Walkers and Tesco are among a host of brands to have embraced augmented reality. Others are sure to follow.

Who needs boring old reality when you can have “wow”-eliciting augmented reality?

Over the past year or so, the distinctive ‘A’ and ‘b’ icons of two of the leading companies in the field, Aurasma and Blippar, have started popping up all over the place - on advertisements and packaging, in magazines and newspapers, even in shop windows.

And food and drink brands have been very much in the vanguard in encouraging consumers to use their smartphone to ‘bring to life’ images - whether it’s videos, internet games, cookery demonstrations, recipe generators, competitions, you name it. Just this week, PepsiCo launched a new AR campaign for Walkers Crisps, which allows consumers to ‘blipp’ off standard packs to see a real-time, localised weather feed, and, last week, Tesco unveiled the first cover-to-cover AR food magazine, an Aurasma-enabled issue of its Real Food magazine.

Still not convinced? Download the Aurasma Lite and Blippar apps, turn the page and scan these and other ‘markers’ to see for yourself. I challenge anyone new to AR - or image recognition as those in the trade prefer to call it - not to at least smile when they see how fun, diverse and content-rich blipps and auras can be. They’re certainly more entertaining and versatile than the old QR (quick response) codes.

“Our target was 16 to 24-year olds. We were really surprised and pleased with the results. We didn’t invest loads.”

Yet for all the noise surrounding AR, and the predictions that the days of the QR code are numbered, if anything uptake of QR codes is growing at a faster rate than that of AR. So is AR really poised to KO the QR code? And which of the major players is best placed to benefit?

On the face of it, it looks as though we’re rapidly approaching the tipping point for AR. Last month, IBM revealed it intends to launch a new augmented reality shopping app, which will allow shoppers to glean information about their favourite brands simply by scanning a supermarket shelf with their smartphone. The move followed hot on the heels of Google’s unveiling of the first working prototype of its ‘Goggles’, dubbed Google Glass, which feature a mini-projector that can display an image in front of your eyes.

The fact that two such giants are backing AR could prove a real game changer - and despite the hype, it does need one, say experts. The recent explosion in the number of food and drink brands using QR codes - essentially “glorified mini-URLs”, according to Daljit Bhurji, MD of Diffusion - is a product of its simplicity.

“In an age where packaging should be kept to a minimum, QR codes are perfect for providing lots of detail in a tiny amount of space,” believes Jeremy Jaffé, co-founder and sales director of organic food company What on Earth. And as novices to social media, “trying out QR codes seems a natural progression”, he adds. “This is more of an experiment than anything else.”

An experiment maybe, but one that involves easy-to-use technology (consumers just have to download one QR reader and they can read any code) and greater consumer uptake. The results for What on Earth aren’t bad either - the trial contributed to a 30% increase in sales of its organic pizzas, it claims. With AR, on the other hand, the consumer needs to download specific apps and there is still an element of consumer unfamiliarity and wariness, an issue compounded by the lack of publicity and support the brands tend to give AR campaigns and dearth of calls to action on pack.

The key players

  • Aurasma launched in June 2011 and the cloud-based, self-service model now has over 7,000 commercial partners worldwide who can use the Aurasma Lite app or embed the technology in their own apps - which more than 300 brands have done.
  • Since Blippar’s launch 11 months ago, it has partnered a whole host of grocery brands. “It’s the only platform to de-tech this space and brand ‘blipping’ as the verb of image recognition,” says CMO and co-founder Jess Butcher.

The brands that have taken the leap, however, believe AR will ultimately prove a far more powerful tool than QR codes. One of the first brands to experiment with it was Cadbury, partnering with Blippar last August to launch online game Quak Smack as part of its Spots v Stripes Olympics promotion.

It was a no-brainer, says Kate Wall, assistant brand manager, Cadbury 2012. “We were Blippar’s launch partner. Our target was 16 to 24-year olds. We know 73% of that age group has a smartphone.”

The game, activated by blipping bars of Cadbury chocolate, had 25,000 unique users and was played 112,000 times in six weeks, or six times on average per use. “We were really surprised and pleased with the results,” admits Wall. “We didn’t invest loads. The YouTube video had 35,000 views and we didn’t even have it on pack.”

