QR codes (Quick Response codes), those little black and white squares that resemble an 8-bit Jackson Pollock painting, are increasingly popping up everywhere and on everything. These matrix barcodes were initially popularized in the Japanese automotive industry because they could be used to store relatively large amounts of data that could be retrieved quickly (hence ‘quick’ response).
These codes are now being used by marketers everywhere as a trendy way to engage tech savvy consumers. But not everyone knows exactly how to use QR codes. For QR codes to work they must be in a position where they can be scanned by smart phones. If you have moment, turn your schadenfreude to this list of the 10 funniest QR code failures. Flying a QR code banner behind an airplane won’t work because people on the ground can barely see the code, let alone scan it. QR codes on the other side of an electrified third rail are as likely to maim your audience as they are to engage.
Due in part to its proximity to Japan and in part to its near 100% cell phone adoption rate, South Korea has embraced the QR code and has been finding interesting, but more importantly, intelligent, ways to implement them. Both of the examples I going to discuss today comes from the grocery store chains E-Mart and Homeplus.
Recently the Seoul branch of E-Mart decided to find a way to increase sales during the lunch hour, a period of time that typically saw less traffic. While other stores would have settle for a traditional solution like a lunch-time sale, E-Mart put a more modern and creative spin on a traditional formula. They launched “The Sunny Sale” campaign and plastered the city with QR codes. Their creativity came from how the implemented these codes. Many of the codes were designed as three dimensional white boxes that would only appear as QR codes when the sun hit them at the correct angle, which occurred around noon. Once people scanned these shadow QR codes they would receive a $12 coupon which could be redeemed on their mobile device or in store. Video of these shadow QR codes can be found here.
Shortly after launched this creative campaign, E-Mart saw a 25% increase in their lunch-time traffic. People were intrigued by this novel implementation of QR codes. They were highly visible and highly distinction; since E-Mart was the only company using QR codes like this, there was no mistaking who these codes were promoting. Customers also responded to these codes because they were somewhat interactive. You had to wait until the sun was just in the right position, making each code like a little puzzle the customer had to solve. Even this relatively small degree of interactivity was enough to create a sense of engagement with the store and its products.
QR codes are everywhere in Korea – from light poles, to cans, to potato chips. E-Mart succeeded because they recognized that people respond to creativity, people want to be engaged.
The second example comes from E-Mart’s chief competitor, Homeplus. Homeplus is part of the British grocery chain Tesco and is the second-largest grocery chain in Korea (though Homeplus is a nightmare on Sunday afternoon, take it from me).
Homeplus wanted to expand its presence in Seoul, but wanted to do so without expanding its locations in the city. Sounds like an impossible task – growing without getting bigger. Homeplus decided to grow by expanding into the second dimension. The chain plastered the Seoul subway system with full-sized images of grocery store shelves, complete with all the real products you would expect to find in a grocery store. Busy subway goers could scan QR codes attached to each item shown in the picture as they waited for their subway and have the actual item delivered to their home (for a small fee).
This initiative increased registrations for Homeplus’s online shopping services by 76% and online sales went up 130%. These 2D stores allowed Homeplus to expand its sales without expanding its physical locations.
Customers responded to this for three reasons: creativity, convenience, and impulse. Koreans are extremely busy people. Students attend multiple schools, adults work long hours. By bringing shopping to the commuter, Homeplus made it easier for people to buy their products and use their services. They eliminated barriers to access.
People also responded to the creativity shown by the ads. There’s a certain degree of whimsy about walking through a 2D grocery store in the middle of a busy subway.
Lastly, Homeplus brought impulse shopping, the hallmark of the grocery store experience, to the subway. Commuters are always bored and are generally hungry, whether that hunger is for food or a distraction. Brining easy shopping into the subway system allows people to buy things without thinking about the purchase. Who wouldn’t find shopping in an imaginary store more interesting than starring at a blank wall?
QR codes are interesting because they create new paradigms for advertising and marketing. They allow marketers to creative interactive experiences with customers that were no previously possible. My research interests focus on how academics can use storytelling to engage audiences. QR codes can be another tool in the storyteller’s engagement kit.
For me any technology that allows for the creation of new forms of expression and communication is a fascinating piece of technology. In my next post I will discuss several ideas for how QR codes could be used to promote public history and the cultural sector.