What brands need to know about QR codes in 2022

We explore how QR codes are being harnessed in retail, by FMCG brands and what the experts are predicting for this formerly humble technology in 2022

Two years ago, QR codes were a has-been technology lacking a compelling business case. Fast forward to today, and their use is not only broad, but continuing to proliferate.

QR codes came of age during the Covid-19 pandemic thanks to the functional benefits they represented, namely through mobile-based, check-in systems. By the time 2021 kicked off, QR codes were being leveraged in everything from contact tracing to restaurant table ordering, out-of-home campaigning, packaging, ticketing, parking, payments and more.

There’s no doubt QR codes give brands and companies a quick and easy mechanism to bring digital and physical together. And importantly, consumers are more willing to use them than ever.

To point to just one study backing this up, The Drum/YouGov in June 2021 found 75 per cent of US respondents planning to use QR codes moving forward. What’s more, 45 per cent had used a QR code relating to a marketing, advertising or promotional offer in the three months prior to being surveyed.

This is a far cry from a poll conducted by Econsultancy in 2012, where 62 per cent of Australians didn’t know what QR codes were or how to use them.

“Since 1994, QR codes have made many efforts to become relevant without success,” said YouGov sector head of media, Tamara Alesi, in The Drum report. “The pandemic changed that. For the first time, QR codes have a real purpose. In a world where ‘touchless’ became a mandate to protect consumer health, the value proposition of the QR code finally became clear to the world at large. Now consumers are using QR codes in everyday life, to view menus, pay restaurant bills, get more information on home and car sales and more.”

As Landor & Fitch executive director for experience strategy, Americas, Joe Crump, puts it, it’s taken a pandemic to make QR codes part of daily life. He notes 86 per cent of Americans have used the technology and numbers are still increasing as the ways QR codes are used explodes. QR usage in China is even more common, with the next-gen barcode central to all transactions on the ubiquitous mobile payment platforms of Alipay and Wechat.

“Recent data says more than 90 per cent of grocery shoppers in the US have their mobile phones out while shopping in the aisles, so scanning a QR code as part of that process is going to become as common as comparing prices or looking at product ingredients – and much faster and easier,” Crump tells CMO. “We’ll continue to see QR codes proliferate in all aspects of the rhythms and routines of daily life. If there’s a brand, it’s going to be highly likely that there’s also a QR code at hand.”  

Brauz founder and CEO, Lee Hardham, is another who sees rapid adoption of QR technology by retailers enabling more efficient and convenient experiences for consumers. Brauz provides a video-enabled commerce platform for retailers that connects customer live to staff via video or reserve products in-store.

“For consumers, the introduction of check-in apps has turned QR codes from a somewhat gimmicky technology into something inherent to our everyday lives,” he says. “QR codes have also done particularly well in hospitality, through the likes of Mr Yum as an example, which has invested heavily in QR code technology.”

Melbourne-based Mr Yum, a mobile ordering and payment system, raised US$65 million in Series A funding in November 2021 and is going global - fast.

“We made a big bet on QR codes early on,” its CEO, Kim Teo, said when discussing the latest investment round. “We saw QR code readers had been embedded into the iPhone camera about three months before we launched, so we took that as a signal they would become more widely used. Obviously QR codes are now commonplace and the past couple of years has saved us years of consumer education and any hesitation around them.”

For Hardham, now consumers are much more well-versed in QR codes, “we can definitely expect to see a proliferation of the technology in the coming year as brands look to find more contextual commerce opportunities.”  

Dominant use cases

QR codes are particularly pertinent to the modern shopping process as they deliver functional benefits such as content distribution and omni-channel connection.

“In physical locations likes stores, or on packages, they allow shoppers to quickly and easily understand details about a product or service, to access coupons or other incentives, or to sign up for loyalty programs or other CRM programs,” Crump explains. “At Landor & Fitch, we see QR codes as an important new tool in the brand transformation toolkit. QR codes are integrated into our designs for connected packaging and connected experiences. This converts packages, and even products themselves, into a piece of media that can bring a brand’s unique value proposition to life.”

For Crump, it’s a powerful innovation because the experiences QR codes trigger can help solve practical problems. An example could be helping shoppers make better decisions while in the grocery store aisle. Equally, QR code can facilitate more profound brand storytelling that builds brand equity, differentiation and relevance, he says.

