How QR codes came to invade Cayman

Here we tell the story of how squiggly public images of 2-D barcodes might soon link everyone in the Cayman Islands to the rich cyber world of vital information, hype and silly stuff barely worth a notice. And how these images flew in here through Owen Roberts International Airport.   


In 2013, Morritt’s Resort’s curious abstract image staring from a wall-sized commercial display in the arriving flights portion of Owen Roberts International Airport became the talk of observant visitors to Grand Cayman. 

It was a puzzling image, outsized and distinct from the surrounding advertising text and graphics that the grand East End vacation site’s designers displayed. It looked a little like a talisman thick with mystical runes from an ancient civilization. In fact, it was a kind of portal into another world – the 21st century cyber world. 

Savvy visitors jetting in from big media centers like London, Toronto and New York nodded knowingly. They had seen designs like this before, printed in magazine ads and theater and other performance posters. And they knew the secret of decoding the hidden messages that lay behind the squares, dots and curvy lines.  

To be in on the message, all you need is a smartphone (or smart tablet, like an iPad). If your communication device has the right application in it, you point your camera lens toward the image and scan it, allowing the device to take the image in. 

The unique shapes are a kind of code that gives the viewer access to a million-fold richer experience than any mere two-dimensional poster could ever provide. The website you link to will likely include color pictures, text, music, even video that, ideally, anticipate your needs and capture your attention so you can get what you need. 

At the airport, by scanning iPhones at the squiggles, people should have been able to watch and hear a lush introduction to the Morritt’s condo and hotel development on their tiny screens. They would be tapping into one of the great marketing tools this technological age now affords us – great, that is, in the hands of properly skilled, thoughtful and creative professionals. 

Indeed, since last year, the Cayman Islands has become awash in such images, called, variously, QR (or Quick Response) codes and 2-D and 3-D barcodes, depending on the sophistication of their coding. They’re everywhere printed information appears: newspapers, magazines, display boards, menus, shipping crates, panel trucks, you name it, instantly linking smartphone users with compelling marketing productions for products and services of all kinds. Check out the images Caledonian Global Financial Services uses or Butterfield Bank Ltd. But Morritt’s Resort was the first to test the shimmering waters around these Caribbean islands.  

The QR codes have a fascinating role in the history of how technology connected with marketing in the late 20th century. And, according to many high-tech pundits, we may expect the brightest of futures for these little emblems as pathways to information the public can put to all kinds of uses. Somehow, though, the experience of an early adopting resort on Grand Cayman Island didn’t turn out to be all its executives had hoped. 

The backstory 

What went wrong with Morritt’s efforts to use its QR code at Owen Roberts International Airport?  

Jim Larocca, a Morritt’s sales representative who urges U.S. visitors to stay at or buy condominium time shares at the resort, says a former general manager saw potential in QR code displays and had the airport sign erected a year ago. But Larocca didn’t know much about how successful it has been enticing visitors to Morritt’s. He steered questions to the resort’s operations manager, William Conolly. 

“Ahhh, the barcode,” Conolly said, his voice suddenly weary. “Probably, it hasn’t been effective for us because of the problem.” [Explained below.] And he explained that Rob Berweiler, who left his general manager job in 2013, thought the big barcode would draw interest.  

“I don’t know much about this decision, actually. But I do know that we haven’t gotten much response,” Conolly said. After a pause and a sigh, he continued: “Well, actually, I could say we have gotten zero response. It was not at all worth the money we have paid for it.” He paused again and then, brightening, said, “These codes do seem to offer a different way of looking at the marketing situation.” 

There are marketing experts all over the world who agree, claiming that QR coded messages, properly framed, may be among the best ways to reach certain kinds of customers of particular kinds of goods and services.  

“For example,” technology blogger Angie Schotmuller said, “a barcode linking to a map will automatically load Google Maps or some other mobile app and default to the user’s current location from his GPS. And then it will route the directions he needs. How much time and steps did that just save?”  

Mike Wehrs, president and CEO of Scanbuy, one of the principal international technology companies providing QR code management, said, “For marketers, QR codes allow advertisements, brochures, posters, even clothing or billboards to direct users to mobile pages that contain much more information and interactivity than on the printed page.”  

He said this linking of print ads and Internet “adds a new dimension of communication to any marketing or outreach effort.” 

And Rakesh Niraj, a marketing professor at the Weatherhead School of Business at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said, “QR code marketing has a strong niche. You are catching consumers at a point when they are seeking some information. They’re at the peak of their receptivity. So you want to take charge and issue a call to action, solve a problem for this consumer. Then it’s very effective.”  


Location matters 

But for all the endorsements from these and others who know QR codes in and out, the first big QR code campaign in the Cayman Islands went bust because of one simple consideration, known to real estate experts the world over: location. 

“We placed the billboard in an immigration arriving area, like a customs area,” Connelly said. It is also an area that has firm restrictions over camera and phone use. Day after day, newcomers to Cayman thronged through the room and marched past the display, but the area’s posted restrictions kept almost all of them from using the one tool that goes hand in hand with QR marketing – the smartphone. 

“I like the technology. I support the technology,” Conolly admitted. It’s just that the former general manager positioned this grand marketing experiment in a place where crowds weren’t permitted to draw out its full potential – or virtually any potential at all.  

Locating QR codes in the wrong room isn’t the only way marketing people have abused this technology.  

What works, and doesn’t work 

Every expert has stories of what has not worked and why. They also suggest what makes for good, even ideal, conditions wherein companies and organizations can effectively use this approach to draw customers and information seekers.” 