Cadbury also uses QR codes but Wall feels that while “both AR and QR have a role, AR offers an additional wow factor”. Particularly with that all-important audience of younger consumers - and gaming is not the only means by which brands are trying to engage with this group. Last month, The Grocer ran its first AR front-cover ad - for Beverage Brands’ WKD - which itself flagged up the consumer-facing AR content that can be triggered by blipping WKD packs and bottle roundels. Debs Carter, marketing director of Beverage Brands, believes AR is the perfect way to engage with younger consumers.

“For 18 to 25-year-old consumers, mobile phones are their lives,” she says of the campaign, fronted by the dancing Head of Weekends character. “Our consumers expect to be at the forefront of digital.”

GlaxoSmithKline, too, has used AR to engage with younger consumers. Last November, it launched Aurasma-enabled limited edition bottles of Lucozade featuring Tinie Tempah and Plan B.

“We had an issue with 16 to 24-year-olds. We were under-indexing against some of the edgier competition,” says Matt McKie, then senior brand manager for Lucozade Energy (now marketing manager, Maximuscle and Maxifuel). “Traditional media didn’t work very well. We were looking for a platform that would work. That platform was music. It was more of a trial, but I think this is the future. This is what young people are going to interact with. It’s cool, exciting and where the world is going.”

Tesco clearly agrees - and it is not just eyeing the younger demographic. “This is truly innovative and something we’re very excited about,” says marketing director David Wood of its Aurasma-enabled issue of Real Food. The augmented features are a fun and fantastic way to bring the content to life for customers.”

The retailer also worked with Aurasma to bring augmented reality window displays of its F&F clothing brand to several central London stores this May. Emily Shamma, director of online clothing at Tesco, believes AR is “a particularly good fit” for fashion.

“We wanted to raise awareness of both our fabulous extended fashion range online and the recent extension of our click & collect service into a number of central London stores,” she explains. “It made perfect sense to use the stores themselves to do this. And so the idea of a strong, scannable fashion poster and in-store leaflets was born. Most of our central London stores are smaller, so we can’t showcase our in-store fashion range, let alone our bigger online range.”

While “very much a trial,” she adds, “we’re looking at where we should take it next.” Indeed, it has already used AR in its Covent Garden pop-up shop and extended its poster trial with Aurasma to leaflets distributed via its online deliveries.

Other retailers, meanwhile, have been using AR to promote more than one category - as Marks & Spencer did with its Valentine’s Day campaign.

Style over substance?
Quite what impact such a small-scale campaign had on sales is difficult to gauge. Another issue is the perception that AR is just for digital natives and therefore limited in scope. But perhaps the biggest criticism levelled at AR is that it’s a case of style over substance: a marketing tool that has lots of novelty value but little functionality.

Needless to say, Blippar CMO and co-founder Jess Butcher contends that campaigns “are moving beyond gimmick to functionality”. She cites Blippar’s creation of a game for Wrigley’s 5 Gum as an example of how gaming applications have evolved. “It’s gone from an on-pack Cadbury game that was fun but somewhat fiddly to play off pack, to a game you can play while moving your device around. You can play augmented or stabilise [allowing you to continue playing when you’ve moved the phone away from the image],” she explains.

Yes, content is important, but so is context, she adds. “Our work with Nestlé to make Knitting Nanas come to life off a pack of Shreddies is aimed at keeping kids entertained at the breakfast table,” she elaborates. “That’s very different from our campaign with Tesco that lets people buy DVDs and CDs from its newspaper ads via one tap of their phone. One is about brand affinity and creating a point of difference. The other effects direct sales conversion and delivers revenue to the bottom line. Both are valid.”

Matt Mills, head of sales at Aurasma, agrees that brands are only just scratching the surface of what’s possible with AR. “Brands have always been constrained in terms of the amount of information they can share on the physical product - now they can publish digital content such as videos and animations on pack and introduce direct links to webpages,” he says. “This gives the consumer access to potentially limitless information and makes packaging something consumers keep returning to, creating a completely new mobile way for brands and retailers to cross and up sell.”

In the QR queue

In May, Guinness introduced pint glasses that when filled reveal a scannable QR code.

