QR and NFC - no longer the ugly ducklings of marketing technology


A few years ago, a wonderfully sarcastic Tumblr went viral, titled “pictures of people scanning QR codes”. The blog was, and remains, empty. The provocation was clear - who, in their right mind, would scan a QR code?

In 2016, $1.65 Trillion of transactions in China were by QR code. Not quite so funny now, is it?

QR codes have been around a really long time and there remains a negative impression of their purpose and usefulness. I remember waxing lyrical about them as the future of mobile engagement at Sky back in 2009, only to look a bit silly as I talked through the excruciating user journey one would have to endure in order to open a URL for some crappy microsite which told you to tune into the new series of 24 at 7pm on a Friday.ß`

The world’s understanding of every technology evolves at pace, and the idea of QR codes being pointless is now as archaic as the TV marketing staple of ‘appointment to view’. Not only is it time to reassess our assumptions about QR codes, but to actively think about where they need to fit in our activation plans. Their reputation as the unwanted ugly duckling of marketing technology is now over and, frankly, that was always a Eurocentric view. The Chinese predilection for QR codes is well documented in the link above, but I don’t think we really appreciate just how normal this behaviour is in global markets. In a vast majority of the globe, QR codes are a shortcut for digital transaction - a signpost to “tell me more”, at best even “I actively want to engage with your brand”. Isn’t that exactly what we always wanted to achieve in our attempts to use digital to invite people deeper into our brand stories?

So what’s changed? Critically, the ability to recognise and resolve QR codes is now a basic function of both major phone OSes. The horrendous paths of downloading an app to view a marketing campaign are dead and buried. Just open your camera and point to activate.

Perhaps even more importantly, cultural views have shifted. Mobile isn’t just first, it’s only in some cases. Just as the old adage that ‘people don’t buy on mobile’ is now clearly not true, so the balance has swung for how people consume content. It takes a while for technologies to move their way along the hype curve and the evolution of people’s understanding of any particular technology must be constantly reassessed. What’s initially new and exciting always goes through a pit of disappointment as the experience isn’t quite what it’s hyped to be. Those that have recognised the basic value of QR codes - as a bridge between physical brand and digital service - will start to see that patience rewarded.

There’s no doubt that the UK lags behind in this being a normalised behaviour and perhaps our sarcastic Tumblr friend still has a point here. Other routes are also emerging which might achieve the same goal. NFC (NearField Communication - a passive way of accessing simple data like a URL encoded on a chip which your phone can read) use has skyrocketed in the west since the introduction of Apple pay. Again, good news, Apple is beginning to open up the access to the NFC APIs to 3rd parties (previously restricted to Apple’s own applications).

We’ve got some tech hurdles with NFC still - iPhone hardware pre XS can only support NFC in native applications, not from the lock screen, meaning they miss out on the ‘tap and go’ experience, and hardware restrictions are unlikely to change this. But then the XR is the de-facto entry level iPhone and it’ll only take a couple of contract cycles for it to be the new normal. Android has none of these barriers and device support is growing. This is, of course, being driven by shifts in the market and what it wants, not by the introduction of technologies in of themselves. What feels weird now will feel normal tomorrow. Ask your nearest under-25 how often they take their debit card out of their wallet.

In some ways, this is a common mistake which marketeers, no matter how tech savvy, make. No individual technology is a ‘magic engagement button’ and you cannot just throw a platform at a problem without an analysis of where it fits into the marketing narrative you’re constructing. I’m typing this at lunch with a packet of Pombears open in front of me (a brand wasted on kids frankly) and I just scanned the QR code on the back of the packet. It lands me at an old Facebook brand page which hasn’t been updated since 2015. This typifies the laziness of expecting a technology to do all your work for you and then moaning when it doesn’t achieve results. I can’t say this enough - NO technology delivers value in of itself. It must be placed as an accelerator within a strategic plan of action and embedded within the heart of an engaging creative concept. The purpose of the transaction must be embedded within it’s design execution and context and it must invite people into the next stage of a well concieved journey. The very heart of what we term ‘living ideas’ here is a trifecta of the why (strategic intent), the what (the creative expression) and the how (the technologies which enable it). Disconnect them and you’ll be in a Pombear world of pointlessness.

To all intents and purposes, QR codes (especially on packaging) and NFC are now table stakes to bridge people from the physical world into digital. At it’s simplest this might be an invitation to ‘tell me more’ like the conversation around nutrition which McDonalds needs to have with it’s customers, beyond the bare numbers on the government-edicted chart, which it’s packaging now invites via QR. At it’s richest it might be an entire ecosystem of transactional services such as those built into WeChat. Regardless, the question shouldn’t be whether the technology will help people engage, but whether your campaign will.