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The QR Code Quandry

There seems to be a flurry of QR code use. The 2D barcodes, originally developed in Japan in 1994, are showing up in print ads, on billboards, on vehicles, on packaging and in TV spots for a variety of brands. Are they the next cool thing or are they a useless?

The mechanics of QR code use are rudimentary in the United States. Hardly anybody knows what they are. There are no statistics on penetration and the biggest guess is 5 percent. Most phones aren’t factory-equipped with readers. But there are many readers using all kinds of technical standards, most incompatible with each other.

Usefulness and customer experience is a direct function of user dexterity, phone hardware and software settings, network bandwidth and settings and sheer dumb luck. My own experiences have been frustrating and dismal except for the plain vanilla video I eventually got to work.

Proponents argue that QR codes offer the real estate and interactivity that print, outdoor, wearable’s and other media lack. They cite the potential for QR codes to deliver hyperlinks, photos, video, games, coupons, audio, payments and entertainment. Among the suggested uses for the codes are:

  • Enhanced business cards

  • Coupons

  • Shelf talkers

  • Product or ingredients information

  • Recipes

  • Recommendations

  • Reviews & user generated content

  • Micro-payments

  • eCommerce

  • Videos, audio & MP3s

  • Scavenger hunts & contests

  • Ad delivery

  • Maps and directions

Among the early adapters Sears is printing QR codes it’s annual holiday Wish Book. Esquire used them to boost subscription offers. Best Buy put them on in-store signage as did Dicks Sporting Goods and Delta uses them to expedite ticketing. Movie marketers use them to distribute trailers and prompt pre-release demand. Starbucks tried them as a payment device. Ford, McDonalds and Calvin Klein have also experiment with them. Advocates think they will be as big as UPC bar codes and will offer an important enhancement to retail and be a companion to consumers at virtually every point of sale.

The doubters, lead by Dan Neumann, or Organic, argue:

  • It’s not necessary because we can trigger URLs other ways

  • Nobody knows about it

  • Nobody has the right equipment

  • Adoption and penetration growth isn’t likely anytime soon.

  • Experimenters have ignored the customer experience in the rush to be first.

  • Customers' pain of use isn’t offset by what they get.

I’m telling clients to wait and see. This looks like a technology ahead of its customer base where the cool factor obscures what could be significant down stream potential. And even with monster predictions for smartphone purchases and use, the likely uptake for QR readers and codes is iffy, at best.

If clients insist on being first or are desperate to grasp a digital meme perceived to be cool, we are trying to carefully structure the customer experience, build practical use cases, anticipate technical glitches and devise instructions for reader downloads that are simple and easy. We are recommending baby steps – simple POS uses, coupon downloads or instant win contests to gauge consumer appeal and measure operational performance. QR codes are currently a quandary, worthy of both experimentation and skepticism.

Helping dominant brands extend their share and grow customer loyalty and helping insurgent and start-up brands capture attention, awareness and market share. Danny Flamberg has been building brands and building businesses for more than 25 years. He...

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