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The importance of QR codes in a pandemic: lessons from Asia Pacific


By Shawn Lim, Reporter, Asia Pacific

November 11, 2020 | 5 min read

QR codes have become a ubiquitous mechanic for customers' brand engagement in Asia Pacific but as the pandemic speeds up digitisation elsewhere around the world, the use of QR codes is back on all marketers' agendas.

From restaurants and hospitality, to government and safety information, QR codes have empowered anyone with a smartphone to easily access information and content. QR codes have also become a way for companies to tell brand stories, from packaging delivering provenance and sustainability stories, to luxury fashion telling designer, artists and makers stories. What can brands around the world learn from Asia Pacific's headstart at using QR codes in daily life?

“Billions of daily users rely on mobile payments through Alipay, WeChatPay, GrabPay, who have seamlessly integrated e-commerce, social media, and mobility services amongst others into their super apps. Not only can they trace where their consumers have been, they understand their purchasing patterns through QR codes. That's the big promise to brands, marketers, and advertisers spending in their media ecosystems to influence the purchase journey,” Felix Rompis, the executive client services director at R/GA Singapore explains to The Drum.

“Western tech ecosystems have yet to achieve the numbers of their Asian counterparts. Not for lack of trying, see Whatsapp Business or Instagram shop. But because they've been met with a mix of regulatory and infrastructural challenges, and lesser access to structural incentives and shared utilities. And most important of all: consumer apathy.”

He continues: “It takes a global pandemic for people to (more or less) adopt new human and technological behaviors at speed. When this is all over, few will stick. People will want to simply stroll into restaurants and peruse paper menus again - but they'll also want to be able to pay contactless. Therein lies the only, long-term consumer future for QR codes amidst its resurgence: mobile payments.”

In Singapore, QR codes have played a significant role in the fight against Covid-19, notes Benjamin Pavanetto, the managing director for Asia at Adludio, as a method of contact tracing, as well as digital no-touch payments to minimise contact among humans.

"In China too, QR codes are ubiquitous although it raised some controversy around data privacy, and this is something the authorities need to closely regulate. Chinese consumers utilise QR codes regularly for shopping, billboard advertising, identification of pets, as well as to make quick donations," he adds.

For example, local banks in Guangdong province are even destroying cash that may have circulated through high-risk areas like hospitals and food markets.

The importance of QR codes when it comes to digital and cashless payments is why Mastercard has been working over the years to increase the adoption of QR codes in Asia and across the world, for both merchants and consumers.

Safdar Khan, division president for South East Asia emerging markets at Mastercard tells The Drum the payments company has standardised QR codes for payment for Bharat QR, an interoperable QR code acceptance solution in India and Thailand, and plan to continue doing so for other countries in Asia.

“A key learning from Asia is to create initiatives to boost education and awareness levels about the benefits of QR codes. Despite Asian countries’ advancements into digital payments and cashless transations, cash still continues to be the preferred means of payments in several parts of the continent,” explains Khan.

“There is a great need to educate businesses on how to integrate QR codes into their day-to-day operations to fully reap the benefits QR codes have to offer them, such as gaining access to the digital economy. Consumer awareness around the safety and security of QR codes is also essential.”

He adds: “This will help gain their trust and confidence to be comfortable with using QR code payments and not worrying about their personal details being compromised to non-formal institutions.”

It will not be long before QR codes are becoming the defacto mechanism for social, health and financial information delivery, as well as a way to navigate physical spaces, procedures and payments, predicts Anthony Baker, executive technology director at R/GA Tokyo.

With ubiquitous cameras that read information with a tap of a button, and the wide coverage of internet connectivity, the unique, simple to print and easy to spot QR codes have surpassed any other high-tech alternatives. The next-generation QR codes will enable far more, from navigation, transportation, social connections and community engagement, to finance and health data and information exchange.

We could also see personal QR codes become the new form of identity card, notes Michael Patent, founder and president, Culture Group, linking anybody who scans with not only contact information, social accounts, and payment gateways but also brand preferences.

If these cases from APAC set a precedent, once the West figure out how to overcome the regulatory and infrastructural challenges, a host of possibilities for using QR codes await them.

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