QR Codes Are the Future of Marketing — for Real This Time

Prepare for more creative use cases.
Associate Editor
March 8, 2022
Updated: March 9, 2022
Associate Editor
March 8, 2022
Updated: March 9, 2022

Jon Stern got hung up on a lot. He’d call someone up and pitch them his QR code marketing platform, and right on cue, the person on the other end would balk.

“People used to hate QR codes,” Stern, co-founder of Ringpin, told Built In.

But that was before the pandemic, during which many restaurants swapped out paper menus for digital ones that patrons accessed by scanning QR codes.

Suddenly, the decades-old digital channel — once deemed a dying fad — is gaining traction with consumers.

And marketers are rushing in.

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How Are Marketers Using QR Codes?

QR (short for “quick response”) codes have been mainstream in many Asian countries — where they’re commonly used as payment methods — for several years. It wasn’t until 2017 though — when Apple’s iOS 11 update enabled its native camera app to scan QR codes instead of requiring the use of a third-party app — that the technology’s widespread use became a real possibility in North America. 

But it took pandemic-era restaurant menus to accelerate its adoption.

Alex Wan, co-founder and CEO of Periphery Digital, a Chinese-language digital marketing agency in Vancouver, told Built In that QR code use is “still fairly basic here.”

“Until we get to the point where everyone sees the QR code and is interested in scanning it, it’s going to be really hard for us to adopt it in the same way that China has,” Wan said.

“It’s going to be really hard for us to adopt it in the same way that China has.”

The reasons for marketers to use QR codes are clear: build direct connections with customers, collect first-party data and add attribution tracking to traditional advertising channels like mailers and billboards.

As of right now, though, QR codes are mostly used in the same straightforward way: as a way to drive website traffic with physical marketing materials. Opening a website, however, is something customers can do themselves, without the aid of a QR code.

But there’s growing anticipation that QR codes will be used in more creative marketing ways soon.


Making Clearer Calls-to-Action on Physical Items

Right now, most QR codes on items like brochures or consumer packaged goods look like they were slapped on as afterthoughts. And they often fail to provide clear indications as to where users will be taken after scanning it.

“It’s not very pleasant to look at a square code,” Wan said. “What will help increase usage is having designers ... incorporate these square pixels onto marketing assets in ways that are actually eye-catching and pleasing, for people to know that you should actually be scanning it.”

Consider the QR codes in Japan subway stations designed like Disney character faces, or one that Zara displayed in a retail store window emblazoned with the word “SALE” to alert passersby exactly what they’re getting out of scanning it.

Wan thinks extending QR codes beyond a simple black-and-white box with a “Learn More” CTA is one of the first ways in which QR codes can evolve to be more consumer-friendly.


Creating Personalized Landing Pages

Sharat Potharaju is the co-founder and CEO of MobStac, a “physical-to-digital experience management solution.” He thinks dynamic QR codes will be used more often in the years to come.

Dynamic QR codes give marketers the ability to use the same physical QR code, but they direct the people who scan them to different campaigns, based on several variables, like location, time of day, or day of the week.

Potharaju told me to picture a QR-code-based menu affixed to the door of a restaurant, and then to imagine that scanning it in the morning yields a breakfast menu, scanning it in the afternoon yields a lunch menu, and scanning it in the early evening yields a happy hour menu.

“The ability to do that seamlessly, without the need for you to be able to intervene, is what dynamic QR codes [do],” he said.

“You can really make it relevant and personal to people.”

Depending on the scanner’s location, QR codes also have the ability to direct people to one of several geographically tailored landing pages.

And if the consumer has scanned a QR code from a particular brand already, on the next scan, they can be taken to a segmented page that’s populated with information they’ve already given.

For example, shoppers who haven’t bought from the brand in the previous 90 days can be taken to different pages than shoppers who bought something from them last week.

“You can really make it relevant and personal to people,” Stern said.


Integrating With Search and Social Ads

Although QR codes can’t be used to identify individuals on the initial scan, they can be used to take note of specific devices used in specific locations — data which can be integrated into Google and Facebook ads, Potharaju said.

So if a person scans a QR code on the back of a bottle of Nestle water, it’s possible Nestle ads could target their device next time they use it to log into Facebook or Google.

Potharaju calls it “building digital ads based on cohorts of physical activities you’re doing in the real world.”

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Enhancing IRL With Digital

Similar to how augmented reality adds to one’s experience with the material world (rather than replacing it, as is the case with virtual reality), QR codes are used as digital extensions of physical objects.

Museums have done something similar for years, allowing curious visitors to quickly pull up extra information on a particular artwork with their phones. It’s possible we’ll start seeing this adopted more frequently by e-commerce brands.

Stern said his company Ringpin is working with businesses that want to unify the physical and digital. 

He’s helping a horticulture brand implement QR codes on little tags affixed to each plant that, when scanned, call up different care instructions depending on the plant’s location.

Stern is also helping a transparency-focused clothing brand put QR codes throughout its physical retail stores, with the ultimate goal of allowing shoppers to scan products to verify their authenticity and receive on their devices information about where the material was sourced.

For now, he’s still trying to guide brands as they prove out the concept.

“I think brands are just figuring out how to do it right now … it’s still in the education phase,” Stern said. “People are experimenting, trying to figure out what to do.”

They don’t hang up on him anymore though.

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