“Connected packaging also extends the lifecycle of the package far beyond triggering desire at the moment of purchase, because the content accessed by the QR code is available for the entire life of the package – and it can be changed dynamically over time,” Crump continues. “This allows new content to be introduced sequentially and in different locations beyond the store, while using the product on the go, or at home, in the context of use.

“Connected packaging gives brands a sort of ‘experience bubble’ that travels along with their products, and an entirely new way to connect with their customers over time.”   

One FMCG employing QR codes in this way is Simplot, which has made the decision to place QR codes on all packaging across its range. In its latest Bird’s Eye Ocean Selections campaign, the units are being employed to connect consumers to the brand’s first augmented reality (AR) experience.

Credit: Simplot

The Birds Eye Fish Catching ARdventure transforms consumers home into an ocean world so they can play a fishing game while they wait for their (real) fish to cook. The experience, created by Wunderman Thompson, incorporates content that matches the fish type they’re looking for, bringing the product story to life in a new way.

“We have seen a rapid acceleration in consumers technology habits. It’s posed a question of how we best connect with consumers in a digital-led world,” says Simplot GM marketing, Katie Saunders.

As to QR codes themselves, Saunders sees them as useful but ultimately two-dimensional tools that alone, don’t drive engagement. Instead, Simplot they’re a facilitation tool for a more interactive experience between consumer and product. Hence the combination of QR, AR and content in the Bird’s Eye campaign.

“Two years ago, QR codes were something no one was using. It’s a 20-year-old technology. But today, what was old is new. Here we are with a tech platform that connects to QR and brings AR into being,” Saunders adds. “We sell millions of packs – it’s one-to-one engagement strategy where we can talk to consumers in the moment they’re looking at the pack or when they’re at home looking at what to do with our range.”

Read more: Why Simplot's marketing team is whole-heartedly embracing QR and AR

Physical and digital connector

Crump positions a QR code as nothing more than a doorway between the physical and digital world.

“What happens beyond that doorway is literally limitless,” he says. “QR codes can serve up anything that’s possible on the mobile Internet – storytelling, social media, video, gaming, sending and receiving money, app downloads, coupons, and on and on. They can also transport people into immersive brand worlds using AR or VR, mashing up digital content with the user’s physical environment.”

A compelling content-led example Crump points is from women’s clothing store, Balenciaga, under the leadership of Demna Gvasalia. The brand is known to be at the frontier of digital innovation in the world of high fashion.

“Gvasalia has rejected the conventional trope of the industry – the video of the lavishly produced runway show – and instead created a bespoke video game to unveil the house’s Fall-Winter 2021-22 collection,” Crump explains. The game, Afterworld – the age of tomorrow, was accessed by a QR code.”   

It’s just one retail example. In its The State of Retail Report, Bazaarvoice found 35 per cent of Australian consumers wanted QR codes that can be scanned to read reviews integrated into the in-store experience. The user-generated content vendor’s MD for Asia-Pacific, Kate Musgrove, notes QR is one of several in-store technologies consumers see as a major priority in 2022.

Bazaarvoice also found more than a third of Australians (35 per cent) are keen to see customer ratings and reviews to be available in-store.

“Shoppers have recognised the potential the technology holds to give them access to information like availability, read reviews and share recommendations with others while browsing,” Musgrove comments. “The challenge for marketers in 2022 will be to replicate the technology and content consumers have come to relish from their own homes into the physical shopfront.”

The majority of retail QR code utilisation Hardham has seen so far have been for post-purchase experiences. One favourite he points to Ralph Lauren garments including a QR code that people can scan to find out more about the item itself.

“However, consumers are starting to realise the value of QR codes, particularly when it comes to convenience. In 2022, we will start to see retailers jump onboard this opportunity to extend QR codes to facilitate purchases,” Hardham predicts. “Contextual commerce is all about placing purchase opportunities in the paths of customers wherever they are. That’s where QR codes will really shine for retailers and marketers.” 

By way of example, Hardham suggests QR codes at bus stops or events that create purchasing opportunities by leading customers straight to a pre-filled shopping cart for that particular item.

“This also gives marketers an invaluable measurement tool by providing a direct correlation to conversions,” he says. “In-store, retailers can place QR codes on clothes hangers so that shoppers can scan them, add the items to their cart and pay without having to go to the checkout. 

“It’s all about creating frictionless shopping experiences, wherever your customers are. QR codes have a huge opportunity to become part of the purchasing journey.”

