How to Make QR Codes Work in Advertising

The do’s and dont’s of QR –

Brands seem to love QR codes. They offer a fast, low-cost method of interaction in advertising, so they happily stick them on there. However, consumers don’t always share the same love of them. Whilst there is nothing wrong with QR codes in principle, brands often fail to to get the engagement right.

So who actually uses QR codes? A study in 2011 asked whether people scan QR codes or not. This is what they said:

57% had scanned a QR code
40% said they had done it more than 5 times
72% said they would recall an ad with a code on it (doesn’t say if it was good or bad)

The problem is that the study came from a QR code provider. However an independent survey by Dubit of 11-18 year olds found that 72% didn’t know what the code did. Just 17% said they were likely to scan one. The research company Comscore tell us that 11% of people in the UK have scanned one and 6% say they do it regularly. In a market where half of mobile users have a smartphone that’s a pretty small number.

Some marketers use them because they see QR as faster and more convenient than the alternatives, such as shortcode SMS. Other brands use them as (in the words of one of my clients) ‘to make them look modern’. That, however, is not how consumers see the benefits. The real potential of QR is that it is an alternative to SMS, which many consumers distrust. Although everyone knows how to text, using shortcodes on ads can be problematic. Many consumers believe it will be expensive, and they worry that by sending a text, the brand will capture their mobile number and send them endless messages. So, the real benefit of QR to consumers is that it is free and anonymous. Even so, a majority of consumers don’t scan QR codes. Why not? I’ve often heard brand marketers often say that it’s all about educating the consumer and getting more scanning apps onto smartphones. However, quite the contrary is true. Brands need educating to understand when and how consumers use QR codes. There are three key elements to this: context, engagement and targeting.

Here is how they work in practice:


Codes can't be scanned where there is poor light or too much movement

First of all, the code needs to be in a place where you can actually scan it and redeem it. For example the London Tube has a rash of poster ads with QR codes on them. Even the Kabbalah Centre has one. But it’s utterly pointless – there’s not enough light, you can’t hold your camera still on a moving train and there’s no signal to connect to the internet. Worst of all, the unfortunate person sitting in the seat below the poster will have your crotch in their face.

If you want a QR code to be scanned you have to have ‘dwell time’. Many marketers see QR as a faster method than in-putting text. In reality the user will have to get out their phone, open the scanner and then get a fix on the code. That can take quite a while and quite a bit of effort. If you are in a busy station with people pushing past, for example, you simply isn’t practical to scan a code. On the other hand, if you show them a URL, the user can read it in just a few seconds. In practice, reading text is much faster than scanning a code. So if you want your QR campaign to work you must choose the right media. According to Comscore the most scanned media for QR are print (newspapers and magazines), packaging and TV.

Kellogg’s is one of the few brands who have published a case study on a successful QR campaign for Crunchy Nut Clusters. It had the right context and in particular, there was dwell time. It was on the back of the cereal packet. Imagine you’re sitting at breakfast, eating your cereal, starting into space and wondering what you were going to do that day. And there it is, the code is inviting you to find out who else in the world is eating breakfast. You’ve got the time to try it. In the case of Kellogg’s more people scanned the code than sent an SMS.

Tesco Home Plus service in Korea has been widely touted as a great example of QR use. And so it should be. First of all, they got the context right. They put big bright posters in train stations where people had the dwell time to scan them. Above all, they put them in places where there was a good, fast connection where people could actually use them. The success of the campaign has led other retailers to trail QR in similar ways. John Lewis is trailing them in posters in the windows of Waitrose Stores, Argos trialled them in London stations at Christmas and eBay has used them in tags on their virtual pop-up store in London.


The other aspect of the Tesco’s service was that there was the right kind of engagement. In this case, the effort was worth the reward. By scanning the code, users were rewarded with convenience. It would be a pain to have to enter a code for each item in the basket, but the addition of the QR code makes things easy. And the ultimate reward for the user was getting their shopping delivered once you they got home.

There have been reports of good responses when using QR in TV. There are a number of reasons it makes sense – screen real-estate is limited, codes scan well on light emitted media and most people (about 84% of us) have a phone next to them when watching TV. One example is from clothing retailer, Bluefly in the US. They used QR codes to take their customers to the item advertised on their website. Not only that, but they incentivised it with a $30 discount.

AXA in Belgium produced a fairly engaging QR code by using paint posts on a poster to create it . The code was to promote their home renovation loans and it has the intrigue factor. However, it ultimately fails as the reward is not sufficient. All it does is takes you to a web URL shown underneath.

