Brands are increasingly turning to quick-response codes as a mobile-friendly way to engage consumers-but like any marketing effort, it’s all in the execution.

By Pauline Hammerbeck

On June 16th, a Paris tattoo artist inscribed a quick-response code-those square-shaped barcodes that link to websites, text, videos and other content-on the chest of a man named Marco, creating what’s said to be the world’s first animated tattoo. The process was streamed live on the Facebook page of Ballantine whisky and showed the artist using a smartphone to scan the code and launch an animated video version of the newly inked character on his subject’s chest.

Although clearly looking for shock value, the incident reflects growing interest among consumer packaged goods companies in QR codes and the endless possibilities for using them as a marketing tool.

“All the brands and retailers-everyone-is trying to use mobile as the new platform to engage consumers,” says David Luttenberger, vice president and packaging strategist at Iconoculture, a consumer research and advisory company. “It’s about an immediate, relevant, engaged-in-the-moment consumer experience.

Of course, QR codes have long been used in markets like Japan, where it’s more surprising not to see them on signage, point of sale displays and packaging. Known as some of the world’s most knowledgeable consumers, the Japanese have incorporated the mobile-friendly codes into their shopping routine-they’ve come to expect them.

“The Japanese will find a QR code half the size of a postage stamp on a refrigerator-box-sized container where there are characters, cartoons and pictures on every square inch,” says Luttenberger. “US consumers can’t even spell QR code, for the most part.”

But Americans’ increasing adoption of smartphones is beginning to change that. The number of US consumers with the ability to scan barcodes on their smartphones will reach 115 million by the end of 2011, according to Nielsen data. Add to that the ubiquity of mobile phones-the devices are always around and always on-and the fact that many of the devices are now debuting with QR readers already embedded in them, and it’s no wonder that consumer packaged goods companies are seeking to make these codes a bigger part of how they’re reaching out.

“QR codes only need one major campaign per market for [consumers] to understand what they are about. If Coke or Nike were to hide major prizes behind a code, the public would educate themselves pretty quickly,” says Greg McMaster, creative planner at SET, a Tokyo-based ad agency. “There are similarities in the way text messaging took off in the States after American Idol used them as the means of voting.”

Still, early QR efforts here have been mixed, with misfires including codes that are too small or difficult to find, websites that aren’t optimized for mobile (why make consumers search and scroll?) and irrelevant or flash-in-the-pan-type content that leaves consumers mostly scratching their heads.

Experts say that, like any marketing effort, QR codes are all about execution. “Give me content that makes my life better, easier, faster, quicker, less expensive or less harried,” advises Luttenberger. “There’s always going to be room for that fun piece, but to continue to engage with consumers, brands need to consider where the line is between fun and a waste of my time.”

There’s a transition already underway from content that is more about novelty to content that is oriented to consumer needs and passions.

Coca-Cola Germany anchored its latest QR effort around younger consumers' zest for music. Hitting on passion points should be the goal of any QR campaign, experts say.

Take Coca-Cola. The company’s German operation is promoting a new package format-a tiny 25cl can-as a lifestyle accessory for younger consumers with special edition cans featuring music-inspired designs. Simple drum and earphone graphics create a visual link-up to a music experience that begins when the consumer scans a prominent QR code, launching a website where, among other things, Coke reveals the last-minute details of surprise once-only concerts. By focusing on delighting consumers with a unique music experience first, the effort has a better chance of linking the smaller can format and the experience of drinking a Coke with younger lifestyles.

“This is about the consumer experience. It’s not about your brand,” says Luttenberger. “You’re going to build brand equity by engaging in conversations or delivering content that [hits] these passion points people have. That’s what they’re seeking.”

Home Depot's plant tags are an example of how QR-based content is transitioning from fun to functional. When scanned, the tags link up to plant care information and gardening tips.

It doesn’t have to be complicated, though. Home Depot introduced QR codes on each plant tag in its garden centers earlier this year, part of a broader barcode effort to give customers more immediate access to information like reviews and how-to advice. Once scanned, the codes link to a website with planting tips and care information-whether the plant grows in low light, for instance.

“By giving them content that’s simple and relevant, it moves the deliverable from fun to functional,” says Luttenberger. “And it gives Home Depot that opportunity for a secondary engagement opportunity with the shopper.”

