Nearly a decade ago, Guinness launched a scannable pint glass, the Guiness QR Cup — the first-ever “product activated QR code,” according to the beer company.
When the pint glass was empty or filled with an amber beer, its QR code was nearly invisible. But when filled with famously dark Guinness, the code appeared for scanning.
It linked out to a landing page that gave users the option of posting to social about Guinness, downloading Guinness coupons, and inviting friends to a bar… to drink Guinness. Basically, it was a Guinness-promoting machine.
Today, the 2012 Guinness QR code no longer functions — and the use of QR codes, in general, has evolved.
For one thing, it’s accelerated. A lot.
Link management system Bitly told CNBC they saw a 750% increase in QR code usage since the start of the pandemic, and according to a survey by The Drum, most U.S. consumers think QR codes are not going anywhere.
Link management system Bitly told CNBC they saw a 750% increase in QR code usage since the start of the pandemic.
For another thing, they’ve moved down the funnel. These days, QR codes are less likely to prompt social sharing, and more likely to prompt a purchase, by linking out to a product page or a restaurant menu. (QR code menus were a major driver of pandemic adoption.)
These are practical use cases, but QR codes can be so much more than that. They can transform TV, turn clothing into performance advertising — even hang out with JLo.
What are some more experimental ways to use this technology — and how can you make sure your QR codes still convert? We asked people who work with them every day.
Meet the experts
- Grace Clarke, a marketing and growth consultant
- The team behind Flowcode, including Jim Norton, Cletus McKeown, Nate Kanefield and Olivia Oshry
- Emma Bates, a former marketer, and the founder of social platform Diem
- Jesse Genet, the CEO and co-founder of Lumi
- Aya Abitbul, the CEO of Studio 96 Publishing
A brief history of QR code use, in < 250 words
A quick response code — now known as a QR code — is a 2D barcode alternative. It holds more data than a traditional barcode, and can be scanned even if damaged or dirty, which is why it’s great for business cards and direct mail campaigns and all sorts of marketing uses.
QR codes weren’t invented for marketing materials, though. A Toyota subsidiary, Denso Wave, actually invented QR codes in the ‘90s for use in manufacturing plants, to pull up product information more reliably and quickly than regular barcodes.
Today, QR codes are still used in manufacturing, but they have an even broader audience in marketing. They’re also easier to create, through QR code generators like Bitly, Flowcode, or Beaconstac. They can go anywhere, including stickers, screens, and the sky.
Once created, QR codes can be scanned with a simple camera app on most mobile devices.
That wasn’t always the case. In 2012, the QR code appeared to be on its way out. Inc. published a story titled “QR Codes? Don’t Bother,” which claimed QR codes were “overhyped” and reported that 97% of consumers didn’t know what a QR code was.
But in 2017, Apple “resurrected the QR code” with an iOS update. Suddenly, iOS users could scan QR codes with the camera app — no more clunky third-party apps or lengthy opt-in processes.
Combine that technical ease with the pandemic’s emphasis on no-touch marketing, and the QR code renaissance was born.
7 use cases for QR codes in marketing, with examples
First things first: Don’t think of QR codes as a marketing channel. Think of them as a button customers can press, online or in-person, when they want to engage with your existing channels.
“The question is not ‘How do [QR codes] operate on their own?’” Clarke said. “It's ‘Where can we place them throughout the experience?’”
“The question is not ‘How do [QR codes] operate on their own?’ It's ‘Where can we place them throughout the experience?’”
They can go on websites, on billboards, on television, on packaging, or on merchandise — any surface, pretty much. (Face tattoo, anyone?) They’re full of possibilities.
Here are six especially cool ways to work QR codes into your marketing strategy, according to our sources.
1. Make TV broadcasts interactive.
By placing a QR code in a TV ad or broadcast, you can link viewers to exclusive pages or flash sales — and turn a typically one-way channel into a two-way street.
“All brands are looking to have a more direct relationship with their end consumer, and vice-versa,” Norton said.
Exhibit A: Coinbase’s 2022 Super Bowl ad.
The ad, which played for a full sixty seconds during the Super Bowl broadcast, involved no actors or scripts or storyboards. It was simply a QR code bouncing across the screen.
When scanned, the QR code directed people to a limited-time offer for a discount on Bitcoin purchased through Coinbase.
