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QR Codes and The Case Of The Chili Crunch

by Sarah Williams on 09/22/2020 | 4 Minute Read

If you are feeling nostalgic for old-school technology, just Google QR codes, and take a quick rewind to 2013 when brands like Taco Bell and ESPN made them a central element of their marketing campaigns. 

A new gimmick arose, and designers everywhere recoiled (myself included). But when recently catching up on episodes of David Chang's podcast on The Ringer, I completely reversed my mindset. Dave Chang's guest was fellow chef, entrepreneur, and Fresh Off the Boat creator Eddie Huang and the topic was Momofuku’s launch of a Chili Crunch sauce. 

So how could a condiment create a riveting discussion that leads to QR code technology? Huang challenged Momofuku’s product launch as a riff on the iconic brand Lao Gan Ma but adapted for a broader audience. Lao Gan Ma’s packaging has a more traditional aesthetic featuring the beloved image of Mrs. Huabi Tao, its creator. By contrast, Momofuku’s design is starkly minimal and Instagram-ready. Huang advocated for context around the origins of chili crunch and the foundation laid by the iconic brand, also known as “Grandma Sauce" or "Old Godmother."

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“Why can’t we sell something in America that keeps the string from 2020 to 5,000 years ago?" Huang asked. "I really do think the DNA of where these things come from needs to be in the product of the present.” 

Of course, Huang and Chang not only brought great context to the conversation, but Huang also offered a solution—why not add a QR code that links to an origin story and pays respects to Lao Gan Ma,  building some deeper engagement through the packaging. 

OK, now there is a super culturally-relevant reason for that QR code to make a reappearance. So what else can we learn from this story?

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Technology can empower brands to create meaningful connections through packaging—particularly in our food brands, cultural context matters just as much as the visual design. Giving people the real back-story of food traditions helps everyone understand that, while something may seem like the hot new ingredient—like when turmeric is suddenly in everything—often, it's the result of generations of knowledge and labor. Thank My Farmer is an app partnering with companies like Keurig that allows you to scan a QR code and trace the origins of your coffee beans, and support communities in Colombia, Guatemala, and Ethiopia. If the foundational building block of your brand gets built on traditional recipes and techniques, it’s a powerful way to help preserve the culture. 

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QR Code adoption is being accelerated by COVID-19, enabling new experiences that help us stay safe. As we continue to live in the grips of a global pandemic, businesses and brands are looking to stay engaged with their audience in secure, contactless ways. Say goodbye to paper restaurant menus, and point your phone at the QR code to bring up the menu through services like Toast. Additionally, major retailers like CVS will embed the codes throughout their stores as a partnership with PayPal and Venmo to create safer, touchless check-outs.

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When Impossible Foods launched their direct-to-consumer offering, they cleverly created a drive-through experience at a Los Feliz car wash, and “The Great Patty Pick-up Party” was born. Drive through, scan the QR code, maintain social distancing, and pick up your patties.

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Jones Soda just launched a new label campaign, complete with a QR code that enables easy access for voter registration. When many in-person voter sign up efforts get hindered by the pandemic, brands can step in to make a difference. While Jones’ approach is non-partisan, the Biden-Harris campaign’s virtual “lawn signs” were created for Animal Crossing and accessed through the same technology.

QR codes don’t mean the design experience has to be ugly. When Nike opened the doors to their interactive and architecturally-driven House of Innovation flagship in NYC, QR codes throughout the store graphics made for easy access to download the Nike app, streamlining product try-ons, check-outs, and shopping the styles featured on mannequins in-store. 

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So where do we go from here? We can do more. 

There’s a lot more work to be done for brands to build in representation and transparency when it comes to food traditions. When a product or ingredient from a marginalized community becomes "hot," we have a responsibility to pay respects from a cultural, sustainable, and economic standpoint (and speaking of origin stories, the QR Code was invented in Japan by Masahiro Harafrom to track vehicles during manufacturing).

Furthermore, we can use technology as a gateway to better brand experiences. QR codes and Augmented Reality can be the bridge between packaging and storytelling through video, gaming, safe IRL experiences, and brand loyalty programs. 

The lines will only continue to blur and accelerate, so let’s get creative.