Crump is a particular fan of Amazon’s use of QR codes when launching its first bricks-and-mortar apparel store, Amazon Style, in California. In this example, QR codes can be used by shoppers to seamlessly navigate the full assortment of sizes and colours for a given item and make the appropriate selection.

“This is then delivered directly to the fitting room in a way that seems automagical,” Crump says. “In that instance, QR codes are a functional ingredient in delivering an overall shopping experience that’s tremendously innovative.”  

Payment options

Payment is another key functional use case for QR codes. According to Deloitte’s Digital Consumer Trends 2021 report, the pandemic has set the scene for QR payments to become more mainstream in Australia this year and beyond.

“Building on habits formed from ‘checking-in’ during the pandemic, eQR payments allow users to make payments by scanning a QR code,” the report authors stated. “EQR payments have already been used in Australia, but this new venture aims to make it one of the most popular payment methods in Australia. This goal is not as farfetched as it may sound, with QR payments extremely popular around the world, in particular in China, with reports that 85 per cent of mobile users using QR as a payment method.”

One payments provider actively harnessing QR codes is PayPal. In November, it partnered with Garage Sale Trail to provide QR codes for in-person payments at thousands of garage sales nationally over that month. Australians who hosted their Garage Sale Trail event online or in the community were able to use PayPal touch-free QR code payments for in-person sales, along with the PayPal.Me link payments for online sales.

Credit: PayPal

In debuting the partnership, PayPal Australia CEO, Eric Lassen, noted QR codes are a fast, simple way to let buyers pay sellers without needing to exchange cash or payment information. Only a smartphone and the PayPal app were required to scan a code and receive automatic payment confirmations. Once they’d scanned through, customers could choose to pay using their preferred payment method within the PayPal app, such as debit card, credit card or PayPal balance. 

Eftpos has also been building out a QR code acceptance and experience platform as part of a raft of product roadmap innovations. Officially debuting in July 2021 with commercial trials and going live with its first merchant last August, the infrastructure is designed to provide secure and enhanced consumer purchasing and engagement experiences though loyalty, offers, receipts and adding security. It was first integrated into eftpos’ Beem It digital wallet but made available to third parties to use for the same purpose.

“There had been considerable demand to work on various QR solutions with several merchants across different business categories including entertainment, charities, and quick services restaurants, in addition to a number of FinTech partners, gateways, banks and digital wallet providers,” eftpos CEO, Stephen Benton, said at the time. “There is no doubt QR codes are now familiar to Australian retailers and consumers because of Covid. We can begin to use that experience and knowledge in new ways that create value through end-to-end digital wallet payment experiences that are designed here, especially for the local Australian market.”

How to decide if QR codes are right now you

So what advice do the experts have for brands looking to bring QR codes into marketing campaigns and communications in terms of weighing up their use, as well as dos and don’ts when they employ them? 

“My first piece of advice would be to go back to the core of your brand – why does it exist? What’s unique and ownable? What stories can it tell and what experiences can it create or enable?” Crump asks. “The QR code can be the access point for any and all of those things, anywhere the brand has a presence.

“And resist the urge to treat your brand like an ATM, using the QR code to extract data from your customers or deliver short-term KPIs. This cheapens the experience, limits the potential impact, and damages the equity of your brand.”   

Hardham advises placing QR codes in the context of the everyday activities of customers. “Firstly, every connection throughout the buyer journey should lead to a transaction. If you don’t connect the journey to a purchase, you’ll miss a conversion opportunity,” he recommends.

“Secondly, brands need to build in human experiences, even when using QR codes. A percentage of customers will transact and a percentage will want help. That’s why brands need to build in a continuation of the customer journey so that people can either go straight to the transaction or get the support they need. 

“It’s important to remember to make sure a QR code provides more than just information, it needs to be an experience.” 

It’s for this reason Crump sees QR codes increasingly being used as access points for the Metaverse, as brands and products become integrated into this important new platform.

“I expect that this year we will see brands push beyond the functional, practical, or campaign-oriented aspects of QR codes into more compelling experiences driven by the fundamental purpose and vision at the heart of the brand,” he predicts.

“In Australia, we really haven’t seen the full potential of QR codes. But the appetite is now there, so I think we’ll see a lot more creativity in 2022,” Hardham adds. 

Up next: 3 Aussie brands using QR codes in campaigns

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