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Details—more than important for specialty brands

Kent Stones  |  by Kent Stones

My goal today is to provide an example that I hope will sear into your brain the importance for specialty brands to pay attention to the details, no matter how small or inconsequential they may seem. It’s these little things, when taken together, that have a huge impact on the psychic income people get from buying products or services. If specialty brands don’t do these things well, they’re really no different than their mass competitors. 

Taking advantage of a new technology can drive excitement

About ten months ago our head of planning blogged about an emerging technology, 2-D bar codes, that has great marketing potential. This technology, used in the right context, can offer tremendous utility for shoppers as more and more have smartphones in their hands while shopping. 

You can imagine my delight (yes, I’m a nerd) when my wife showed me a new Rand McNally road atlas she bought for an upcoming trip (more proof of my nerdiness: backup for when technology fails). Right there on the front cover, in plain sight, was a 2-D bar code with the simple statement “Scan this QR code with your phone for travel info, videos and more!” Pretty clear this was a QR code and I could scan it with my phone. 

But that’s not even the great part. I then discovered that each state map inside had its own unique 2-D bar code offering access to specific travel information for that state! How awesome! I was so impressed that Rand McNally was making such progressive use of this technology, and in exactly the contextual way that makes sense for the traveler. As suggested by the front cover, I fired up my phone’s QR code reader and scanned the front cover code, excited to see what was available. 

If you say it's a QR code, make sure it's a QR code

I carefully fitted the code within the reader’s alignment guides. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. I fired up my secondary QR code reader, because sometimes a code just won’t work on a certain reader app. It happens. Once again, nothing. I scanned again. Nothing. I was about to give up when I happened to see that Rand McNally offered a free app on their website for reading the QR code. OK, but to be honest, I’m always annoyed to have to download a special app for a technology that is supposed to be standardized. But being as far into this as I was, I thought I’d might as well see what kind of interaction was possible once the code was read. So I went to the web site provided to download the app.

This is where I discovered why I couldn’t scan the QR code. It wasn’t a QR code, it was a “TAG.” This statement (shown to the right) tipped me off: “Thanks for scanning our Walmart TAG (also called a “QR Code”)...” A “TAG” is a proprietary 2-D barcode from Microsoft and it is NOT a QR code. In fact, TAGs are not able to be read using a standard QR code reader, as suggested on the front cover. They require Microsoft’s proprietary TAG reader. No wonder it wouldn’t work. I understood this because I’m a bit of a geek. Typical users would not, and because of Rand McNally’s emphasis on using the term “QR code,” there is a pretty high chance that by this point most would have given up. In fact, most would probably have stopped trying after their QR code scanners didn’t work and not even have gotten to this page.

Is your mobile app even designed for mobile devices?

I did download the Microsoft app for my phone to be able to read this, and voila, my phone recognized the code and brought up a web page specific to the state I was interested in. Unfortunately, the page you see to the right is what was delivered (about the size of my phone screen). How in the world would anyone navigate this on a phone? By this time I was so tired of it I didn’t even try.

So what was the problem here? A lot of little things not done as well as they should have been. Here are the important details as I see them:

  • They didn’t understand the technology well enough to use the correct terminology. A Microsoft TAG is not a QR code and you can’t switch the terms. This is a big deal.
  • The web page linked to the front cover TAG is disappointing. It essentially just tells you that you just scanned the TAG, there are more TAGs that can be scanned and offers some links to the full web site. There is no utility for the end user, and going through the effort to get to this page results in disappointment.
  • The links connected to specific state TAGs are not optimized for mobile. They’re hard to navigate and overwhelming. And, by using mostly Flash for the video content, most of the videos won’t play on the majority of mobile devices. These make for a very poor mobile browsing experience.

What could have Rand McNally done to ensure that the details of implementing 2-D barcodes strengthened their brand? 

  • Made sure those writing instructions or descriptions used the correct technical terms so users aren’t confused. It may seem like a nit, but this is really important because users assume you know what you are talking about. Specialty brands are supposed to be a cut above, and that applies to everything they do.
  • Delivered some kind of utility to users who scanned their code. A quick video tour of the guide? A discount off the purchase of the GPS unit for sale? Unique content developed for travelers who scanned this code? A co-promotion with a hotel in the location being viewed?
  • Insisted that the company’s web site be optimized for mobile. It is no longer a nice-to-do, but a have-to-do. Now that many specialty brands offer excellent mobile web access, it’s the ante into the game.

Taken individually, many of these issues may seem minor or inconsequential. Budgets and time restrictions often drive us to deliver “good enough” that is on time and on budget. But as you can see from the example above, taken together these issues become death by a thousand cuts. I think people expect more from specialty brands. They expect them to pay attention to the details and get it right. That’s why consumers are willing to go out of their way, or even pay a little more, to buy those brands. 

 

Comments

Jason Ford  | 
Kent,

I agree with you on this. It can sometime be the very little things that drive us away. Nice article!
Rick Winegar  | 
My experience, almost. After my QR Reader said it wasn't a QR code on the 2012 paper atlas, I went to R.M. web site for info. Apparently the page was replaced with current page that says "Something went wrong'. The original site was cached by Google with a snapshot from 8/11/2011. So I guess they are trying to address the problem. Doesn't bode well, this false step, when real challenge to win customers is coding for mobile devices. With free mapping, travel and GPS apps from Google, MapQuest, TripAdvisor and Skobble (just examples) perhaps R.M should convince Google to buy them. BTW, a real QR code can be found on Mapquest's Mobile site, if you happen to be at your computer with your phone in your pocket and want to skip the iTunes store. Scan from the screen and it installs on the phone.
Kent Stones  | 
Thanks for the great comments, Rick.

I would love to be a fly on the wall in their strategic planning discussions, because the threats they face are tremendous and the strategic leverage they have appears small. That being said, I think the key to their success is across two fronts: first in finding a way to take advantage of the fact that there is still a need to have a physical map in the car (personal experience from my recent 4,500 mile trip) and second in offering highly specialized travel knowledge and tools for very distinct travel groups. RVers (which it seems they are trying to court), motorcycle riders, truckers, etc. They can, in my opinion, establish a beach head with some core travel groups that relegate the other services to the "average" traveler.

You also identified for me the first use case for a QR code on a web page that I like. A direct download to the phone from the web page has great utility by cutting out a number of steps.

It will be interesting to watch this business case play out over the next couple years. I hope they are successful, as they are an iconic brand with such a rich history that it would be a shame to see them rendered irrelevant.

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