In June, a Leicestershire dairy cow with a QR code on its side was used to promote UK dairy. A QR code even featured as a piece of garden art at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May

It also gives brands the chance to communicate in a more direct way with consumers and retailers the opportunity to liven up the supermarket aisles, adds Gareth Turner, senior brand manager for Bulmers and Jacques, which launched an AR campaign for Bulmers this April. “What consumers see is a big pile of boxes and deals,” he says. “Retailers are well aware they can’t keep promoting on price. They are allowing us to develop engagement at the fixture.

“AR is not going to create world peace. It’s a bit of fun, but with a real wow factor.” Nor will AR sound the death knell for QR codes, he adds. After all, “TV didn’t spell the end of radio.”

Mills agrees. “QR codes will probably always have a place - for example in the industrial manufacture space for which they were originally designed,” he says. “However, the QR code is not a compelling use case for the consumer. They take people to a website destination but do not add anything to the user experience.”

Diffusion’s Bhurji goes even further: “AR can’t sound the death of the QR code because the QR code isn’t really alive. The majority of people don’t even know what QR codes are.”

AR, meanwhile, is constantly evolving, and is free to use as far as the consumer is concerned. Unlike Blippar, Aurasma doesn’t charge clients either, which begs the question: how does it make money? The short answer is it doesn’t. “We’re currently pre-revenue,” says Mills. “We’re taking time to learn how our partners and consumers use the technology before moving to revenue. While we’ve got no dates at present, we can see the value in a pay-per-click model where downloading the technology, viewing content and using the platform remain free but the advertiser pays for any click-through.”

Time will tell what impact IBM and Google’s entry into AR will have on Aurasma and Blippar. Whatever technology brands decide to plump for, they need to be realistic about the opportunities and limitations for that particular brand, says Dean Johnson, executive creative director of Brandwidth. “I remember when clients used to ask us whether we could build their own version of Facebook. Our answer was always: ‘No, there’s a perfectly good social network already - it’s called Facebook.’ The current discussions around AR and QR codes remind me of those conversations.”

The question brand owners should ask is whether it is really worth creating an additional reality around a product, he says. “The challenge is to sustain the attention of consumers and encourage them to keep the brand on their mobile devices. You want to spend your time and budget producing something consumers want to interact with over time, not just another form of digital ephemera. It should be about creating quality experience rather than a five-minute piece of stunt theatre.”

Unless a five-minute piece of stunt theatre is exactly what’s called for, of course.

  • In response to the unpredictable weather, Walkers has launched a blipp that lets consumers access a real-time, localised weather feed - to help them decide whether to lunch in or out
  • The latest issue of Tesco’s Real Food boasts cover-to-cover AR content including BBQ how-to-videos, a build-a-burger animation and click-to-buy features linking to Tesco’s online store
  • In the latest strand of WKD’s weekend-based summer promotional campaign, users can download an innovative cocktail app that generates suggestions for bespoke WKD-based cocktails
  • Point your phone at the Tinie Tempah limited-edition bottle of Lucozade and the design springs to life with the artist directing fans to watch a “making of” documentary with a touch of the screen
  • Since last Autumn, consumers have been able to scan bottles of Heinz Tomato Ketchup to unlock a pop-out recipe booklet, watch one of many cooking videos and enter competitions
  • Tesco introduced Aurasma-enabled window displays and leaflets to several central London stores in May. After watching the F&F catwalk show, users could order the goods online
  • Before Valentine’s Day, commuters passing through Waterloo Statio may have noticed a large Marks & Spencer billboard featuring this lady. Had they scanned it, they would have seen her “come alive” to promote the retailer’s lingerie and flowers
  • Cadbury launched blippable chocolate bars last August as part of its Spots v Stripes Olympic activity. Blip the bar, pick whether you want to be a Spot or a Stripe and start playing the game
  • Launched last Autumn, the Nana’s Daily Pearls of Wisdom campaign for Nestle’s Shreddies boasted an on-pack call to action - unlike many smaller AR-enabled packs
  • In April, Heineken launched a campaign for Bulmers showing drinkers how to pour the perfect pint of cider over ice. The campaign is running in both the off and on-trade