And people scanned it, alright — so much so that the ad briefly tanked Coinbase’s website.
Televised QR codes can also…
- Link to a discount, as in this Edoughable TV ad
- Link to an app store page
- Link to social posts or livestreams
2. Make products feel more exclusive.
Trendy fashion and “shopping bag” brand Telfar added QR codes to its owned TV channel to solve a bot problem.
Checkout bots had started buying up all the brand’s Shopping Bag drops before real customers could get to them. Telfar even briefly shut down its digital store to keep the bots at bay.
In September 2021, Telfar announced it would create a new television channel — available on desktop computers, Apple TV, Roku, and Google Play — where viewers would be able to access unscheduled, one-minute flash sales throughout the day via QR code.
At unannounced times, a QR code appears for just one minute with an exclusive, shoppable link to a “drip” of new bags. As seen above, the QR codes on Telfar’s Tellyvision let viewers submit their own content without involving a third party social platform, too.
Brands can also use QR codes to generate a feeling of exclusivity by…
- Offering discounts only to customers who scan a code
- Limiting product access by number of scans
- Selling products only in certain locations where a QR code is displayed
3. Annotate packaging with sustainability info.
With a QR code on packaging, you can share details and updates with passive shoppers who bought from you, but might not follow your brand on social media.
Even when a packaging QR code isn’t mandatory, it can come in handy. Skincare brand Glossier could have used this approach when it received lots of Instagram comment complaints about its unsustainable packaging.
Glossier used to include pink bubble wrap pouches in each order. But in 2019, when Glossier released an eye cream called Bubblewrap to honor its pouches, calls for more sustainable packaging came to a head.
In response, Glossier started letting customers decide whether they’d like a pink pouch at checkout — but the brand has to keep reminding customers through blogs and Instagram comments that they made the change, and why.
Problems like this can often be solved with a QR code on packaging that links to information about positive change your brand has made, Genet said. "Instead of saying, 'this package is recyclable,' or 'this package is cruelty-free' or something general, you can give the person real details," Genet said — about where the packaging was produced, or how the brand prioritizes sustainability.
That message doesn’t have to be delivered in a stodgy way. Consider these examples of packaging with educational QR codes.
These examples signal playfulness (“compost me like one of your banana peels”) and environmental advocacy (“there’s no planet B”).
And they answer people’s questions before they take to Instagram to complain.
QR codes on product packaging can also link out to…
- More information on the product’s ingredients and certifications — already a requirement for CBD products in Indiana
- A shoppable page where customers can buy related products (or more of what they just bought)
- A tutorial on how to assemble or use the product
4. Get product feedback from customers — right when it’s top of mind.
QR codes are a great way to push information to customers, but they’re also useful for gathering feedback from customers. With a QR code on your product, you can solicit feedback from customers who might otherwise forget to leave a review.
With platforms like Delighted, which are built specifically for sending surveys via QR code, you can also gather feedback on content you publish online. For example, want to give us some feedback on this very blog post?
Pretty fun, isn’t it?
And it’s a nice alternative to the usual e-commerce playbook: measuring customers’ enjoyment based on returns. (The higher the return rate, the less satisfactory the product.)
That only measures negative sentiment — but when customers keep the product, “you have no idea what they did with it or whether they liked it,” Genet said.
A QR code on your product or packaging can help you assess quality, but also...
- Whether customers would order your product again
- What they’re planning to use your product for
- Whether they’re actually recycling your packaging
5. Make clothes that convert.
When Bates founded her social media platform, Diem, she wanted to create merch that was techy, futuristic and comfortable — a rare trifecta.
The Diem team came up with a white hoodie with, “Pass your power” on the front, and a QR code on the right sleeve.
“[Please] take a second to appreciate how cool this QR code is,” Bates wrote in the caption of her post on Instagram.
“It’s not really meant for actual use,” Bates told MarketerHire, “but we have actually had people use it, which is cool.”
It works: The QR code directs scanners to the App Store to download the Diem app.
Brands could also drop QR codes on apparel that link out to:
- An online product page for the piece of clothing (so people could shop each other’s outfits IRL?!)
- A coupon for first-time buyers
- Educational content that helps people understand how and where the clothes were made
6. Track engagement with print.
QR codes on billboards or print offers are easier for users to engage with than text URLs, print coupons or mail-in rebates.
