QR codes – those blocky, black and white squares of digital information that take the user to an app or webpage on their smartphone – have a mixed reputation around the world.

In places like the United States and Europe, QR codes were everywhere in the early to mid-2010s, but fizzled out due to poor implementation, and are generally regarded as a relic of a bygone era.

In China, however, as well as Japan (where they originated) and increasingly South-East Asia, QR codes are seen as everyday and commonplace: a quick and seamless way to join the offline world with the online one. Their simplistic, un-technical nature and their ease of creation have ensured their popularity in Asia – whereas in the west, they are the reasons that QR codes are regarded as gimmicky, unsophisticated and annoying.

In reality, it all comes down to implementation. QR codes have both strengths and weaknesses, and the right campaign can play to their strengths while avoiding their weak points – while the wrong one can fail by falling prey to common mistakes.

In this article, I’ll give an overview of the pros and cons of QR codes, before examining some best practice examples of brands who are putting QR codes to great use in a marketing, advertising or commerce context. Finally, I’ll round up a few mistakes you must absolutely avoid at all costs when using QR codes in marketing.

Pros

Versatility

QR codes can be added to just about anything, from product packaging to TV advertising, magazine pages to billboards, and this versatility can be very useful for marketers.

In practice, it means that virtually anything can be turned into an interaction point that will take the viewer to a digital experience, or accomplish a digital task. QR codes can be used to display text to the user, compose an email or a text message, carry out a payment, and much more.

Connecting online to offline

The most useful thing about QR codes is the way that they can seamlessly (if executed well) link the online world with the offline one, allowing marketers to drive online-to-offline sales, or use an offline campaign to promote an app or digital product.

Used well, and in conjunction with a mobile-optimised landing page, QR codes can grab consumers at the exact point where they have shown interest in an ad or video and get them signed up for an email, tempt them into making a purchase, or engage them with an app.

Trackability

Using web analytics, and by employing unique QR codes for different placements, marketers can gain valuable information about how well campaigns are going, and what works and what doesn’t.

Cost-effectiveness

Creating the QR code itself doesn’t need to cost anything, but the value added can be immense – again, if executed effectively.

Branding and visual attractiveness

Though QR codes are typically black and white, they don’t always need to be. When designed properly, they can also contain images, logos and other artwork, which are either ignored by the QR code reader due to error correction, or are configured so that they still convey the right information even though the layout is unconventional.

A QR code containing the BBC logo, created in 2008 by Duncan Robertson. The BBC logo in the middle reads as “noise” to the QR code reader, but it can still interpret the rest of the code around it.

This allows for a wide variety of fun and creative uses in marketing and advertising. QR codes can act as visual marketing in and of themselves, such as the example used by Angry Birds pictured below; form part of a larger visual; or carry a brand’s logo or signature colours.

A promotional poster for the mobile game Angry Birds. In the middle is an orange QR code designed to look like an Angry Birds game, complete with little green pigs.

Cons

Other options are available

Despite the versatility and usefulness of QR codes, there are other methods of connecting the online and offline worlds via smartphones that consumers may be more willing to adopt.

One is Near Field Communication (NFC), the technology that powers contactless payments. Hundreds of smartphone models – as well as a number of tablets and feature phones – have NFC capability, which is used by apps like Android Pay and Apple Pay.

NFC can be used in many of the same ways that QR codes can, such as providing product information, activating a promotion, or triggering a digital experience. In parts of the world where QR codes have a poor reputation, NFC is typically perceived to be faster and provide a better experience than QR codes – though they are also used in conjunction with each other.

Augmented reality (AR) is another means of joining the physical world with the digital one, and many brands have experimented with innovative augmented reality experiences that add an interactive dimension to the world around us.

Though AR is not yet commonplace, it has an “emerging technology” novelty that makes it attractive to marketers and consumers alike. Unlike QR codes, its potential also goes beyond simply transporting the user to an online page or location to overlaying the physical world with digital features, making it a more powerful marketing tool.