Other brands have attempted to be engaging by changing the look of their QR codes – Louis Vuitton and Coke are two examples. They look nice, but that simply isn’t enough to create engagement.

Another good example of engagement comes from Korea again. This time is was a short film festival poster. Each artists had a QR code next to their name and photo. Scanning the code presented a short video clip or animation.


The great thing about mobile marketing is that you can precisely target to your audience. We know that different demographics tend to use different handsets and do different things with them.

According to Comscore, 65% of people who scan codes are men. They are mostly used by 18-35 year-olds, so the younger and older age groups are less bothered. We also know that iPhone users scan the most, followed by Android users. Few BlackBerry owners scan QR codes.

Marks and Spencer’s tried QR codes on their juice packs. It makes a lot of sense as there isn’t much room for additional advertising or promotions, so QR solved a specific problem. The context was fine, as you could scan the codes whilst shopping or even afterwards, and the engagement was there through the reward of a free juice pack. However, their core audience are women and generally older women. Are these people likely to have a QR reader? Or download one? Or scan one? The answer was no, as the campaign did not generate a significant enough response.

Kellogg’s campaign was well targeted. Their audience was more men than women and in the 18-35 age group. In a similar vein, Heinz in the US used QR codes on their new environmental packaging. Scanning the code took the user to more information about the packaging and enter them into a competition. The campaign was well thought out – they were aimed at people in diners who would sit there looking at the bottle. It had dwell time. The target audience was skewed towards younger men  and it had engagement. Did it work? One million people scanned the code. Probably the most successful QR campaign of all time. The company is running the code again, but this time it is to both raise awareness and make text donations to the charity they support.

QR may not be the future though. 2011 saw the development of image recognition and augmented reality (IR/AR) as a response mechanism. Innovative campaigns from Net-A-Porter, Heinz, Marmite, Tesco’s and Fiat showed where the channel could go. Even with IR/AR, the same principles still apply: without the right context, targeting or engagement consumers just won’t bother using them.

AXA Creates QR Codes with Paint Pots

I have been somewhat damning of QR codes in the past. In principle I like them, but outside of Japan, most consumers aren’t interested. Marketers tend to think that the very code itself is interesting enough to create engagement. Generally that just isn’t the case. However, AXA Belgium have done something with QR that I believe is genuinely exciting enough to interest people. They have created a giant QR code using different coloured paint pots (the lids are effectively the pixels) and stuck them on a billboard. This is from the same company that previously did the ‘cracked pavement’ magazine and iPhone ad. Their theme is all about making 2011 their year of innovation; not a bad start. The only issue I have is that the QR simply goes to a mobile site and the URL is shown beneath it. Surely such an innovative use of QR should have a more innovative call to action?

People are more likely to recall an ad with a QR code. Really?

Many people are publishing stats and figures about mobile. Sometimes they ring true: the growth of smartphones, the increase in mobile search or the fact that most consumers want discounts from brands, are things that all make sense. There is enough anecdotal evidence around to support that. Some figures, though just don’t fit with what’s around. The latest one that doesn’t add up is some US research that suggests that 72% of people recall an advert with a QR code on it. I know a bit about the US market and although QR codes are becoming more used, 72% recall sounds very high.

The study also gave some glowing results on consumers wanting to use QR codes (87% would use one for a discount or voucher). The study was produced by US marketing communications agency called MGH. Whilst it’s important to gain an understanding of consumers and how they will use technology, it’s even more important to generate accurate results. What was the sample demographic used for this study?

My understanding is that most consumers don’t know what a QR code is, and those that have tried it found it doesn’t work very well. The former is backed up by study from youth communications firm, Dubit who found that  72% (co-incidentally) of teenagers didn’t know what a QR code was. Just 43% identified that it was something to do with a mobile phone and only 17% had actually used one. This was a weighted sample of 11-18 year olds (in other words, representative of that age group across the whole population). Teenagers are a pretty tech-savvy group if you ask me. If QR was becoming mainstream then I would expect that group to know about them.

Whilst QR codes clearly have potential, there seems to be a widespread problem in brands and advertising agencies, who believe that the presence of these square pixels is enough to interest consumers and get engagement. But QR has not caught the public imagination. If it had, the demand for them would be insatiable. It will take much more effort on the part of advertisers if they want to create successful QR engagement.

