QR Codes: Don’t call it a comeback

You’ve been seduced by AR and VR. Now, get ready for QR. Again.

When was the last time you went out to eat at a trendy new restaurant, the waiter handed you a menu, and asked if you’d like to hear the specials? Let’s just take a moment of silence for that memory.

COVID-19 has affected nearly every aspect of our lives, from work to family to school to eating to travel to…the list is neverending, as are the solutions and attempts to continue living our lives. One such solution surprised us with how long it’s been around, but also has us excited about where it’s going. We’re talking, of course, about QR codes.

Okay, they may not be the most scintillating COVID-19 solution, but they just might be the trendiest. Our Director of Brand Strategy, Annie Hooper, first noticed their resurgence back in July when at a restaurant. Instead of being handed a menu, she was directed to take a picture of a QR code with her smartphone which would take her to an online version of the menu. It’s a clever solution to reduce interactions with contact surfaces. And ever since she shared that story, we can’t stop seeing QR codes all around us. 

Some background

While handy in a pandemic (pun intended), we know QR codes weren’t created for COVID-19. So where exactly did they come from? We did some digging and found their origin in grocery stores and manufacturing lines. In the 1960s, barcodes were invented so that cashiers wouldn’t have to manually enter in item numbers. While we are happy to know cashiers’ wrists wouldn’t have to suffer, barcodes can only hold 20 alphanumeric characters. In the 90s, this space limitation became a problem for major manufacturing plants where they simply had too many parts.  

Photo Credit: Carlos Aranda

Denso Wave, a subsidiary of Toyota, took on this design challenge and solved it with a 2-dimensional square. They could be read vertically and horizontally, could store 7,000 alphanumeric characters, and could be read faster than simple barcodes. They were, in short, a miracle.

So why didn’t they catch on? Well, they did and they didn’t. QR codes first conquered industrial spaces, like manufacturing, logistics, and pharmaceuticals. They had a moment in the spotlight, usually appearing as an exciting step in many campaigns. Macy’s and Best Buy used QR codes heavily in mobile campaigns and for in-store experiences in 2011. But then QR codes kind of disappeared. People were sure the QR code was a passing trend and some even declared it dead

What went wrong

Many think QR codes’ ugly visuals were its biggest hurdle to widespread acceptance amongst consumers. QR codes were designed by nature to be distinguishable enough that a scanning device wouldn’t accidentally read some other symbol. Unfortunately, “distinguishable” for a scanner means an eyesore for design, especially when trying to incorporate it into a cohesive brand identity. Black and white are the ideal color combinations for scanning, further limiting usability. In general, QR codes look digital and functional, like a barcode, because they were designed to. But no one looks at a barcode unless they have to, our eyes just glaze over it. Before COVID-19, the place you’d most likely see a QR is on the back of a packaged good for additional nutritional or processing facts.

Besides aesthetic dissonance, QR codes also didn’t previously take off because of their lack of value to users. What were you going to get at the other end of the scan? Did you have to download another program to read the code? Were the connection and destination secure? Would you even want this additional information or “experience”? The technology was available, but not seamless and it just didn’t go anywhere consumers wanted to go.

Over the years, smartphones adapted. IOS and Android phones now all have some sort of smart lens capabilities in their cameras. And QR codes’ glamorous cousins, AR and VR, have lured users into the right habits. As 2016 showed us in the summer Pokémon GO, users now have no problem adopting the habit of whipping out their phone to scan materials and the world around them.

Lessons learned

As the history of QR codes and the pandemic have shown us, adoption of any habit or tool is in large part driven by circumstance and utility. For brands looking to use QR codes (or AR or VR or any other tool), the consideration should not just be that you can, but whether or not you should. In 2011, did it make sense for consumers to pull out their phones, download an app, scan an ugly little square, and wait to see what’ll happen? Not really. But in 2020, if you remove the need to download an extra service and you add in a fear of surfaces? Now you have a real need and desire (maybe even delight?) for QR codes.

Photo Credit: Albert Hu

When thinking about implementing any new tool or activation, brands should always consider the utility and external circumstances. This rule goes for all aspects of themselves, not just their business or marketing campaigns. This touches R&D, architecture, naming, design, and production. How many “cool” innovations have failed to take off because they just served neither an existing function nor an unanswered one? (Enough that there’s a Museum of Failures which, you could argue, QR codes have escaped.)

What’s next

Our world has now caught up to QR codes. The most expected use is for contactless payments, currently being adopted by many.

Well, for brands it means that so much more of your brand is alive. Consumers are now trained to see, if not expect, a QR code and they won’t shiver in disgust. They see QR codes as a security against COVID-19 and know useful, helpful, even enjoyable information is on the other end. Scanning technology will get better, meaning some of the design constraints will drop away and activations can become more creative. Take, for instance, the recent QR code sighting in Animal Crossing: New Horizons – it was for the Biden-Harris campaign. These little squares will pop up more and more, blending into our worlds, both physical and digital. 

Photo Credit: Biden Campaign

Even beyond the QR codes, brands can leverage scanning abilities to create digital experiences in the real world wherever their audience may be. Channels will become irrelevant and everything will become marketing assets. Logos, arguably the most recognizable part of any brand, can become even more iconic as tickets to unlocking a whole way of engaging with your brand. The possibilities, now that users have the scanning habit, are endless. All you’ll need is for smart glasses to catch on. 

It’s a QR code world; we’re just living in it.