San Francisco-based communications and business consultant Shel Holtz, of Holtz Communication and Technology, has seen a long trail of marketing people “who are not doing much with this technology. I mean, they use QR codes to take you somewhere that isn’t useful. Or they don’t take you anywhere. You see a billboard with a code, and you scan it. It takes you to the company’s home page. What am I, as a consumer, supposed to do with that?” 

But the barcode phenomenon, which was developed and refined in Japan and South Korea over the last 40 years, also has brought out the highest level of business creativity and innovation from some who use what, at bottom, is a simple concept. 

“A QR code is essentially a printed hyper-link,” Holtz said. “You scan it, and it takes you to a web destination.” Anyone with a mobile device could do the same thing by typing in a URL – a website’s or address.  

“Scanning this symbol just makes it so much easier,” Holtz, whose clients include Pepsico, the World Monetary Fund and various Fortune 1,000 companies, said. And the marketing efforts that have seized upon that ease of use – and installed a measure of creativity in their efforts – have come up with terrific ways of engaging an eager public. These examples may suggest ways enterprises – private or public – in the Cayman Islands might use QR codes. 

“South Korea has been really instrumental in developing 2-D codes,” Holtz said, and he cited an illustration of how well the nation has applied it. “There was a retail market that found it was dropping off in sales at lunch time. They built a 3-D QR code (more advanced than a 2-D design) that had the added function of operating on the basis of how the sun reached it at a certain time during the day – lunch hour.” 

Pedestrians in a public place at around noon could easily find and scan these displays on their mobile devices, and, in return would be emailed discount coupons for special meals, products and services offered in this retail market. “Then you could go and retrieve these coupons during your lunch. It was hugely successful. It targeted people in a particular geographic area at a particular time, and it gave them something of value.” 

Holtz mentioned another successful endeavor using QR codes along a particular route. “The city of San Antonio, Texas, has a walking tour with places of interest and historical significance along the route. As you’re walking, you can scan QR codes posted periodically, and you get an audio commentary about the importance of whatever was there. 

“These aren’t uses of the technology that are going to go viral and yield you thousands and thousands of viewers, but the usage increases over time if you actually respond to people’s needs,” he said. Since the ownership of smartphones has so increased in just the last year or two and continues to soar, the market for such compelling links expands, too. Holtz said studies show that 50 percent of U.S. residents had scanned a code by the end of 2012. 


The benefits 

Niraj, the business professor, pointed out that the practice of scanning codes in Japan and Korea is much more entrenched, and people in countries in every quarter of the earth have at least dipped their toes into this fertile pool. The main incentive is always the same: a consumer wants to benefit from something relevant with each scan, something usable. 

The first concern, then, is to make sure whatever pops up from a smart-phone scan is configured for use on a little cell phone screen and navigable by those controls.  

“If it’s not easy to see and use on my iPhone,” Niraj said, “then why should a consumer bother with it again?” Moreover, the marketing people designing QR codes will know how they’re doing because they can quantify all the use of their engagement with consumers. 

How many scanned, how far into a website they traveled, what benefits might they have retrieved, where and when they executed their scan, all that and more is available to the designer, a treasure of feedback that should result in more effective engagement. “And all that’s available through QR codes at an almost inconsequential cost,” Niraj said. 

There’s more. B.L. Ochman, a Manhattan-based businesswoman, blogger and marketing consultant, said that by drawing newer technology into the QR code sphere of influence, “you can give users an incredibly rich experience when they scan on your code.”  

The real estate industry, she said, is one that is just beginning to realize the value of reaching mobile-device-carrying consumers and giving them huge value-added returns for each scan. So adding 3-D capabilities to a code, layering on additional features, makes, say, an illustration of a building on a smartphone or iPad screen come alive with the multiple interior features that underlie exterior architectural design. 

“You move your device over the page, like a magnifier, and what you start out seeing is a flat drawing,” Ochman, who’s both exuberant and focused, said, her exuberance winning out. “On your screen, it becomes 3-D, and as you hover over it, you can see deeper into the image, under the surface. It’s cool and really useful.”  

In a tourist-thick environment, like islands in the Caribbean, she said, consider how useful it could be in demonstrating the features of a resort, the types of water-borne excursions available, or the presentation of culinary treats in a historic restaurant. 

Every expert on this exploding technology, though, has stories of how badly and unimaginatively QR is actually unfolding in many places. “I see QR codes in the subway everywhere,” Ochman said. “Well, hello. There’s no cellphone reception there.” That’s a distinctly low value use of QR codes.  

But Ochman doubles back, “They’re phenomenal at instructions. Say you buy furniture at Ikea. You can get a video that shows you how to put it together step by step.” 


What the future holds 

Niraj said he expects QR codes “to skyrocket” as marketing and technology people talk to one another more – and work out the ways to use the scannable codes more effectively. Beyond that, he finds that consumers the age of his undergraduate and graduate students, for the most part, “aren’t really that worried about the information about their locations, their buying habits, their interests that they give away while transacting with their mobile devices. 

“These privacy issues won’t be a barrier to more intensive QR code engagement,” he said, not for the generation now hitting young adulthood.  

Beyond that, maybe the marketing mistakes will diminish as practitioners learn how to use codes better. 

Darwinian principles may eventually wipe out those who expect subway riders to scan codes underground without cell reception, those who send potential customers to a corporation’s dull-as-toast home page instead of to the exciting special offers they expect or, certainly, anyone who plants a QR code in a room that forbids phone or camera use.