blue and white box with qr code

Missing in action. The on-pack QR code

It wasn’t long ago that QR codes were everywhere. You couldn’t pick up a packet of biscuits without seeing one.

It didn’t matter what the product or service was or whether the use of one made any sense. 

There was a sort of marketing frenzy where brands and companies of all types and sizes felt it essential for them to have QR codes all over their marketing stuff despite the fact no one could really work out what they were for or if they were helpful.

They started appearing in more and more absurd places where they would often be impossible to scan.  

Microsoft of all companies decided it was wise to have a QR code on the roof of a taxi. It was delightfully bonkers and completely pointless.

QR code in my trainers
Off to the gym, I’ll just scan my trainers first

I remember finding one on the inside sole of one of my trainers. 

Since those heady days, we’ve seen a distinct cooling in enthusiasm for the much mocked QR code. I’m certainly not seeing as many of them these days.

A QR code hunting field trip

To investigate this trend further, I headed off to my local Sainsbury’s to find out which brands are still using them and to discover how they were being used.

Taking my usual shopping route, (starting at bleaches), I started randomly picking products off the shelves and scanning the packaging to see if any QR codes were lurking, waiting to be found. 

I got all the way from bin liners to personal hygiene and had examined about 250 products before I found my first code. Success. Durex, of condom fame were soldiering on with the technology. 

Curious to find out where the ‘scan to explore’ invitation would lead me, I fired up my QR code reader and was instantly taken to this page.  

Excellent work. So what they’ve cunningly done is taken a deeply unpopular and ridiculed marketing fad and reinforced how completely useless the technology is.

Undeterred, I continued my amble down the aisles to see if anyone else could do a better job.

Ah yes, the nappy section. Not somewhere I have to visit these days, thankfully. So here was Pampers, stepping up to the QR plate. What did they have to offer? 

The nappy aisle at Sainsbutys

Well this is just brilliant. Another flawless execution of QR code excellence.

As if we all didn’t know that QR codes were silly, here’s another massive brand just reinforcing that message and making themselves look at a tad incompetent in the process.

Pampers QR code does not work

Can I suggest that at the next marketing meeting Pampers add the agenda item ‘QR codes’ along with the words ‘scrap them.’

There, that didn’t take long.

On we go, past a few more isles and a few hundred more items eyeballed. It’s lean pickings for the QR code hunter

What’s this though? Tunnock’s tea cakes packaging sports quite a dominant QR code.

O please don’t let this one be another car crash. We love these tea cakes. For nostalgia value, they’re right up there with the Curly Wurly and spangles. 

Tunnocks Tea Cakes

Relief. The QR code takes you through to their rather charming mobile site.

They sensibly draw on their family owned British heritage, being an independent company since 1890. 

It’s simple, informative and fun. On the site, you can learn more about their history and products and you can also buy from their impressive range of fun Tunnock’s-based merchandise which includes some rather natty caramel wafer cufflinks. 

Tunnocks cufflinks
Eessential accessories for gentlemen

So that’s where my QR code adventure in Sainsbury’s ended. I was expecting the booze section to yield another couple of hits.

I can imagine wanting to find out more about the brewer of my bottled real ale and a QR code might be quite a neat way of doing that.

What have we learned then? 

On the evidence of my supermarket sortie, I think it’s fair to say that the on-pack QR code is in its death throes. I managed to find just three products with codes on their packaging. 

Such is the overwhelming sense of lethargy and ambivalence, that two of them couldn’t be bothered to keep the destination site live. And that’s two of the UK’s best known brands.

There are probably some niche applications where QR codes may well prosper. At Bristol museum for example, they have a series of QR codes that allow you to find out more about the specific items on show. It works well despite slightly ropey mobile reception.

In general though, the on-pack QR code will probably just quietly slip away, becoming another case study for a marketing technology that didn’t make it. It’s been fun while it lasted, but it’s time to move on.

I’ll end with a final gem from WTF QR codes.
Look up, it’s a plane pulling a QR code…

Plane pulling a QR code

Stop Press. The QR code is fighting back.
Since I wrote this piece, I’ve found out about a few excellent and practical uses of QR codes. It turns out that my pontificating about their death was hasty.

Most notably, a splendid application of QR codes has emerged with the launch of the innovative bike scheme, YoBike.

Yo bikes

It’s a Bristol bike rental scheme that’s a combination of Uber and London’s Santander bikes. For £1 an hour you can pick up a YoBike and drop it off at any legal bike parking spot.

The main difference is that you don’t have to take your bike back to a dedicated rack but can leave your bike where your journey ends.

So far, Yobike have 300 bikes dotted around the city and are looking to increase that to 500 soon.

To unlock a YoBike, you simply scan a QR codes attached to the frame, enter a 7 digit code into the app and away you go.

To avoid theft, all the bikes are fitted with an alarm and the parts used are custom made, so won’t fit any other bikes.

Where are QR codes heading?

As my potter round the supermarket looking for QR codes demonstrated, their use as a mass, on pack, interactive tool has all but disappeared. 

Rather like the on-pack text to win competitin, they seem to be dying quietly, (I’m delighted that the use of SMS gateways is still in rude hearlth.)

But they do seem to be making a strong comeback in social media platforms such as SnapChat and Wechat.

We’ll keep an eye open and report on any interesting new ways that they’re being used.

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Henry Cazalet Managing Director
Co-founder and Director of The SMS Works, a low cost and powerful SMS API for developers. About Henry