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When QR codes were introduced in 1997, many people assumed they’d be as transformative as the internet, a ubiquitous tool for seamlessly connecting companies and products with consumers. Seemingly overnight, these strange-looking black cubes began appearing on ads, posters, and packaging. And just like that, consumer acceptance was … well, almost non-existent. As quickly as they arrived, QR codes seemed to go the way of the Palm Pilot and laser disc, at least in the U.S.  In other parts of the world, particularly China, QR usage was somewhat higher.

Then along came the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly touchless interactions seemed not only convenient but potentially life saving. In particular, restaurants began replacing printed menus with digital menus accessed by QR codes. Millions of people were forced to learn how use their smartphones to connect with QR codes. A once near-dead technology was resuscitated. A September 2020 survey, conducted early in the pandemic, found that 18.8 percent of consumers in the United States and United Kingdom strongly agreed that they had noticed an increase of QR code use since the beginning of COVID-19 related shelter-in-place orders in March 2020.

The QR brand opportunity.

Is there a role for QR codes in creating and improving brand experiences? In early 2022, we conducted an informal survey to learn how perceptions of QR codes have evolved, and to understand how they might support an organization’s marketing efforts. What we learned confirmed anecdotal observations that QR codes are gaining acceptance. Ninety-two percent of those surveyed use a QR code on a weekly basis; on average, respondents use QR codes 1-2 times per week.

Beyond restaurant menus, respondents reported coming across QR codes on event information and registration materials (50%), app download instructions (33%), product packaging (25%), and product advertising (19%).

Interestingly, our research indicates that QR code usage isn’t correlated with age. Those over 45 were as likely to use them as younger folks.

Clearly, QR codes are undergoing a renaissance. We believe this represents a significant opportunity for marketers. As marketers in all categories increasingly strive to interact with consumers on their terms, which more and more frequently means online, QR codes can serve as a convenient link between the physical and digital worlds. They can also convert static brand interactions into robust brand experiences. A client at a trade show recently featured a QR code on a booth banner, with minimal copy; instead of passively reading cramped text on a banner (or stuffing tote bags with printed promotional material), a surprisingly large number of visitors used smartphones to download information, presumably for later reference.

Scanning a QR code on a print ad or product packaging can be a far more convenient way to acquire information (or instructions) than typing in an internet address. This is especially true as more and more people use smartphones, rather than computers, to research products. But keep in mind that in providing QR codes, you’re not just offering access to deeper information, important as this is; you’re engaging consumers in the experience of learning about your company and its products. The QR code makes them active participants in the information gathering process, not passive recipients of one-way messages.

Another important application of QR codes with brand implications involves business cards. In our survey, only 8 percent of respondents reported encountering a QR code on a business card, though this low number is almost certainly due in part to the pandemic, when face to face interactions were vastly curtailed. However, when we asked if QR codes make sense on a business card, half of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they do make sense, while only 17% disagreed or disagreed strongly.

A QR code on a business card could automatically download contact information or connect with the card holder’s LinkedIn page.  Apart from these practical considerations, applying a QR code to a business card signals that the holder (and their organization) is committed to using technology to create connection and convenience. It may also signal a commitment to sustainability, given how many printed cards end up tossed in the wastebasket.

What was once seen as a flash-in-the-pan innovation now appears to be an accepted communications tool that’s here to stay. As consumers increasingly conduct business – and their lives – on smartphones, QR codes offer marketers the opportunity to provide brand experiences that engage and empower users … and highlight your commitment to doing so.

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