Not Your Father’s QR Code: How QR Codes Are Revolutionizing Brand Engagement
By Shannon Blue

Whether you’re making an electronic payment, looking at a restaurant menu, getting more info on your favorite product, or filling out a medical history at the doctor’s office, chances are you’re using QR codes. 

They are ubiquitous and are an integral part of consumers’ journeys across numerous industries. In fact, QR codes now play such a critical role in the digital economy that eMarketer is forecasting more than 2.2 billion users worldwide by 2025.

But the QR codes we’re seeing today are not your father’s QR codes. If you tuned into this year’s Super Bowl, you may remember seeing a floating QR code changing colors during a commercial break. Upon the crypto exchange company, Coinbase, airing the ad, the on-screen code drove so much traffic to their website that it briefly crashed the app.  After the halftime show performance, Pepsi created an on-screen QR code to encourage viewers to download their app for a behind-the-scenes look at how the performance came together.

Because of their market maturity and their use across all stages of consumer purchase journeys, QR codes have become crucial to brand engagement and ecommerce. And they’re becoming a battleground for brand marketing — liberating AR & VR in the consumer Metaverse.

So how far will QR codes take brand engagement in the next 5 years?  Let’s take a look…

Beyond Mass Maturity
When QR codes first came on the marketing scene around 2010, consumer engagement with them was minimal. Mintel notes, “The first generation of QR codes were unfamiliar to consumers, presented randomly and without context, and were often just placeholders for non-mobile-optimized websites.”  

So, what’s changed?  

With the widespread use of smartphones, the easy access to wi-fi worldwide, and the sharp rise in the digital economy thanks to the pandemic, consumers have found QR codes to be a quick, albeit utilitarian, means of accessing the information they want.
With this in mind, we wanted to find out just how important QR codes have become in consumers’ daily lives. In 2021, SGK partnered with EIE to conduct a 12-month, global post-Covid survey to better understand QR code penetration.

Based on the data, we’ve found that the codes have not only penetrated across markets but across generations as well. While younger generations have a higher interaction rate, at least half of Baby Boomers surveyed across various markets interact with the codes on a regular basis.

Interpreting the Behavior
Because of the deep market penetration across generations and geographies, QR codes are an easy and attractive means of brand engagement—they are as universal as they are accessible. They have become integral to how consumers engage with and shop for brands.  

However, it’s important to understand consumer behaviors both in terms of the types of products they will scan and their reasons for doing so. Our data shows that the range of consumer uses of QR scans is both broad and broadening across categories and across shopping behaviors. And those scans are happening across the whole of the consumer brand experience journey.

Taken together, what do these behaviors mean? In short, consumers’ comfort with using QR codes across a wide range of products and interactions opens the door for more innovative and exciting ways to engage.

The Gateway to Ecommerce
Studies have suggested that connected packaging is up to 5X as likely to yield ecommerce inquiry or promotional participation than any other paid digital channel. Always-on QR codes provide permanent access to brand content and boosts the long-term engagement between the consumer and the brand’s content.

Typically, content that is engaged via connected pack has dramatically lower bounce rates and significantly higher dwell times than other digital channels, yielding a dramatically lower cost of time spent with the brand than any other paid digital channels. This makes them especially adept at driving ecommerce transactions.

Estimates from China—which often acts as a predictor of other markets when it comes to ecommerce—show a QR Code Economy valued at over 10 trillion RMB ($160B). In a recent report, Tencent defines the QR Code Economy as “a new economic model that builds a ubiquitous digital connection between people, things and places using convenient code-scans within the WeChat ecosystem.” And it’s lucrative. According to Tencent, integration into payment wallets is seeing that economy grow by more than 25% year on year in China.

So how can brands build this new economy outside China?  

By integrating codes into how consumers find, order, and purchase your products online.  Whether codes drive mobile ordering options in a D2C model, offer a means of contactless payment, or provide promotional offers personalized to the individual consumer while in store, making them central to your ecommerce strategy will drive growth.

Small Codes, Unlimited Spaces
One of the great things about QR codes that they only take up a small area on a pack on in store, but they can lead consumers to a wealth of information.

Want to help them learn more about the ingredients you use or your labor practices? Link to it through a QR code.

Want to tell a detailed sustainability story about your brand? QR codes can help you tell it.

Want to gamify an in-store promotion? QR codes can do it.

They’re a great solve for the limitations inherent to physical spaces, whether on pack or in store.  And brands that make the most of it generate opportunities to educate and provide convenience.

For example, Adidas uses POS codes to expand upon the product information available, giving consumers an easy way to learn more about a particular piece. Starbucks uses QR codes all around their store to promote app downloads and in-store offers. And QR codes are a consistent part of ‘scan-to-win’ actions for post-purchase promotional participation. In fact, they typically more than double the short-term participation of non QR-based promotions.

And they can provide unprecedented convenience to consumers. In South Korea, Tesco launched a QR-code-driven ordering platform for commuters waiting in a train station. The scan-to-order virtual store allows commuters to shop without spending any time in the store itself, providing a significant convenience to busy commuters.

Engagement and Beyond
When first introduced, QR codes were considered functional tools for functional purposes. Not anymore. They are opening new creative opportunities for brands in the Metaverse. If the Metaverse is a whole new world of experiences waiting to be unlocked by consumers, then QR codes are the familiar, easy-to-use key.

The days of the boring black QR code are gone. Correctly managed, the codes themselves can tell a powerful brand story that stands out and is up to 5 times more likely to get scanned.

For example, Disney has designed QR codes that look like favorite characters’ faces in Japan subway stations, and Zara embedded the code in the word “SALE” to alert consumers exactly what they’re getting out of scanning the code.

In essence, if you can print on a surface (or organize a group of drones like the huge, sky-bound QR code that flew over Shanghai to promote a video game), you can apply a QR code.

But QR codes aren’t just bound by print or projection. They’re also becoming a gateway to WebAR experiences. They allow consumers an easy way to engage with your brand via augmented reality, creating a unique interaction that goes beyond the constraints of a pack or website. And the best part is that they don’t require special investments in apps or technology, they can be deployed quickly, and they create a seamless, memorable experience.

Take, for example, Bon V!V Spiked Seltzer’s AR campaign. Activated by a QR code scan, they turned a storefront mural into a virtual, 3-dimensional vending machine with interactive animations. The vending machine “dispensed” the newest flavors, driving passersby to try the real thing by providing maps to the closest points of purchase as well as ecommerce purchasing options.

QR codes, once a boring, utilitarian means of providing consumers with information, are getting a new lease on life thanks to their market maturity and their range of use. Whether you use them to facilitate purchase, educate consumers, or drive new and exciting means of engagement, this new generation of QR codes are integral to engaging, interactive campaigns. And the best part?  They allow marketers to collect a host of first-party data.

So, what’s next for QR codes?  

Whether they become a facilitator of international travel, a dynamic way of pushing personalized campaigns to consumers, or a way to seamlessly blend in-person and digital interactions, one thing is clear: QR code applications are only limited by your imagination.

About Shannon Blue
20 years of packaging design and integrated marketing experience including design process optimization, brand redesigns, brand campaigns and product innovation across multiple industries. Lead SGK’s Connected Experience team with 5+ years in connecting physical assets to the Internet of things and leveraging creative technologies such as AR to drive significant consumer engagement and time spent with brands.