The current issue of the DMA Mobile Council Newsletter has an in-depth look at QR. Or see my previous blog; The Problem with QR Codes. (Oh, and if you are bothered enough to use QR codes, the one on the right takes you to a report on the US reserach)

Yet more reasons why QR won’t take off

I’ve previously blogged on the problem with QR codes in the UK and Europe. Essentially the issue is about effort vs reward – most campaigns fail to make enough compelling uses of QR to get people scanning them. Two QR campaigns this week provide yet another example of why QR isn’t working. The Indian airline Jet Airways has launched a campaign which uses QR in their in-flight magazine and on Facebook to provide more information to their customers. There’s nothing wrong with that as an aim, but it would seem that all the QR code does is takes the user to their mobile site. Why bother? For starters if I’m on Facebook I’d rather just click a link to take me to further content, and if I’m reading a magazine I’ll just put the URL or do a search for a mobile site. It’s faster and it works better. Jet Airways are looking to extend the use of the codes to their e-tickets. But again, if it just takes users to their mobile site, what’s the point?

How could Jet Airways use QR in a more compelling way? It would be great if my e-ticket had a personal QR code. Scanning that would show me my flight details and perhaps travel details such as the current traffic status, or trains that arrive at the airport in time for my checkin. Maybe I could scan the code and access my own information? Perhaps I could amend the number of checkin bags, or change my inflight meal? Or maybe I could scan the code to get a voucher for a free coffee at one of the over-priced airport cafes? That’s the great thing about QR, it can contain up to 700 words in one little 25mm code. And they can be personalised.

Another campaign that popped up was a trailer for the film The Mechanic. It’s vaguely intriguing. A minute into the film a QR code briefly pops up. If you manage to stop the trailer at the right point and scan the code (not easy), it takes you to another video. Unfortunately I can’t tell you what that video is, because it didn’t work on an iPhone. Nor an Android phone. There’s nothing worse than poor user experience to drive people away from mobile campaigns.

Ultimately the problem with these campaigns is that they will actually increase the likely hood that people won’t use QR codes. All they will do is reinforce the idea that QR is pointless and it doesn’t work. Now is the time for brands to use QR in an exciting, compelling way.

The Problem with QR Codes

Update: for examples of good and bad use of QR in advertising see:

QR Success and

QR Fail

See new article, How to Make QR Codes Work in Advertising

Whilst writing an article about using 2d or QR codes in direct mail, I started to think about why they haven’t really taken off. OK, in Japan everything has a QR code on it, from ad response, to sandwich wrappers (these will show the nutritional information), but the Japanese attitude to technology is very different to other countries. And have you ever tried texting in Japanese? There is evidence that QR codes are being used elsewhere in a variety of interesting ways. In France, magazines such as Public (like the French Heat magazine) use QR codes at the bottom of each page. Scanning them takes the reader to more content from the article. Recently in the UK, the free London paper, Metro has used QR codes in the same way. In the US, the codes are used in direct response TV, where a 45 second commercial is extended into a longer engagement with the user being taken to more videos and offers. In the UK Pepsi used QR codes on their Pepsi Max cans 2008. Although there are no figures reporting their success, if it had worked well I think we would have been told. Marks and Spencer experimented with QR vouchers on their juice packs in 2009. Again, the response appeared to be low. In many ways, QR on food packaging makes sense. With all the nutritional information, there is little room to put things like offers, but a 2d barcode can include nearly 700 words of information in a space as small as 25mm. The problem is that they are just not catching on with mobile users.

Effort vs Reward

When looking at the adoption of any technology it’s always about the relationship between effort and reward. SMS, for example required very little effort, but the reward was a cheap, fast means of communication. When teenagers got onto it, there was no stopping SMS. With QR, the effort is both downloading the reader (few phones have them), taking the picture of the code and awaiting the response. A few years ago, most of the industry thought that QR would take off when the readers were available in all phones. Since then, we have seen a shift in mobile usage where downloading and installing apps is common-place. If smartphone users want to use QR then they will download the app, without question. So, lack of QR readers on phones isn’t really a barrier. The reason they don’t use them is that the reward simply isn’t enough. Whilst it may solve problems for brands, 2d barcodes doesn’t solve anything for the user. Take the Pepsi QR code. All it did was link to a WAP site with more content. There was no offer, discount or anything engaging enough to bother to take the picture of the code.

The other problem that many users have with QR is that it simply doesn’t work very well. For a code to scan well it needs to be done it good light, on a high contrast background. I tried to scan QR code on a pavement in Paris a few years ago. The white, slightly fuzzy code on the dark grey pavement refused to scan. And there’s nothing to drive people away from technology than a poor user experience. That is particularly the case in mobile. For many response campaigns the alternative to QR are SMS shortcodes. We are all familiar with those, and you only have to look at things like reality TV voting to see that people will use them. After all, when you send an SMS it works 100% of the time. From a user perspective, why bother with QR when there is a much better option that is just as faster and far more effective?