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‘We would never have used QR codes a year ago’: how EE got shoppers mobile again

EE’s AR gaming activation drew crowds back into stores this spring

EE’s foray into gamified AR turned heads on the high street earlier this year as it invited people back into its stores. As part of our deep dive into all things Mobile, we talk to the mobile network operator and its agency, Publicis Poke, about how they made the campaign – and about their new-found love of QR codes.

High street shops in the UK are facing an uphill battle to entice customers inside. This spring, however, an augmented reality (AR) activation created by Publicis Poke for EE stores across the nation helped to turn shoppers’ heads and transform every storefront into a flagship location.

The campaign, which ran through May and June, saw the Poke team create an original AR experience for EE’s latest Xbox add-on plan, which provided additional data to customers who wanted to use Xbox Live on their mobile device for competitive gaming-on-the-go.

Tom Hostler, the head of brand experience at Publicis Poke, explains the thinking behind the activation, saying: “We have a long history of working with EE on what we call its ’showcase activations’ – things placed at the front of the store that act as attractors to bring people in. This might be for a new product launch, a new handset or a new proposition.

“In pre-Covid-19 times, they’re often tactile and immersive experiences, but obviously at the moment we can’t do contact-based retail. Creating a gamified AR experience felt native to the proposition and felt appealing in the context with which it will be explored.”

By scanning a QR code, customers could use the mobile browser on their phone (or an exhibition handset) to load an AR ‘unboxing’ that revealed a selection of game worlds right there on the desk.

Each world included information about the titles included in the deal, as well as a chance to take part in a prize draw. “The reason for the unboxing is that a loot box is obviously very familiar activity for game players,” says Hostler. ”And a lovely spin-off was that, because this was all-digital, it meant we could extend it to every store – it wasn’t limited to the showcase stores.”

The unboxing activation took three months to develop from start to finish. Using the browser available to customer devices was a deliberate choice to make the experience accessible to those without state-of-the-art handsets, Hostler says. The activation runs on devices going back to the iPhone 7. Even its aesthetic – though created to reference classic visual tropes of gaming – was used with accessibility in mind. “The aesthetic lends itself to a low-polygon count,” he notes. “Again, we broadened the gene pool as much as possible so everyone can enjoy this.”

He says that the popularization amid the pandemic of QR codes has made it a straightforward trigger device for AR work – in part, because it’s easier to persuade someone to scan a code than it is to talk them into downloading an app. “People have learned to use those through the pandemic, for track and trace and check-in activations. We can still pack that QR code up into nice prime colors and put it in in a boxed environment.”

Nathan Odell, the head of retail marketing communications at EE, says: “A gaming proposition is often quite a difficult one to try and explain to a customer. How do you talk about gaming in a store without being over-complex? We’re really proud of the fact that we’ve been able to put that prop in the customer’s hand, let them explore gaming and bring it to life using AR. A year ago, we wouldn’t have thought about using QR codes.”

While the numbers aren’t in yet, Odell says initial feedback is strong. “A couple of the agency guys walked past and actually saw someone doing it in-store, so that’s brilliant. And verbatim feedback from staff has been positive.”

It’s not the only work EE has staged this year using QR codes. Odell points to a QR-activated ‘digital scratchcard’ competition it ran just as its shops reopened in the spring, called ‘We’re back, baby’, which offered in-store customers the chance to win an Xbox, among other prizes. “That proved really successful,” he says.

According to Hostler, QR codes are a tool the agency will be returning to. “Now that trigger point is comfortable with a broad audience, you don’t need to explain what to do. You can leapfrog that and get them straight into something.”

He expects their capacity to deliver more involved AR experiences will develop too. “The increased penetration of 5G networks means that experience arrives in the handset that much faster. There’s no lag. The capability of handsets is always moving on... and the ability to manipulate more detailed models moves forward with each release. It’s very clearly a maturing technology, and therefore deserves one that a place in our permanent toolbox.”

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