Lunch traffic and sales shot up for Thomas & King, a Lexington, Ky.-based Applebee’s franchisee, after the company began promoting its 14 Minute Lunchtime Guarantee with a TV commercial and a quick-response, or QR, code on marketing materials in its restaurants.
When guests scanned the QR code embedded on a table tent using a Web-enabled smartphone, the mobile browser pulled up the YouTube video of Thomas & King’s commercial, which senior vice president of marketing Christy Metcalfe described as “‘The Office’ meets ‘Glee.’”
QR codes are not yet mainstream, but operators experimenting with the technology say more phones are becoming capable of scanning the two-dimensional bar codes, enabling restaurants to communicate more with guests and provide a richer experience.
Proponents say using QR codes integrates marketing elements like broadcast commercials, social-media profiles and educational website pages with the in-store experience by making that content available at the table, on a guest’s smartphone or tablet.
“Customers can see [the video] from the QR code on the table tent or they see it on TV, and they remember it, and it all pulls together in the store,” Metcalfe said.
Between June 20 and Aug. 26, the QR code had been scanned 43,000 times in Thomas & King’s 89 Applebee’s restaurants in Arizona, Ohio and Kentucky. Lunch traffic rose 9.8 percent during that period, Metcalfe said.
Thomas & King and its ad agency, Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions, don’t attribute the entire gain to the QR code, Metcalfe said. However, the tactic helped integrate the franchisee’s TV commercials with its social-media strategy and in-restaurant experience, making all of its marketing initiatives more efficient.
Metcalfe said the investment in QR codes was miniscule, since dozens of free QR-code generators are available online to produce a JPEG of the code from any website URL. There were no additional fees associated with the QR code in printing and filming costs.
Joe Sorge, chief executive of Milwaukee-based multiconcept operator Hospitality Democracy, also said QR codes “aren’t a silver bullet,” but suggested experimenting with them to get more mileage out of marketing tools restaurants already use.
He used a QR code this summer at a booth for his Zaffiro’s Pizza concept at Milwaukee’s Summerfest event. When scanned, it loaded a Twitter page prepared with a tweet containing “#Zaffiro’s” and “#Summerfest” hashtags to leverage customers’ networks. He also placed in his AJ Bombers restaurant four QR codes tied to his photo blog, The Burger Whisperer, offering users a Barrie Dog off the secret menu.
In both cases, 1 percent of people visiting his eateries scanned the codes.
“You won’t see additional business just because of QR codes,” Sorge said.
A June study from researcher comScore estimated that 14 million people, or 6.2 percent of the total U.S. mobile audience, scanned a QR code that month. Of those users, 60.5 percent were male, 53.4 percent were between the ages of 18 and 34, and 36.1 percent had a household income of $100,000 or more. Fifty-eight percent scanned a QR code at home, likely from a magazine or brochure, while only 7.6 percent did so at a restaurant.
But Sorge said that the tactic still has brand-building benefits.
“It’s more important for our personality than for our sales,” he said. “At this point, a QR code is a branding, marketing and education move.”
BJ Emerson, vice president of technology for Franklin, Tenn.-based Tasti D-Lite, also aims to educate his 55-unit chain’s customers through QR codes. He set up a Tasti Pad kiosk in each store, where Apple iPads can scan codes to pull up Web content like the chain’s Facebook and Twitter pages, a flavor alert calendar and a store locator.
“It bridges the gap between the virtual and the physical, so we can stay connected for promos and contests and other things,” Emerson said. “As they learn more about the product, the opportunity to reach out is created when we’re with them on Facebook and Twitter, and we can deepen that relationship.”
He admitted that it’s still early for QR codes, but “we’re getting closer to more widespread adoption from the tech side and the consumer side,” especially among Tasti D-Lite’s core audience.
Both Emerson and Sorge equated teaching customers to use QR codes with their early adoption of Foursquare, which got more popular in their restaurants the more valuable to customers the operators made checking in.
“The more you reward people for using it, the more eager they are to use it, and then it’s a way to differentiate yourself,” Sorge said. “Any differentiation you can offer that costs zero is a high priority.”
Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected] .