There really aren’t many reasons to be even marginally grateful for the Covid pandemic, but one consequence has been the belated recognition it has brought to a small, unsung hero of communications.
I have been a believer in QR – Quick Response - codes since I first encountered them in Asia where the little black and white grids appear on almost every poster and package. In China, in particular, they’re like an all-purpose Swiss Army Knife. Want to rent a bicycle or buy a burger? Scan the code. Want to share your contact details rather than present a business card? Hand over the code on your phone for the other person to scan it.
Even at their most basic, the fact that they can be produced at no cost and instantly provide access to a website page without the need to painstakingly type abcdefghijklmnop.com on the screen of a small smartphone made them instantly appealing.
For a wine industry desperate to ‘educate’ the consumer, what was there not to like?
The answer, for most western businesses in wine or almost any other any sector, I discovered, was ‘plenty’. While codes appeared on a few movie posters and in mainland European branches of McDonalds, most gave them the cold shoulder. Instead of Asia’s critical mass, the west gave QR codes a critical vacuum.
"No one invited me"
The few wine brands that did adopt QR codes generally simply stuck them on their labels and waited for responses they never saw.
Consumers didn’t scan those labels for the same reason I’ve never had dinner at Buckingham Palace: nobody invited them.
As Edmund Inkin, co-owner of a small hotel chain called Eat Drink Sleep in the south west of the UK told Wired Magazine in the early months of the pandemic, “Up until now a QR code, certainly to me, has just been a collection of black and white patterns on a billboard or on a bus stop or wherever, I’d never really thought of using them.”
I’d guess that, like Inkin, most people seeing the code on the label of a wine bottle imagined that it was no more relevant to them than the barcode alongside which it was probably printed.
Today, there can be very few people who haven’t found themselves pointing their phones at QR codes or having the codes on their Covid passes scanned in order to obtain something or gain access to somewhere. By mid 2020 customers of Inkin’s hotels, were routinely using them to order food and drink.
For a while I did my best to promote the use of QR codes, including them in a succession of presentations across the world, and even offering proof of concept in the shape of an ambitious project I’d created for McGuigan, one of Australia’s biggest producers nine years ago.
Using codes on back labels and point of sales material, and offering the incentive of a free personalised ebook full of recipes by a top TV chef and the chance to win a session cooking with him, we persuaded over 30,000 people to scan the code, complete a complex online form and visit a specially-created website.
When the campaign was around two months old, and we’d just celebrated our 15,000th scan, I posted a description of it online where it has remained, largely untouched since May 2013.
The QR Code on the McGuigan bottles looked the same as any other, but there was an essential difference. We’d added the words “Scan for a chance to win…” and provided an incentive.
Tooth & Nail
Today, while far more people are familiar with the codes, and the ease with which they are scanned using modern smartphones (you used to have to use a dedicated app), I still wonder how many wine drinkers are going to scan them – just as I wonder how many are have downloaded an app to check which bottles in their local store have AR labels that come to life. The music and artwork on the label on a new wine from the Tooth & Nail winery are really quite impressive, but who will see and hear them?
In other words, I still think you need a call to action.
EU To the Rescue
But, with or without any invitation or encouragement, after the end of next year, if the EU follows through on a vote it has passed, QR codes may be finding their way onto millions of bottles of wine.
From the first of January, 2024, drink producers will be obliged to provide nutritional/ingredient information just like food manufacturers. The only likely concession – still the subject of much debate among European legislators - is whether it has to be printed, or if it can be accessed via a QR code.
One European parliamentarian with whom I discussed the issue firmly favours the former, claiming that “no one will ever scan a code”, but I suspect lobbyists for super premium and traditional wines will drive acceptance of QR codes on grounds of aesthetics, lack of space and the ability to update information easily from one vintage to the next.
And, in any case, over the next 20 months, thanks to the refusal of Covid to go away, I’m guessing that we’re all going to get increasingly used to those clever little black and white boxes. It will be up to the industry to decide how to exploit them beyond compliance with the law.