’s developing ability with mimicry and deep fakes, likeness tests are driven through users’ phones with live imagery, with users’ transition from desktop to mobile handled by QR codes – a process WhatApp is also using for authentication. Obsolete technology? We think not.”
David Moore, executive creative director, VMLY&R Commerce: “The QR code is just the on-ramp to engagement. It’s not the engagement itself. Additional technology (geo-location, object recognition, AR, AI) can be added to create the rich, immersive experiences that consumers love. This flexibility and adaptability are why they’re so resilient.
“We’ve been harnessing the QR code’s power to add fun and relevancy to the moment of transaction. We’ve enabled customers to turn sneakers into cookies with Oreo Stuff Scan, Coke banners at the World Cup into meals with Billboard Labels. Even the loose change in your pocket can become an escape with Nature Valley Adventure Quarters.
“As demand rises for omnichannel experiences, the future of the QR code is only limited by our creative imagination.”
Shaun Crockett, creative director, experience, Signal Theory: “Our world is increasingly mobile and digital. The ability to transform a physical experience into a digital one with a wave of a smartphone is powerful. Yes, it can provide a beer list at the bar, but it can also bring up assembly instructions with an augmented reality layer showing how that bookshelf goes together.
“And don’t forget about wearables. QR codes are the perfect language for fancy XR glasses to provide a physical connection to your digital life. QR codes aren’t going anywhere. They have become the conduit for users to connect in a more seamless way to other technologies.”
David Brewster, client lead at GreenJinn: “Brands and agencies want to use QR codes, but don’t know how to make them effective. The call to action is vital. Instead of simply sending people to their websites, brands need to offer something to customers.
“We help brands use QR codes with our tech to give consumers tangible CTAs from the media with an in-store (or online) coupon, making the media work harder. Brands can see the media performance, understand the consumer’s journey, and retarget.”
Rob Walsh, vice president, brand experience, Allied Global Marketing: “QR codes will play an ever-evolving role in the world of brand experience, allowing brands to leverage their versatility, creating more seamless experiences.
“With augmented reality (AR), QR codes can bridge the gap between the real and virtual worlds. QR codes on tickets will grant access to live streams and exclusive content, providing an immersive way to enjoy events from home. At live events, QR codes will support ticketing and custom interactive experiences. Imagine going to a festival bar, scanning a QR code, and being offered contactless payment, menu access, personalized drink recommendations and loyalty rewards.
“From a sustainability standpoint, QR codes will contribute to brands’ carbon emission goals, offering eco-friendly marketing practices by reducing the need for printed materials.
“In a world demanding instant gratification, the QR code’s simplicity, speed and accessibility means it will play an important role in the future.”