QR Codes: Dead, or an Effective Marketing Tool?

by MaverickLabel.com | January 28, 2016

RIP QR codes. You will be missed.

But wait, don’t play the funeral march just yet on this would-be marketing barcode. Maybe it’s not a question of whether or not QR codes are dead but how they lived their life. 

With all of the debate out there on if QR codes are a thing of the past or still (if ever) an effective marketing tool, it’s hard to know what’s true. In this post, we’ll attempt to answer that question by breaking down the reasons why they haven’t been used effectively, campaigns that have worked well, and marketing alternatives to QR codes.

The Birth of the QR Code

First, let’s start at the beginning. QR Codes (short for quick-response codes) were created in 1994 by the automotive industry in Japan. Then they began showing up in a slew of other places: magazine ads, beer coasters, menus, t-shirts, business cards, posters, and more.

The idea behind QR codes was simple—with a quick scan from a smartphone, you could now establish an easy connection between the offline and online worlds. And, with over 50% of people in the U.S. with a smartphone, the logical conclusion was that QR codes would be the wave of the future. Marketers rejoiced.

Until they stopped.

So, why is there such a disconnect on whether or not these little barcodes are worth the effort? First, let’s look at some of their limitations.

Four Reasons Why QR Codes Aren’t Effective

    1. Smartphones don’t come with a pre-loaded QR reader. When presented with a QR code, not many users are willing to search for an app, download it, and then open it, to finally scan the code to see what marketers want to show them. The effort doesn’t outweigh the reward.
    1. The experience connecting the user stinks. QR codes connected to non-mobile optimized sites or sites that don’t make logical sense from the initial call-to-action are detrimental to any marketing campaign.
    1. Not targeting the right users. According to uQR.me’s Live Stats and Trends page, QR code scanning is the highest among males aged 25 to 34. Technophiles and those interested in consumer electronics are also appropriate targets.
  1. QR codes placed where there is no wifi connection. In airplanes or subway stations, if there is no phone connectivity the QR code is essentially useless.

While there are reasons why QR codes may not be effective, there are a few companies that have gotten it right.

QR Codes Done Right

Taco Bell box with qr campaign Source: Snipp.com

1. Taco Bell’s 2013 Bowl Campaign with ESPN. Taco Bell used QR codes prominently featured on boxes and drink cups to drive exclusive mobile video views previewing upcoming college bowl games. Over 225,000 customers scanned the code.

Bar Keepers Friend cleaning & polish

2. Bar Keeper’s Friend Product Placement. Placed right on top of the can, the QR code leads the customer to multiple short, mobile-optimized videos showing not only its performance when compared to competitor’s products, but additional uses for the product itself—giving the customer more reasons to use and purchase their product.

Walmart receipt showing savings catcher qr code

3. Walmart App. To promote the download of their Saving Catcher app, Walmart placed QR codes on customer receipts. Already thinking about cost and savings, this QR code connected the customer with their app in the right place at the right time.

Homefront video game cover

4. Homefront Video Game. Video game developer, THQ hid ten QR codes within this game that unlocked exclusive videos and wallpapers. Within the first two days, the codes were scanned 30,000 times, and eventually reached 30,000 wallpaper downloads and 18,000 video views.

Heinz Ketchup with a QR Code

5. Heinz Ketchup Bottles. Heinz placed QR codes on ketchup bottles in US restaurants to promote its new environmentally friendly packaging. The code linked to a mobile site where users could win prizes by answering a trivia question. Heinz reported more than 1 million users downloaded the code.

QR codes may not be the panacea of marketing campaigns, so is there an alternative? While a clear leader has failed to emerge, there are some new and existing technologies that can provide a simpler experience to connecting the online and offline worlds.

Alternatives to QR Codes

    1. SMS short codes. All mobile phones have the ability to send and receive text messages. Short codes are an easy way to send a five-digit number and receive back information (usually in the form of a link) that connects users to an online experience.
    1. Mobile apps. Apps can be an easy way to allow for mobile interaction with existing UPC barcodes, which are required for retail products.
    1. Augmented reality apps. After downloading the app, this technology enhances the print experience with a simple hover over the page. The 2014 IKEA catalog used augmented reality to give customers the ability to view specific pieces of furniture in their homes.
  1. NFC (nearfield communications). NFC is a short-range, low-powered information exchange between two devices. The technology behind using a phone to act as a credit card, NFC can also be used on advertisements (or through Bluetooth) to offer discounts or information by a tap of the phone.

So, to return to the initial question—are QR codes dead? Well, it depends. When done right, QR codes still have their place in effective marketing efforts. But using QR codes simply for the sake of using them won’t necessarily provide results. The key is understanding your audience, the goal of your marketing campaign, and ensuring the experience not only makes sense to the user but is worthwhile.

If QR codes sound right for your customers, adding one to your product labels or other marketing materials with a custom label may be the first step to an effective campaign.