Previously Cast Aside, QR Codes Are Making a Comeback

Advancements in technology and necessity are leading brands like Coinbase, Buick, and Avocados From Mexico to rediscover the once humbled QR code

By Christopher Heine

In a 30-second ad titled “Cinco Renaissance,” Avocados From Mexico plays up the end of the Middle Ages with a blowout party, closing with a QR code. After falling out of favor in the past decade, QR codes are suddenly ubiquitous, spurred by the pandemic as well as better integration in smartphone operating systems. Avocados From Mexico/YouTube

If there was an award for "Best Technology Comeback Story of the Past Two Years," the winner would be QR codes. And what a comeback story it is.

After capturing a great deal of hype during the early 2000s, the scannable, Matrix-looking "quick response" barcodes turned into a punchline within the marketing and technology industries. But during the pandemic they were suddenly ubiquitous again. Thanks to better integration in smartphone operating systems, which made the codes easier to interact with, and a need during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to keep customers safe, the QR code became a must-have tool for in-person commerce.

Fast-forward to early 2022, with Coinbase, Buick, and Avocados From Mexico among a growing number of brands using QR codes in their TV ads. Here's why: According to Statista, 82 percent of U.S. households own at least one internet-connected TV, which is central to making the combination of QR codes and ads work in sync.

Coinbase's Super Bowl commercial using QR codes was so popular that it temporarily crashed the app. The ad, announcing a giveaway of $15 in Bitcoin to anyone signing up by mid-February, featured a QR code bouncing around the screen like the square "ball" from Pong, the game that helped spark the video gaming craze in the 1970s.

Industry observers see the current appeal of QR codes with much more staying power compared to the early 2000s.

"QR codes can turn TV ads into direct-response mechanisms, if done well."
— David Deal, CEO of David J. Deal Consulting

"Part of the reason these codes will stick around for now is that it's not uncommon for today's viewers to watch TV on one device while holding their phone in their hands," says Jeremy Goldman, director of the marketing and commerce briefings at Insider Intelligence, which forecasts that QR code scanning will increase 10 percent in 2022 following a 25 percent jump in 2020. "Consumers like the flexibility and brands [and] platforms enjoy better trackability."

David Deal, CEO of David J. Deal Consulting, adds: "Brands are jumping on to a bandwagon with QR codes as they did with hashtags in 2012. But what's different is that QR codes can turn TV ads into direct-response mechanisms, if done well, but it has taken time for the technology to mature."

Manuel Bordé, global chief creative officer at VMLY&R COMMERCE, says QR codes will continue to be used in TV ads. "It's the equivalent of incorporating a website or phone number on an ad to generate a response or encourage an action," he says.

Melding the Digital and Physical Worlds (Naturally)

As the appeal of QR codes increases, brands are trying to figure out the most effective ways to weave them into their marketing efforts.

For Women's History Month in March, for instance, ANA member Buick ran TV ads for its #SeeHerGreatness campaign with a QR code that directs viewers to a landing page where they can see additional videos. The 30-second spot, which included a QR code embedded on the screen, ran frequently during March Madness NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments.

"In [media] like television and at onsite activations, QR codes enable us to extend our storytelling beyond our broadcast spot or physical footprint," says Mallory Woodrow, brand strategy and advertising manager at Buick. "They allow us to drive meaningful engagement — all from the convenience of the consumer's mobile device."

More and more brands are joining the fray. When Avocados From Mexico launched an integrated ad campaign to coincide with the Super Bowl, for instance, QR codes appeared in online video ads and via in-store promotions, but not in the TV spot that ran during the game. The brand quickly shifted its mobile strategy to feature QR codes, including TV ads celebrating Cinco de Mayo, which rolled out in April.