For instance, one magazine provider created personalized QR codes for each household on their mailing list using Flowcode’s platform, Kanefield said.
This let them track areas where people used the included print coupons most.
“In real time, for the first time, they could understand who was actually looking at which coupon in which city and which address,” Kanefield said.
Restaurants and smaller businesses could test different QR codes along with different in-store messaging, Flowcode’s content lead Mckeown said.
From the brand’s perspective, “I can see which code is getting more attention — what day of the week? What time?” Mckeown said. Even “with just two codes, you're able to see what marketing makes more sense.” Think of it as a low-lift, IRL A/B test.
“With just two codes, you're able to see what marketing makes more sense.”
Brands could also use QR codes to test:
- Where in your store people engage most with the same QR code messaging
- Which print CTA gets more customers to scan
- Whether customers are more interested in ordering while on the subway or at home
7. Bring photos to life.
With the right scanning app, full-color images can function like QR codes, pulling up a link to a website, an application for download, or a playlist.
Just look at Kiss & Fly, a travel photography book that has a QR code on the opening page. It’s the last traditional QR code readers see as they flip through Kiss & Fly, but not the last time they’re asked to hold their phones up to the book.
The QR code takes readers to the App Store to download the book publisher’s app, S96.
When viewed through the S96 app, “Linkable images,” as Studio 96’s CEO Aya Abitbul calls them, come to life. “It’s like a filter on the book,” Abitbul said.
Instead of adorning the book with puppy dog ears, like a Snapchat filter, the app’s filter makes the still images move.
You can scan these samples for yourself at home with the S96 app.
Now, linkable images aren’t exactly QR codes. Abitbul thinks of them as scannable objects — the next generation of QR codes — because the color image itself is what you scan.
It doesn’t look like a code, and it can link out to anything — including a webpage or storefront. One day, it could make the black-and-white square of the ‘90s obsolete.
Scannable objects don’t have to be print images. They could also be…
- Murals and other art that links out to the artist’s website or bio
- Everyday objects — like a coffee cup — that link to a product page for easy repurchasing
- Entire billboards — so out-of-home creative can be interactive in an unobtrusive way
3 questions to ask before building a QR code marketing campaign
QR codes aren’t their own marketing channel, but they can level-up marketing campaigns and drive traffic on existing channels.
Ask yourself the following questions to determine the best way for your brand to use QR codes in marketing.
1. Will your customers scan?
There’s no point in building out QR code marketing if your customers can’t (or won’t) scan the codes you develop.
Sure, if you’re marketing a product for runners, it makes sense to place ads on common running routes. But it doesn’t make sense to place QR codes on those running routes, since runners would need to stop their activity to scan a code.
Better to include a QR code to your running product at a common post-run watering hole, or in direct mail marketing runners tend to open when they return from a workout.
But this question isn’t just about QR code placement. “We’re a couple of years behind markets like China,” Clarke said, “where QR codes are much more common.”
It’s worth conducting audience research to make sure your specific market is familiar with QR codes before placing them throughout your marketing funnel.
“It’s on the brand to listen to what the data is telling them if no one’s using [their QR code],” Clarke said.
2. When and where do your customers’ problems arise?
Content marketing strategies often involve creating content your customers are searching for and then waiting for them to arrive and convert. But that can take years.
If you can get a code in front of a prospect as questions come to them, that can speed up the discovery and conversion process, Clarke said.
For instance, marketing a transportation product? Put a QR code to your content on a bus stop or in auto shops.
It’s all about understanding your average consideration phase, and meeting prospective customers where they’re already thinking about the problem your product solves.
3. How often do your customers’ needs change?
If you market a seasonal product or one that’s time-sensitive, marketing materials can have a short shelf-life. And even if your product isn’t seasonal, accounting for changing customer needs from launch can feel impossible.
“Having worked on so many print campaigns, the fact that we can’t quickly and nimbly change things puts a ton of pressure on the creative process,” Clarke said.
If you use a custom QR code, though, you can decide on the fly where to direct users. Unlike a static image on a billboard, what a QR code reveals is flexible. One day, it could be a Google Maps link, and another, a product page, LinkedIn profile, or phone number.
“QR codes being able to reroute quickly … is honestly very freeing for me as a creative marketer,” Clarke said.
Just make sure the CTA by the QR code is general enough to work for various landing pages.