The engagement can be immediate or, because Home Depot has the ability to edit the codes to make new content available (without needing to print new materials), it can take place months from now. “This technology can be extremely powerful for both the consumer and the retailer,” says Mike Wehrs, CEO and president of Scanbuy, which enables Home Depot’s QR codes.

To be sure, QR codes are not just something for the big guys. Hydrive Energy, the Rye, NY-maker of enhanced waters, tapped Harvard Business School students to develop its own QR strategy, which included a mobile-optimized site offering a constantly changing array of content, such as contests, prizes, trivia, product information and a link to Facebook.

“By offering different content with each scan, we replicate the ‘under-the-cap’ promotional experience used in traditional soft drink marketing, but in a digital way,” says Charly-Ann Oddo, the brand’s director of marketing and digital media.

Beyond their accessibility, QR codes are also getting an unexpected boost from the recent shift to cleaner, sparer package designs. The codes pack a lot of data in a tiny space, giving marketers a renewed ability to engage consumers but still maintain the simpler, cleaner aesthetic shoppers have now come to expect.

However, when it comes to QR codes, brand design is not necessarily the priority. “I’ve seen codes in the marketplace where the designers have done a remarkable job of disguising these codes to the point that you have no clue that they’re even there,” says Iconoculture’s Luttenberger. “We need to make it very clear to consumers, what this ‘thing’ is, how to use it and what the deliverable is.”

Key words of advice-at least until US consumers match their Asian and European counterparts in recognizing and embracing QR codes. In Japan, where SET’s McMaster says up to 50 million people are using QR codes each day, the market has spawned what some consider the next-generation QR code-a designer barcode that eschews the conventional black-and-white matrix design for one that integrates a brand’s identity.

Designer barcodes are making inroads in more sophisticated QR markets like Japan, where  Dom Perignon commissioned SET to create an  Andy Warhol-inspired code for limited-edition packaging honoring the pop icon.

“Designer codes are starting to appear more often on packaging [in Japan] and will continue to grow. The standard codes don't add anything to the overall aesthetic of the package,” says McMaster. Plus, bigger codes typically get more scans. As the clunky black-and-white QR code is enlarged it “becomes less of an option due to [its] unattractiveness,” he says. McMaster’s prediction for the next evolution of the QR code? Scannable barcode designs made of physical objects. “People are in need of information and entertainment,” he says.

It’s clear that, for US marketers, the Asian market offers plenty of QR code inspiration-a way to understand its potential evolution here. In South Korea, for instance, Tesco is testing a virtual QR-code-based storefront on subway platforms. The retailer beams an image of virtual store shelves along the walls of train platforms; each product has a corresponding QR code. Clicking on the code adds the product into the commuter’s basket, with home delivery available within hours of placing the order.

It’s a good example of how QR codes can play a more strategic role (than the more tactical, momentary efforts currently in play here) by helping the convergence of physical and digital shopping and by serving to reinvent the retail experience from whatever point a shopper engages. 

Rules of Engagement

CLARIFY YOUR OBJECTIVE. Are you using a QR code just because it’s trendy-or do you have relevant content that adds to the consumer’s experience?

BE OVERT AND ACCESSIBLE. Make codes unmistakably recognizable and large enough to be scanned from a distance. And give the code front-panel positioning.

SHOW AND TELL. Tell the shopper how to engage your code, or how to download a reader if they don’t have one. Plus, what to expect once they scan.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING. Pull expired coded products from the shelf if there’s a time-sensitive element to the content. Or make sure your solutions provider can change out the content.

DROP SOME F-BOMBS. Feature content that is functional, fit for its purpose, fit for multiple mobile devices and a fit with your overall mobile strategy. And, no matter what, make it fast: if not, consumers will quickly move on.

TREASURE IT? MEASURE IT. Make sure you use a code and a solutions provider capable of tracking who’s engaging, the device being used and other analytics.

Source: Adapted from David Luttenberger’s Rules of Engagement, Iconoculture

Where to go for More Information

CONSUMER INSIGHTS
Iconoculture, www.iconoculture.com

SMARTPHONE TRENDS
Nielsen, www.nielsen.com

DESIGNER BARCODES
SET, www.setjapan.com

MOBILE BARCODE SOLUTIONS
Scanbuy, www.scanbuy.com