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The rise of QR Codes during COVID-19


October 5, 2020 By Laurence Blanchard, SVP, Head of Strategy

Since the dawn of the computing revolution designers and engineers have aimed to reduce the gap between human and machine by evolving interaction methods to make it ever more intuitive.  

Starting with text and simple mouse-based cursor movements, we now have almost ubiquitous touch screens on personal and public space devices. But under new scrutiny of the COVID-19 landscape we have seen a rapid rise of QR codes, which will have longer-term implications as we move into the new normal.

Something I’m sure we’ve all started to experience is that moment where you sit down at a bar or restaurant table (outside, of course) and look for the menu. However, the thought of touching any item that is passed from hand to hand, alongside CDC recommendations for contactless options whenever possible, has increased the use of QR codes, which can be scanned with smartphone cameras taking the visitor to a digital menu or ordering landing page. 

The late start of QR Codes

It is strange to think that it took a global pandemic to blow the dust off an old technology and give it a new lease on life, but it has been a long time coming. We have had many predictions in the 2000s of the year of the QR code that never truly came to fruition, which pushed the technology into the graveyard, often perceived by markets and consumers as gimmicky, clunky and overhyped. 

After the hype of the 2000s, but before COVID-19, we were told two things about QR code use across the world: a) it wasn’t a failure in Asia, with QR codes being cemented into the day-to-day of many consumer platforms, apps and experiences, and b) in the West, the technology tends to be used silently in the background of modern life, including warehousing, tracking logistics, and even being implemented into Amazon fulfillment centers. 

Increased use of QR Codes during COVID-19

The recent use of QR codes has been a visible and collective experience. As lockdown eases there has been a 25x increase in the use in QR code use by restaurants, and a 7x increase by hotels.  

Gone are the days when marketers of any and all types tried to shoehorn a QR code into an activation citing convergence as evidence that consumers want to use them and will scan them or even know what QR codes are. Beyond regulatory body recommendations, the recent proliferation of QR codes makes sense.  

QR codes are all about the merging of the physical and digital life, are touch-free and convenient. Avoiding contamination has replaced food quality as the largest driver of deciding where to dine. According to a survey of 1,200 U.S. customers, 24% of respondents are most concerned with contamination, followed by safety and sanitation practices and restaurant cleanliness. 

But when it comes to cultural change and technological impact on society, humans are known to overestimate the short-term, and underestimate the long-term, so what does this mean for the future? 

Long-term consumer knowledge, comfort and use

For people who are not first-adopters, technology needs to have a use for them to try it and change their patterns of behavior to integrate it into their lives. Not only is there a very clear need for it currently, the technology has evolved.  

QR codes direct viewers straight from the camera, unlike the need for QR code reading apps. It has been suggested the sustained use of QR codes in Asia was due to the use of mega apps such as WeChat that bring together social and payment apps. With the ease of the technology and pre-existing knowledge of what and how to use them, we can expect retailers, public/event spaces (if they open), and brands to follow suit and implement QR codes everywhere for safety and convenience reasons. 

Interestingly, this is likely to be most immediately noticeable Test and Trace techniques for the COVID-19 pandemic itself. As people scan QR codes at physical locations, they create a log of where they have been and when they were there, allowing efficient tracing to combat spikes in COVID-19 cases. 

The impact of QR Codes on brands

Consumers will be more competent QR code users, with increased positive sentiment about the experience it can offer them. However, when it comes to marketing, we need to tread cautiously. Let us not squander away an opportunity to make convenient and, more importantly, meaningful experiences for consumers. 

Brands need to clearly communicate the value people will get out of scanning their QR codes. Without transparency and rich experiences, the consumers’ use of QR codes will simply remain as a sanitized version of menu browsing and ordering.

The claim for first-party data

While many brands have struggled to secure consumer data from the retailers that sell their products, this issue will be heightened as cookie tracking dies off.  

QR codes could present an opportunity to give digital footprints to products, brands and in-store experiences that circumnavigate the retailers’ grip on the flow of data between consumers and their current or future brand relationships. 

  What this means for brands? At dentsu X we believe brands will be getting more personal as we emerge from the crisis, which will bolster long-term relationships with their customers.  

QR codes offer an easy, convenient way to bring consumers directly onto owned platforms that will allow for first-party data. Should brands activate QR codes to create loyalty schemes or deliver digital experiences for the home? We should consider these as options when constructing media ecosystems that go beyond simple exposures.