Don’t Believe the Hype:  QR Codes are the Pet Rocks of 2011

Cyril Penn does a fantastic job as head editorial honcho for one of the wine industry’s two principal trade magazines – Wine Business Monthly (the other is Wine & Vines led by Jim Gordon).  WBM’s editorial filter is an influential arbiter of prioritization in the industry and a bulwark against noise and distraction.

Given that, I was surprised when the August issue of Wine Business Monthly arrived with a large QR code on the cover.  In the realm of digital marketing, precious little is more representative of “noise” and “distraction” then QR codes – a fad more perishable than a gallon of milk with a shelf life to match.

While the article (written by Paul Franson who writes for both trade magazines) is exceedingly informed and balanced, the reality is, in my opinion, QR codes act as an inexpensive panacea for the innovative disruption that is being wrought in the consumer technology market with smart phones and tablet computers and are not an effective marketing tactic for the wine business.


As a 15-year professional in technology marketing (Jeez, has it been 15 years?), I’ve had the chance to watch and participate in every chapter of Internet marketing dating to 1996.  And, despite my better judgment, I’m currently involved in two QR campaigns—one with a major mobile phone carrier engaged in niche audience marketing and another with a leading spirits brand.  Because of this, I have a front row seat to execution, usage and value with an eye on the future.

When QRs burst onto the technology and wine industry scene last summer, they represented two aspects of potential value:

  Something tangible and understandable in the realm of the digital hot topic of the day – mobile marketing

  Something reasonably inexpensive, less complex and widely usable on the heels of phone apps which were white hot in 2009, but reasonably expensive, complex and impractical for most wineries.

Despite the momentum in mindshare from wine industry marketers, the numbers don’t bear out a need to implement usage of QR codes in marketing activities.

Consider: According to recent ComScore (Digital research and measurement firm) research, a mere 14 million mobile users scanned a QR code in June of this year.  When considering that there are 78.5 million smart phone users in the U.S., less than one in five owners have used a QR code – and this is the leading edge of technology adopting consumers! 

The numbers get a lot worse when you compare usage against the total number of cell phone users in the U.S. –303 million.  Not exactly resounding validation based on adoption and usage against the potential population.


Perhaps more damning is the fact that in technology marketing, momentum is everything.  We want to do the things that our peers are doing.  In this case, they’re largely ignoring QR codes.

Now, I can already hear the cries of defense –“QRs are still early in their lifecycle,” or “Our campaign is successful…” so, let me ask a couple of questions:

  Can you explain how to use QR codes in under 60 seconds?

  When was the last time you used a QR code in the store?

If you can answer the first two queries with a straight face, then…

  When was the last time you used a QR in the store and the content provided by the brand was worthwhile?

If you can answer the first three queries with a straight face, then…

When was the last time you used a QR and the content provided incented your purchase decision?

That’s what I thought. The principal challenge with QRs is that marketers are creating them for an audience and for consumers that they think exist based on a cresting wave, but for whom the numbers don’t back it up.  It’s the worst kind of vacuum-oriented marketing when people create something for people to use that they themselves don’t use.

And, secondarily, the consumer value provided by the marketer’s content is often bad, really bad.  So, even if consumers do scan the code, the value is often dubious at best.

However, even more challenging to QR adoption and usage is the hungry maw of technology advancement that isn’t going to stop apace for QRs. 

The next wave of mobile technology is right around the corner.

While the Wine Business Monthly article cites “label photo recognition” as a possible advancement – the process of taking a picture of the label that will return relevant information, this is likely to join a couple of other technologies and one that is poised to be dominant:  Near Field Communication (NFC).

Near field communication is a technology protocol that will allow for wireless payments via your mobile phone.  Your phone is linked to your bank account and when processing a transaction at a store, you wave your phone at the reader at checkout and presto change-o it’s a transaction without swiping our ATM card.

The same capability will soon exist with NFC tags that can be placed on products, and instead of trying to read a QR code, you’ll be able to wave your phone at a tag and a video (or a brand-oriented piece of content) will automatically load.

NFC removes the important bit of challenge that exists with QR codes – humans.  You have to understand what a code is, you have to get and keep an app. to read the code and then you have to use it.  If all that works, then hopefully the content that’s served the consumer isn’t a letdown.

Eliminating as many steps as possible and keeping it stupid simple with a high degree of value is the key to user behavior. 

In sum, I’m a big supporter of the convergence of wine and technology.  Technology will re-define the domestic wine world, both consumer facing and in the industry value-chain, but along the way there will continue to be a number of technology marketing tools that are more hype than reality and parsing the difference between the two sure isn’t easy.  Unfortunately, QR codes happen to have a grip on the wine business and they’re definitely hype.

Later this week I’ll cover several other fleeting bits of technology marketing fluffiness including the wine industry’s equivalent to Hallmark holidays.

Additional background reading on QR codes and Near Field Communications:

Top 14 Things Marketers Need to Know About QR Codes

NFC Marketing and promotions round-up