Lack of native support

This drawback comes with an asterisk, because in parts of the world where the app WeChat is popular (primarily China, but also increasingly South-East Asia) there is widespread support for QR codes. The app comes with a QR code reader built in, thus acting as a gateway for all kinds of QR-code-driven experiences involving WeChat – I’ll look at some of these in the Best Practices section further down.

However, in regions where this isn’t the case, QR code adoption has been hampered by the fact that users need to download a separate app first in order to scan codes. This can interfere considerably with spur-of-the-moment QR code interactions if the user doesn’t already have a QR code reader installed, forcing them to either wait for the app to download (which can be time-consuming and difficult in areas with poor connectivity) or give up.

This situation has improved slightly in recent years, with Google Chrome adding native QR code support into its iOS app in 2017, and Apple also introduced native QR code scanning to the Camera app with iOS 11. However, as a majority of mobile users have Android phones, this still presents a significant obstacle to the uptake of QR codes.

Difficulty of scanning

QR code scanners have improved significantly since QR codes initially became popular as a marketing and advertising tool in 2010-13, but they still tend to require a relatively steady hand, an unobstructed view of the code being scanned, and enough time to scan them.

This means that QR codes have to be placed in a location where scanning is practical – which can often rule out things like billboards, railway or subway platforms, moving vehicles, and quickly-changing displays. Many marketers have found out the hard way that although something might seem like a clever place to put a QR code, it isn’t always usable.

Poor reputation

As with the lack of native support, this isn’t the case in every part of the world, but in many places, QR codes fizzled out after a few years of hype due to poor implementation, lack of support, and because the mobile web experience was a lot more limited at the time.

Although it would be perfectly possible to “relaunch” QR codes in 2019 by learning from these mistakes, the enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be there. QR codes are still associated with slow scanning, inconvenience and poor user experience, and it may well be easier to build momentum around technology with a better reputation – like NFC, or AR.

Best practice examples

Taking all of that into account, what are the best ways to make use of QR codes that play to their strengths and downplay their weaknesses? Here are some stand-out recent examples from brands who have been using QR codes for marketing, advertising or commerce.

McDonald’s: Meal collection

McDonald’s is fairly well-known as a brand that has used QR codes at various points throughout its history, such as its move in 2013 to include QR codes on all of its packaging that provided nutritional information about customers’ orders.

In 2017, McDonald’s began testing a service in the US called Mobile Order & Pay that allows customers to order a meal through its mobile app, then come to the restaurant to collect it, where they scan a QR code to signal to the restaurant to start preparing their order. The customer’s card is also charged when the code is scanned, meaning that there is no commitment on the part of the restaurant or the customer until the customer arrives to collect the meal.

The service has since been rolled out fully in the US as well as the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Australia and China. To encourage adoption of the service, McDonald’s has offered a range of discounts and coupons on its app which can only be redeemed through Mobile Order & Pay.

Econsultancy’s sister brand Marketing Week investigates the McDonald’s mobile ordering experience

Languiru: Product information, discounts and giveaways

In 2018, South Brazilian dairy firm Languiru carried out a trial promotion centered around QR codes. As part of the promotion, QR codes were printed on all Languiru milk cartons that when scanned with a dedicated app, would connect consumers with product information that allowed them to trace its journey from dairy farm to supermarket shelf.

Packaging News reported that customers found the app easy to download, and enjoyed discovering that the milk came from their local area. This is an excellent example of a strong QR code use case – increasing transparency around a product’s origins and manufacturing process – integrated into a marketing campaign. To emphasise this, Languiru used the slogan “Qualidade do inicio ao fim” (Brazilian Portuguese for “Quality from beginning to end”) to engage consumers with its campaign.

The Languiru app would also reward consumers with coupons that could be traded in for emoji cushions, and they could enter into giveaways for prizes such as bicycles, smartphones and shopping vouchers. Overall, Languiru saw a 6% increase in sales as a result of the campaign.

