Why the humble QR code is enjoying a marketing revival

QR codes: digital menus have become the norm
QR codes: digital menus have become the norm

How a 26-year-old piece of tech has found itself back on-trend in a post-Covid world

As bars and restaurants open up post lockdown, Quick Response (QR) codes are becoming a key tool for the hospitality sector in the fight to survive the impact of the pandemic

These alluring matrix barcodes are made up of sequences of black squares within a grid. Users of iPhones and other smartphones can simply scan a QR code using the device's camera app and it will provide them with a link to whatever the QR code has been programmed to display. 

"QR codes have been around for decades, but up until now, they were never really adopted by the consumer – partly because businesses failed to acknowledge the value of the QR code from a marketing perspective," Roger Wade, founder and chief executive of street food, retail and events concept Boxpark, says. "I've been saying for nearly 10 years that QR codes would have a renaissance, and as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, usage is now widespread."

But why has this barcode, designed in 1994 in Japan, now made its way to the table of your local McDonald's?

When McDonald's announced it would reopen branches for eat-in services from 22 July it didn't come as a surprise that customers would be asked to leave their contact details so they could be tracked in case of a subsequent coronavirus outbreak. Customers can fill out their information via their phones or scan a QR code in the restaurant to take them to the webpage directly. A QR code eliminates the tedious step of having to enter a specific URL into your browser.

It is not only fast-food chains adopting this technology. The Soho House Group made the decision to offer an online menu system accessible by scanning a set of QR codes given to each dining group.

"We've seen lots of venues embrace the use of QR codes to fulfil the track and trace element of reopening," Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, says. "It's a reliable and accurate option for businesses and convenient for customers. All the while that venues are required to gather customers' contact details, it's likely that businesses will continue to use them."

The hospitality industry is also making use of the contactless experience by supplying consumers with QR codes. Boxpark is implementing a variety of contactless measures and building the tech into its marketing activity.

Wade says: "Many hospitality businesses are changing the way they operate and shifting towards a contactless experience with mobile payments and solutions to tackle the disruptive social measures in the new Covid-19 world.

"QR codes have become an indispensable part of our new contactless world and we are embracing them across our business. At Boxpark, we have launched two new functions for customers with QR code integration – a brand new Click & Collect service and our digital Boxpark Black Card, both of which are quick and convenient for customers."

Customers ordering from inside Boxpark venues can scan the QR codes stickers on their tables and have their meal brought to them. In addition, the brand's new Boxpark Black Card has transformed its existing membership scheme into a mechanic for capturing customer data and assisting with track and trace. Anyone registering for the Black Card can instantly access a range of discounts and benefits.

QR codes have always had a place within brand experiences, and their ability to help provide a contactless consumer journey could make them a key component in experiences as the nation emerges from the pandemic.

Sophy Vanner Critoph, head of strategy at Amplify, thinks the resurgence of the QR code "can only be a good thing during the pandemic" as they assist in the offering of a wide variety of contactless experiences.

"The resurgence of QR, alongside other types of contactless codes, helps us offer audiences a wide variety of experiences and information that they can capture and share in the moment or on the move, depending on the experience's creative route.

"QR codes give us the ability to track people through a space, and create content narratives around them. But there are lots of innovative contactless options out there for creating compelling and memorable experiences: light, NFC, RFID, sound and voice also let users move through a space while seamlessly triggering engaging content in a safe way."

With the benefits of the technology now clear, Bacardi has stepped in to help bars adapt to this "new normal" by providing bar owners with the technology as part of it #RaiseYourSpirits initiative. This enables guests to use in-app ordering via menus with QR codes. It was deemed important after conducting research that said in-app ordering systems would help guests feel more comfortable going back to bars and restaurants.

Jacob Briars, global head of advocacy at Bacardi, says: "It helps to put guests at ease by reducing contact between bartenders and visitors and removing queuing time at the bar, without compromising on the experience.

"We know from the 2020 summer drinking trends research we just conducted, that following months of quarantine with limited social gatherings, reconnecting with friends and family is the top priority this summer for people across Europe and the US. We also found a quarter said in-app ordering systems would help them feel more comfortable going back to bars and restaurants. That makes QR codes really important right now as the perfect way to give guests an uninterrupted opportunity to catch up with their loved ones and help them feel more relaxed at the same time."

With consumers now more open to new ways of ordering and sharing their personal details, the 26-year-old QR code is showing that its best days may still lie ahead.

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