3 Brands that Failed with QR Codes

As printed in today's iMediaConnection newsletter:

Over the past couple of years, the number of 2D bar codes used in print, out-of-home, in-store, package, direct mail, and event advertising has been steadily on the rise. One of the reasons for this growth is that companies are realizing that 2D bar code technology (i.e., QR codes, Microsoft Tags, data matrices, action codes, print-to-mobile codes, etc. -- call them what you will) offers a new and different way by which they can connect and interact with an existing or prospective customer on a truly personal level. And they can do so via the first screen -- the mobile phone.

However, there is a vast difference between simply placing a 2D bar code in a campaign and having that same bar code deliver results that truly mean something to the targeted audience, as well as to the advertiser themselves. In fact, based on my review of hundreds of 2D-based campaigns, for every one campaign that does deliver something (i.e., value, relevance, meaning, benefit, or a real interactive experience for the consumer) via the code, there are three campaigns that don't and fail in part or altogether. Let's take a look at three real-life examples of 2D bar code use that failed to capitalize on the true potential of the technology. Consider these lessons in what not to do.

Automobile company Buick launched a print advertisement that featured a QR code. When the QR code was scanned, the reader of the advertisement was linked to a short video, which explained how the car's eAssist technology works. Great! Product information that is easy to understand, useful, relevant, valuable, and informative. But then what? When the video finished, the reader of the advertisement had no place to go. Buick did not provide a link to the company's main website, the product page for the particular car being advertised, or even the product page that discusses its eAssist technology. Nothing. Also, there was no link to a dealer locator, customer product reviews, pre- or post-sale incentives, etc. Why expend the time, energy, and resources to potentially warm up a lead and then let it get cold again? Isn't it a goal of advertising to warm up the lead and have the prospect move one step closer to making a purchase decision?  

Goldman Sachs
Several months ago, investment firm Goldman Sachs ran a series of print advertisements that featured a QR code. When the QR code was scanned, the reader of the advertisement was linked to a four-minute video that amounted to nothing more than a four-minute self-promotional corporate commercial. When the video finished, here too, there were no links for the reader of the advertisement to follow. There was no contact request form to complete, no dedicated 1-800 telephone number to call, no email address to write to -- nothing. From a business-to-business perspective, is business so good at Goldman Sachs that it doesn't need to generate any sales leads? If that's the case, why bother to advertise in the first place? Maybe the company just had a few extra marketing dollars it needed to waste. If the idea is to use 2D bar codes as a means to generate sales leads, B2C or B2B, companies need to think through the process, experience, and tactics from end to end. Why go half way only to see the lead get cold again?  

Grant Thornton
Last year, professional services consulting firm Grant Thornton ran a print advertisement that displayed a QR code. This campaign illustrates how companies are not paying attention to the technology itself, as well as some marketing-related flaws. First, the code fails. The code used in the campaign was very dense, which means that the modules that make up the code were very small and packed closely together. When a code is too dense, often times it is difficult or impossible to scan with a smartphone. For this reason, less dense or simple codes are considered to be a best practice. Instead of using a 103-character URL (http://www.gtwhatwins.com/?utm_source=fastcompany&utm_medium=print&utm_content=ps&utm_campaign=whatwins), Grant Thornton could have shortened it to as few as 20 characters (http://bit.ly/LlDaME). By using this shortened URL, the code would have been much cleaner to scan and, atheistically, more pleasing to the eye.

Second, the call-to-action fails. Many 2D-based campaigns neglect to include a meaningful call-to-action in relation to the code, and this leads to a major failure. Yes, this campaign has a call-to-action that reads, "See what wins at gtwhatwins.com." But this has nothing to do with the QR code. Instead of driving readers to the URL address, why not drive them to scan the code? That's what it's there for, is it not? The URL address can and should be displayed so that readers of the advertisement who don't have a smart phone can still access the website and interact with the company. However, the URL address should not be the focal point. Could there be more than one call-to-action? Sure. But the creative and layout just needs to make sense.

Third, the scan resolve and content behind the code fails. Once scanned, the reader of this advertisement is brought to a mobile page, but the one-minute video that is on the page is not optimized for mobile. This too is a huge reason QR code strategies fail. If an interactive mobile-based technology is being used (i.e., a 2D bar code) then any content that is associated with the use of such technology should be optimized for mobile. It's that simple. Also, on the mobile landing page, there is a "click here" button that brings the reader of the advertisement back to the desktop version of the company's website. Why? Why build a mobile page and not leverage that page for all it's worth?

Why They Fail
So why do 2D bar codes fail? Why are more and more companies making use of the technology, and just as many failing in the implementation and deployment of the technology? In my mind, it's simple. First, companies are not taking the time and expending the energy to fully understand the technology from a pure technology perspective (i.e., how 2D bar codes work, get generated, get scanned, etc.). Second, companies are not enabling themselves to fully understand how the technology can and should be integrated into an existing marketing mix from a strategic and tactical perspective. Rather, they are implementing and deploying the technology from their own perspectives -- not the consumer's. In addition, many companies are not establishing clear lines of responsibility when it comes to determining whose job is it to manage and steward the use of the technology from one campaign to the next, and from the inception of a campaign to its completion.

Although the two reasons above help to provide an explanation as to why companies are failing at 2D barcdoes, what they don't speak to is the fact that 2D bar codes are similar to most any other marketing channel or medium and need to be considered as such. When a code is going to be used in an advertisement or a promotional piece, it needs to be given the same amount of thought and consideration that a landing page, for example, would be given. Where landing page copy, graphics, layout, links, buttons, and versions are all well thought out, planned, and even tested, so too should the use of a 2D bar code.

In working with 2D bar codes, I have established a list of no fewer than 20 technology- and marketing-related best practices that should be used when implementing and deploying 2D technology. By no means do the examples in this article detail all of the best practices that I and others in the field advocate, but they highlight some of the main ones.

In addition, above and beyond best practices themselves, marketers must recognize the need for clear goals and objectives -- strategic and tactical -- to be set in place as a 2D-based campaign is developed. We all talk about metrics and the need to justify ROI, which bar codes can certainly help to facilitate. But without goals and objectives in place, one will never know if 100 scans or five sales leads or a dozen products sold constitute success.


  1. Great article Roger! Do you think that Goldman Sachs was trying to use the QR codes purely for branding purposes?

    Even if they were, I would argue that a 4 minutes video is far to long for desktop viewing and extremely long for viewing on a smartphone. I'd be interested to see the drop off stats on the Goldman Sachs video.

  2. Mike:

    Thank you for your comment. To answer your question, I highly doubt that GS was using the QR Code for branding purposes...it was probably a matter of let's try to be cool and hip and use a code in our ad, but let's not provide any further thought or consideration past that.

    Even for companies that do it right, I never make the connection between code use and branding. To me, it's more of a matter of code use and how many ways can we engage and interact with the consumer. In this case, branding comes second, and a distant one at that.