Cracking Quick Response Codes

By now, most of us in the industry are well on our way — or at least attempting — to fulfill the promise of the perpetually hyped mobile imperative. But mobility is not just another marketing channel, and those who view it as such are severely limiting their prospects for its use.

Mobility is about utility. And we are seeing the almost ubiquitous application of QR codes, with a trend towards saturation in Japan, but just the hint of early adoption in the U.S.

So what are they exactly? Quick Response codes are a kind of 2-D bar code developed by Denso Wave Corp. and released in 1994 with the intention of allowing its contents to be easily interpreted by scanners, and decoded at high speed. Whereas a barcode contains data only in one direction, QR codes hold info in both vertical and horizontal directions. This allows for a greater volume of data. QR codes were first used for tracking parts in vehicle manufacturing, but now they are used in applications aimed at mobile phone users.

QR codes are now appearing in newspapers, magazines, posters and direct mail.

Consumers simply use their camera phones (equipped with the correct reader software) to scan the image of the QR code launching the phone’s browser to the programmed URL. My first exposures to these small black and white graphic squares were in a recent issue of Esquire, and on the back of a business card.

Not surprisingly, the latter belonged to the president of a mobile marketing company.

A number of retailers and high-end brands have already made it clear they wish to target a new customer base, and they’re planning to do it through this new medium.

Harrod’s in the U.K. is running print ads featuring the codes and helping to further the blending of online and offline-with mobile as the perfect platform. H&M, a clothing retailer, is also looking to make traditional media more powerful by putting a new spin on the notion of impulse shopping. You can shop straight from street-side billboards in some cities in Japan.  There are plans to follow suit in Europe.

Ralph Lauren introduced QR codes into print ads, mailers and window displays, aimed at sending traffic to its new mobile commerce site. Companies like Gucci, Puma and Vespa are taking advantage of what they see as a revolutionary new way to improve consumer engagement with their brands.

Just imagine, cashless shopping at a vending machine, or buying something written about in a magazine at the moment you read it. The options are seemingly limitless. The question is, will we see more of them in the U.S.?

In Japan, QR codes are being affixed to fruits and vegetables. When scanned with a QR-enabled cell phone, the code will tell the story of where they came from, and how they were grown. And McDonald’s is placing codes on the packaging of many foods so that customers can get nutritional information.

While QR codes provide a vital link between print media and mobile commerce, U.S. marketers have yet to embrace them and there are barriers to overcome.
For starters, there is little consumer awareness. There is also the current phones’ inability to read the codes, assuming the user can successfully download the software. Experience shows that even if the application is promising, the act of downloading usually leaves something to be desired.

In Japan, mobile devices come with the software preloaded. Underscoring the perception that the U.S. is behind is the fact that offerings from the carriers and handset manufacturers aren’t wholly optimized for this type of usage.

Nonetheless, there are endless possibilities for connecting brands with consumers. Maybe I can scan the QR code on a poster for a new song, which directs me to a site where I can download a sample. Or maybe I scan a Coke ad and download a ring tone.

Like every marketing tactic, it can only be as successful as its message is relevant. I can also see QR codes becoming a high-tech substitute for the mundane exchange of business cards as each party just reaches out and “scans” the other’s barcode displayed on their mobile device.

These mechanisms for exchanging data have come a long way. I remember seven or eight years ago when, on a Manhattan street corner, I would pass a pay-phone kiosk displaying an IBM ad. And there would be a blinking red light waiting to transmit a message via IR to my Palm Pilot.

What’s most important to remember about today’s technology is that it continually allows the users to draw in their own content. Beyond the “cool” quotient that arises from the newness factor, we will have to wait and see if QR codes become pervasive here in the States.

I’m still hesitant to say yes. But I’m also not sure that the pictures of people with tattooed QR codes in Google images aren’t Photoshopped.

David Mendell is a management supervisor at MRM Worldwide.