In defense of QR codes

At first glance the QR code is probably just another a wacky marketing idea that looks interesting yet confusing, and for which it's hard to immediately see an obvious purpose. While by now it's pretty obvious they have to be scanned on a smartphone, how many of us have actually done it? One 2013 study found that around 80% of smartphone users had never scanned a single QR code. Until very recently I was one of them. I didn't immediately warm to QR codes, not helped by the fact most if not all OSs require you to download an app to scan the things, and frankly that seemed like too much work. Naturally, once I finally downloaded the app I pretty much stopped seeing codes because the initial buzz of QR excitement had obviously died down. Then the other day I came across a QR code that offered me an app download for a kids' pain relief dosage calculator – relevant! Now I'm seeing them everywhere.

As it turns out, for the majority of smartphone users QR codes can actually do useful things. Like fetch more product information, let you pay, redeem offers, make friends, initiate a download, find your way round the city or unlock content. Brands are still using the codes despite the number of articles claiming their demise, so obviously they're working for people who don't write these articles.


Forgot your wallet but remembered your phone (we've all been there)? Shell in the UK now gives customers the options to pay for fuel with their Paypal account by scanning the QR code at the pump.


Snapchat is giving users its own version of QR codes – Snapcodes, natch – that can be used by others to automatically follow that user when scanned. It's also giving users the ability to download their codes and use them on promotional materials. Like QR codes. But cooler, because you can add selfies. And it’s Snapchat.

Scandinavian Airlines

Couple Up to Buckle Up from T&J on Vimeo.

A wee bit more retro is this 2-for-1 travel offer from Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). The campaign required couples to each scan a QR code at the same time in order to claim a discounted flight. The aim of which was apparently to encourage couples to find the time to sit down together and actually plan a trip. Or at least to scan QR codes.

IKEA & Home for Hope

On the retail front, IKEA uses QR codes to increase the utility of its NFC / RFID-based product tags. For customers who aren’t keen on enabling NFC (or who don’t have the capability) IKEA’s hang-tag QR codes gives them the same enhanced experience; displaying instructions, additional product information, related and matching products. And, possibly even cooler, IKEA has partnered with Home for Hope, using QR codes on cardboard dogs in stores to help homeless animals get adopted.

All useful, cool stuff! There are a few risks, caveats and just plain common sense requirements for using QR codes in marketing though.

  1. QR codes on public bathroom walls are not going to be quite as successful as QR codes on products, where they have obvious immediate utility. Think about it. It’s also nice to give people who don’t have smartphones or QR code scanners the option to experience your marketing awesomeness by visiting a URL directly.
  2. QR codes are – by their very design – intended for mobile content. If you’re sending people to the desktop version of your website (which, responsive design, shouldn’t really be a thing) then there’s room for improvement. Handily, smartphones are incredibly capable in 2015 and QR codes linking to visual or interactive experiences are a fantastic way to engage people and even score the sale.
  3. If you've created a competition or promotional microsite, it’s generally a good idea to redirect that once the promo ends. Once you’ve released your QR code into the wild – especially if it’s been distributed in print or on products – you have very little control over how long it’s going to remain in circulation. Don’t let the domain expire and lead visitors to a dead end. Or worse.

So it seems rumors of QR code’s death have been greatly exaggerated. While nobody’s going to argue they’re anywhere near the mainstream, they do have their uses. And if you're despairing that QR codes are so unattractive there’s no possible way you can make them work with the rest of your brand, here's some good news: QR codes don't have to look like QR codes.

Time for a resurgence?