Brands, augmented reality and the QR code conundrum

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Johnson & Johnson got a lot of buzz recently for their print ad which was infused with the distinctive smell of the J&J baby powder. In India and elsewhere, J&J has such a strong equity with mothers that they see it as the go-to brand for infant & baby care products. Mothers associate J&J with a unique sense of smell that’s even associated with that wonderful ‘baby smell’. So the strategy to strengthen the brand affinity with a sensory ad was bang on. I, unfortunately missed the smell and got to know about this sensory marketing through Twitter. Maybe they could have prompted readers to discover the smell through some element in the ad.

But that’s not the point of this post.

What caught my eye was the QR code in the ad. I scanned it using an app and led it me to a YouTube video, an ad I presume (I just saw the first few seconds of the ad). Most of the QR codes that I have scanned in print ads or other static media have led me to a YouTube video with an ad played out. I feel playing a YouTube video is not a big enough ‘reward’ for those you take the trouble to not just notice the QR code but scan it.  How tough can it be to provide a shortened URL of the video page (if the full URL is too unwieldy or an inelegant option to have it on a print ad), if that is all a QR code leads to?

And then there was an ad for Celerio, the new automatic-geared car from Maruti, which also had a QR code.


In order to access the content of the print ad, a reader had to:

1. Scan the QR code using a QR code scanning app (if he has one) or key in the URL provided on his phone browser
2. Download a branded augmented reality app from the above URL
3. Open the said branded app and then point it at the print ad

There was promise of enhanced augmented reality content on the mobile after the above steps.

Now I realise that Celero seems to have a lot of pre-launch traction and therefore expecting people to take the trouble of finding more information is a reasonable ‘objective’. Auto enthusiasts are curious when it come to new launches, so they would make an extra effort to find out more. But I doubt if anybody would go through so many hoops to find out more about a car. The irony was that I did all of the above (not as an auto enthusiast but out of sheer curiosity) and was not rewarded in any way. Maybe I did something wrong, but I just waited for the app to show me some content but it didn’t – I could only see the ‘hotspots’ on the press ad. Now imagine this as the experience of a potential customer – it can be really frustrating and may even antagonise him against the brand.

Brands have used augmented reality to bring alive a product by showcasing it in 3D on mobile screens. A real estate brand showing a 360-degree view of the property, a car brand showing the interiors, characters coming alive and so on. Some have dismissed augmented reality activities from brands as ‘gimmicks‘, perhaps rightly so.

My views on brands, QR codes and augmented reality:

– scanning a QR code is not yet an easy, effortless, natural action for the common man. A common, natural reaction upon seeing anything interesting is to whip out the phone and take a picture. Now, that’s an easy, effortless, natural reaction of a typical consumer. Asking someone to notice a QR code, understand that it is something to be scanned, whip out the phone and find the appropriate QR code app on the smartphone is a bit much
– and then comes the reward or fulfilment part. Once a reader manages to do all that, if all he gets to view is a YouTube video it is likely to be a disappointing, underwhelming experience.
– when it comes to augmented reality, lack of a standard AR app is a constraint for both consumers and brands which could make use of this technology. There are many ‘proprietary’ augmented reality brands (and their corresponding apps) that when a brand ties up with one, it is shutting out users of other AR brands. I realise that it is a fight for dominance between those AR brands (so that one becomes almost the standard, pretty much like on Android for mobile phones) but it is not helping the overall cause of AR.
– however, I feel augmented reality has huge potential for brands beyond just fun or momentary entertainment. Content that replicates a 3D environment can be of utility value in search, real estate (where a lot of seeing happens before buying) and other categories.

If brands are to use QR code and augmented reality, the pointers that come to my mind are:

– better targeting: instead of placing QR codes in mass reach dailies can brands do such activity in an environment where the chances of reaching out to tech-savvy, mobile wielding audience are higher? This way, one increases the chances of QR scan since the audience can be expected to have QR code scanning apps already installed. Or it could be restricted to environments (like a hotel conference room) where even if the audience does not have a QR code app, it can be downloaded easily
– better reward: can the reward for scanning the code be more tangible, real? It could be a price off coupon which can be redeemed – ideal for tech brand or brands which sell virtual goods (talk time, data). If the brand uses a AR solution, the experience should be memorable – a life-like demo or entertaining content (like the BandAid Magic Vision for example).

Merely taking a check box approach to QR code and augmented reality is on likely to discourage consumers from ever using this feature, forever.

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