"Cinco Renaissance," a new ad from Avocados From Mexico celebrating Cinco de Mayo, culminates with a QR code. After being in the digital wilderness for the past decade, QR codes have made a resurgence, spurred by the pandemic and the growing need for brands to ferry their message between the digital and physical worlds. As TV watching with a smartphone in hand has become the norm, QR codes are being thread into a growing number of 30- and 60-second spots by major brands. Avocados From Mexico/YouTube

"We are considering all options, including QR codes in innovative [out-of-home advertising] efforts that would link to the type of novel and disruptive experiences that characterize [our] marketing efforts," says Ivonne Kinser, VP of marketing and innovation at Avocados From Mexico. "For a long time, marketers have been exploring avenues to connect the physical and the digital worlds, and the experiences living natively in each. Nowadays, QR codes represent that long-awaited connector."

Eighty-three million smartphone users — representing 38 percent of smartphone users — will scan a QR code this year, per eMarketer, with that share growing to 43 percent by 2025. The ease of scanning codes is no longer an unappreciated feature in the mobile age, and QR codes only mark the beginning of an augmented reality (AR) journey for marketers.

Indeed, the number of people worldwide who use mobile AR is forecast to grow 33 percent, to 800 million this year, according to Statista, and reach 1.73 billion by 2024.

Personalizing the Experience

The restaurant industry has been a major catalyst for the QR codes' rapid adoption, what with fast food chains and upscale eateries alike ramping up their use of QR codes during the pandemic to facilitate contactless deliveries.

Steve Fredette, a co-founder of Toast, which provides technology catering to the restaurant field, says QR codes will continue to be top of mind when people plan to go out to eat.

"Diners will come to expect mobile ordering features, such as ordering drinks and appetizers ahead of time," he says. "And as more restaurants leverage their first-party data, the mobile experience can be personalized for each diner."

Kinser of Avocados From Mexico adds that QR-code personalization provides a good deal of upswing for brands of all stripes. "Brands must purposefully create context-based web experiences," she says. "For example, the web experience created for a QR code placed in a retail environment would be completely different from the web experience linked to a QR code delivered through a TV ad."

She adds that QR codes also help to uncover first-party data, which is increasingly crucial amid the gradual demise of third-party cookies. "Since a mobile device is used to pull the QR code from a physical environment, brands with the proper data infrastructure are able to capture the users' device IDs and retarget them at a future time with personalized messages," Kinser says.

Bordé of VMLY&R COMMERCE stresses that QR codes can be personalized across the customer experience (CX). "One in particular is through unique QR codes for geolocation to serve up contextually relevant ads when a consumer hits a site, or asking the user to log in," he says.

He adds, "We've heard 'content is king' but really, today, context is king. As we look to understand the mindset of a consumer and where they are in their shopper journey, QR codes are one way to obtain data … and other consumption variables that, at the end of the day, [will bolster the] CX and sales."

Little Risk for Brands

The power of QR codes go beyond TV spots and retail executions and into outer space. Take Northrop Grumman's new "Portals to Space" campaign, which deployed QR codes to get its message out.

People who scanned the codes were educated about the ecosystems of satellites and sensors and told how fixing satellites can save companies hundreds of millions of dollars if done properly.

"The mystery behind what the QR code will deliver to audiences is why it's still so intriguing to use," says Casey Aitken, group creative director at dentsuMB, who worked on the ad campaign for Northrop Grumman. "[It's powerful] to transform even the most ho-hum [out-of-home] ad into a moment to transport audiences into the depths of space."

Beyond widespread consumer adoption, another reason that marketers are ramping up their use of QR codes is because the risk is minimal.

"QR codes are relatively simple and low-cost to develop," says Nick Miaritis, EVP of client services at VaynerMedia, whose clients include AB InBev, Kraft Heinz, and Mondelēz. "But there needs to be a strong strategy behind it to produce a return."

Cross-marketing QR codes with other channels should be part of a brand's mobile strategy. "Given [their] momentum, QR codes can now be used to communicate at all points of the consumer journey," Miaritis says.

That multichannel journey will continue to include the experience of sitting on one's couch in front of the TV, smartphone in hand. Against that backdrop and ongoing changes in consumer behavior due to the pandemic, companies are expected to boost their investments in QR codes, with ample room for growth. "QR codes [were] like the compact discs of the digital age — totally uncool," Deal says. "But everything uncool becomes cool again if you wait long enough."

 


 

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