How to optimize your QR code UX in 4 steps
Scanning a QR code isn’t always a pleasant experience for consumers. In a restaurant, Slate columnist Christina Cauterucci recently encountered “a QR code that leads to a website where each of the seven menu pages is a separate PDF that must be clicked, zoomed in on, and closed before moving on to the next.” Italics hers!
How do you create a seamless QR code experience that people only tweet about in a good way? Our experts shared four best practices for providing the best QR code customer experience.
1. Give it a branded look.
Whether you’re designing a billboard, packaging for a new DTC product, or digital overlays for a livestream, start thinking about whether to incorporate QR codes from the jump, our experts advised.
When a QR code is branded and embedded in creative, it “creates a safety net,” Mckeown said. “People feel more secure engaging with it.”
Jennifer Lopez really gets this. When her beauty brand, JLo Beauty, launched an advertising campaign in the New York subways in January 2021, they featured the branded, gold and black QR code on practically every surface they could: the ceiling, the outside of the subway cars, the emergency exit doors and above the windows.
Lopez even posted a video of the QR codes to her personal Instagram account, and tagged @getflowcode in the caption. There was no doubt the codes were included intentionally — and would link to a secure web experience.
2. Clearly communicate what will happen post-scan.
Would you rather scan this context-free QR code:
… or this one with a “scan for a chance to win” CTA?
Our bet is on the second one.
When people come face-to-face with a standalone QR code slapped on a billboard or website, they might not know it’s scannable — and they don’t know where it will take them. That makes them less likely to scan.
Oshry said the two most important things brands need coaching on are:
- Including scan education. This could be as unobtrusive as a camera icon near the code — as long as it tips users off on how to engage.
- Crafting a call to action. This could be anything from “Scan for a chance to win” (like above) to “Scan to shop” or “Scan to learn more.”
The important thing is to make sure that your CTA fits your landing page. If users see a code with the words “scan to shop,” for instance, they should land on an e-commerce store, not a blog post.
3. Optimize your landing pages for mobile — and busy streets.
Marketers should always optimize QR code landing pages for mobile, but our sources recommend taking the end user’s surroundings into account, too.
If you want to reach people on the street, they’re on the move and you’ll want to send them to a page that makes it easy to take your desired action. They probably don’t want to read dense text.
For instance, this QR code sends scanners to a landing page for 2021 US Open ticket sales.
It’s a simple page with boxes for selecting game days — perfect for people who spot it on the street.
As a marketer, you “really need to be connected to the person who’s holding the device and doing the scanning,” Clarke said.
4. Redirect dynamically.
When people scan the below QR code from Good Morning America, they probably expect to find the products displayed in the video they’re watching.
But because Good Morning America uses the same QR code for each “Deals & Steals” broadcast, the QR code pulls up all the most recent deals, not the deals on-screen.
A quick fix for this would be to produce a slightly different QR code for each segment. Or you could stick with one dynamic QR code, and have it deliver different experiences to people based on factors like time of day.
For instance, imagine you scan a menu code and have to scroll through the brunch and lunch menus before getting to the dinner menu. To make that user experience better, “we could, in the morning, show you the breakfast menu, and at night, show you the dinner menu,” Kanefield said.
The future of QR codes
QR codes are officially mainstream. According to Flowcode’s internal data, nearly 90% of United States consumers have scanned a QR code on product packaging or in a retail store.
And despite the QR code’s ubiquity in restaurants, 92% of consumers have scanned a QR code outside of a restaurant environment.
The numbers suggest that while Guinness’ first product-activated QR code was mostly a gimmick, QR codes are now a more standard — and actually useful — element of everyday life.
Now, as the pandemic winds down and people spend time outside the house, marketers can use QR codes in more innovative ways to connect the physical and digital worlds.
Clarke imagines that one day, guests at an Airbnb or hotel will be able to scan QR codes on objects around them — or maybe even the objects themselves using an AR app like S96 — for purchase.
A guest might see a lamp they like, or enjoy sleeping on an Airbnb’s pillow, and scan the object to add it to a virtual shopping cart. The host might even be able to earn affiliate revenue on those purchases.
Maybe in this world, we could all scan each other’s QR codes or possessions to enter each other’s virtual affiliate shops.
It’s a bold vision for the future — and it sounds a little like the metaverse, which could be a good thing.
This post was originally published on November 4, 2021 and updated in March 2022.