It is over a decade since QR codes emerged on FMCG packaging as a new way to engage with customers. Space on packaging remains at a premium with brand owners seeking the balance between brand, imagery, value proposition and the ever-increasing legislative requirements about ingredients, weight, nutrition etc.
With the emergence of smartphones it became possible for customers to scan these two-dimensional codes on the move; QR codes offered a new way to engage with customers. Scan the QR code and open a wealth of additional information whether this be provenance (origin), recipe suggestions or more.
Yes, I know many of us cannot now consider life without a smartphone but it is less than a decade since the iPhone was released – June 29, 2007 I believe – although I am relying on Wikipedia at this point, so let’s just say ‘about a decade’.
But a decade ago the talk in the news was that every product would have one of these codes, but the reality now is that they remain the exception.
QR codes on food packaging today
There are some high profile examples. For example, Nestlé decided to add QR codes to their Kit-Kat products; a global initiative (launched Feb 2013) to give instant access to nutrition. As Nestlé explained at the time, “We have a wealth of information about the nutritional value and the environmental and social impacts of what we produce, and it makes sense to share that with consumers.”
How is SmartLabel® different?
The emergence of SmartLabel® is in response to the fact that consumers want more and more information. The SmartLabel QR code makes it easy for consumers to access both on-pack information – potentially in an easier to read format – and information that often isn’t on the label such as ingredient definitions, sourcing practices, third-party certifications, social compliance and sustainability programs.
Where SmartLabel is different from the initiatives that have gone before is the mission to make a standard set of information available, in a standard way across brands. The brand owner is still responsible for the information – the content - but the plan is to ensure this information is made available in the consistent SmartLabel format. It is early days, but SmartLabel is predicted to grow to cover more than 34,000 products by the end of 2017.
Interestingly this is at a time when Nestlé are on TV promoting QR codes on their special edition Kit-Kat packs which will link to one of 74 YouTube videos that customers can watch while “having a break”, rather than promoting QR codes for nutrition.
This has prompted the question: should the path to additional information be through dedicated QR codes or should it use the existing retail point-of-sale barcode, the UPC or EAN barcode?
The answer is that it is not an either/or question. It can be both.
QR codes – the easy to scan option
An initial benefit to using QR codes a decade ago was the fact that they were much easier to read with that smartphone generation. But with smart(er) phones and better cameras many can now read point-of-sale (POS) barcodes as with apps such as RedLaser (now an eBay company). Although most would agree that a QR code is easier to capture because they are designed with high levels of error correction (so partially damaged or obscured can still be read) and omni-direction for scanning at any angle.
However, the main benefit of the QR code is that the URL is defined within the QR code itself so any QR code-reading smartphone app (of which there are many, most free) can read the code and then re-direct to the chosen location.
Using POS barcodes to deliver information to the consumer
By contrast, the POS barcode is simply a number – a unique reference that the EPOS systems use to look up price and product. Therefore, to use the POS barcode requires an app to interpret the UPC and decide what to display. If the retail brand owner has an app then this is an option, and the information displayed could be in a proprietary format or consistent with a standard such as SmartLabel.
Working with retail brand owners we know that this is the plan for some private brands; the plan is to make information accessible (some in the SmartLabel format) using their own app and the POS barcode. The benefit to this approach is that it does not require artwork or packaging modifications and therefore can be rolled out across a large volume of products quicker and more cost effectively (even allowing for app development).
Understanding nutrition – one size doesn’t fit all
That said, the UPC barcode is not always unique to a specific product. “Oh yes it is”, I hear you say. Well clearly it is, in the context that one UPC will relate to a specific product, but not to a specific product variant. For example, if a 250g can of tomato soup is re-developed to reduce salt content, the POS barcode will not usually change. For EPOS reasons it is still 250g tomato soup. Still the same price for POS, still the same size/format for logistics. However, when the consumer wants to understand nutrition, it is now effectively a different product. To complicate things further, for a long shelf-life product like a tin of soup, a customer may have two or even three generations of a product in their cupboard.
Using a QR code allows for this scenario because each version of the product would have a different QR code, whereas the UPC barcode cannot. Using a QR code similarly also allows for products with multi-source information such as provenance. Both versions would still share the same EPOS barcode: the same product, but with different QR codes and therefore two stories.
Delivering increased transparency via packaging
So to the subject of this blog, QR codes versus point-of-sale barcodes, I think it is fair to say that whether because of increasing demand for transparency and information (such as SmartLabel) or for marketing initiatives such as ‘Have a break’ YouTube videos, we will continue to see more and more QR codes making their way onto packaging over the next couple of years.
What I personally think is more interesting is the fact that SmartLabel has a current US focus and so far has rated little in the news east of the Atlantic. If adopted by global brands in North America, will we see the emergence of SmartLabel on a more international basis?