A hand holds a smartphone above a carton of Languiru milk. The smartphone's screen displays information about the product's nutrition and origins.

Image: SIG Combibloc

Walmart: Payments and digital receipts

The use of QR codes for contactless mobile payments is extremely common in China, and becoming more widespread in Japan and parts of South-East Asia, but hasn’t gained much traction elsewhere.

US mega-retailer Walmart is one brand bucking that trend, however. In 2016, it launched Walmart Pay, an app feature that allowed customers to scan a QR code at checkout to pay for their purchases. In a blog post entitled ‘Open, Scan, Done: The Case for Walmart Pay‘, the retailer wrote that it was “time for the retail industry to step up – to allow customers to shop in new ways”.

“[With Walmart Pay] we set out to marry our physical and digital assets to create a more seamless shopping experience for customers,” the post continued. “We designed Walmart Pay to work with almost any smartphone and accept almost any payment type, even allowing for the integration of other mobile wallets in the future. And beginning this summer, it will work at every one of our stores across the U.S.”

Video still: Walmart Media Library

Nor was Walmart Pay the retailer’s first foray into using QR codes to simplify the shopping experience. Two years prior, Walmart introduced a digital receipt service that enables shoppers to store a digital version of their receipt in its mobile app by scanning a QR code. Customers can use the app to search their receipts, access them, and add items from them to a shopping list for future trips.

QR codes in China: WeChat follows, payments, app installation and more

As I’ve alluded to already, China is a completely different world when it comes to QR code usage, compared with countries like the US or the UK. Entire articles could be written (and have been) about the ways that brands use QR codes in China.

While many of these are specific to China’s mobile-first society, dominated by the ubiquitous WeChat, I’m including a few examples here to give a sense of how QR codes can be used, given the right support and environment.

WeChat follows: Because WeChat is China’s most popular messaging app (and to call it a “messaging app” doesn’t really do it justice, because it contains a wealth of other functions and capabilities), many brands use WeChat to connect with and market to consumers in China. In the offline world and on brand websites, they will provide a QR code that consumers can scan to add them on WeChat, such as the below example from airline KLM:

Payments: Chinese consumers who have provided their bank details to WeChat can use WeChat Pay to pay bills, order goods, transfer money and also pay for items in brick-and-mortar stores and at market stalls by scanning a QR code.

And if shoppers can’t or don’t want to use WeChat Pay, Alipay, the Alibaba-owned mobile payments platform, also supports QR code payments. In China, QR code payments are so ubiquitous that everyone from beggars to temples, supermarkets to sweet potato vendors accepts them.

App installation: Persuading consumers to download a brand app – even when there are incentives – can often be difficult. In China, QR codes have smoothed this process, allowing companies to put up signs and adverts that will take the user directly to the app store to install their app.

Mistakes to avoid

Finally, if your brand has a great use case for QR codes and has decided to go ahead with deploying them, here are a few common mistakes that should be avoided.

A poorly-optimised landing page

There’s little excuse in 2019 for a poor mobile experience as it is, but particularly if your campaign contains a touchpoint specifically designed around users scanning a code with their smartphone.

Make sure there is a smooth transition from code scan to landing page by designing the landing page experience – and any subsequent pages the user might navigate to – for mobile first and foremost. (Econsultancy subscribers can peruse the mobile marketing best practice guide for tips on creating mobile-first user experiences).

No call-to-action

As many brands discovered during the height of QR code mania, simply slapping a QR code in the corner of an advert or at the end of a TV ad spot isn’t enough to encourage usage. Instead, brands need to be clear about why consumers should use the QR code and what they stand to gain from it in their call-to-action.

Impractical placement

Of course, none of these things will matter if it’s too difficult for consumers to scan your code in the first place. Make sure that it’s located somewhere visible and convenient, with enough time and a clear enough view for scanning to take place. Wi-fi or mobile data connectivity is important as well.