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20 ways to use QR codes correctly

Sean X Cummings
20 ways to use QR codes correctly Sean X Cummings

Every business or startup positioning itself around QR codes will be out of business in four years. Venture capitalists who invest in these companies are first class suckers. Look, it's obvious that QR codes are increasingly being used to capture consumers' attention; you cannot swing a dead cat in San Francisco without hitting 10 of them. However, the barriers to universal adoption are just too high for them to be anything other than a tool, and a clunky one at that. They are a tactic, not a business strategy, and tactics are only useful as long as there are creative uses that inspire and delight people.

Before you engage in any creative digital strategy, ask yourself: What does success look like? That question will help inform how you should be connecting with your consumers, what the purpose of the efforts is, and what the barriers to adoption are. Whatever you do, do not ask the question: What could we do with QR codes? This question informs nothing. It is a solution looking for a problem, and that type of thinking is the myopic purview of those who understand little about technology and even less about what marketing, advertising, and digital strategists like me do for a brand.

It is not about QR codes, it never will be. "QR code" is never the answer. Connecting with your consumers in a meaningful way is the answer. QR codes will never be more than a conduit to that answer. If you do not understand that, then please hire and listen to someone who does.

But what if you have decided that QR codes could be a solution to how to connect to your customers and you are just struggling with how? You just want to know if the presented ideas are viable. How do you determine that? Let me provide you with 20 lessons you can learn from campaigns that have implemented QR codes well. Remember, whatever you do, do it in a way that helps your brand. Do it in a way that connects to your customers in a unique and delightful way.

Are you doing any of these things with QR codes?

Capitalize on "tween-time"

QR codes are best used when people are in between point A and point B -- waiting for a subway, bus, plane, or train. It is a choke point in your journey. This in-between time is a perfect opportunity for marketing. It is also an ideal usage of QR codes.

Tesco in South Korea created a virtual store in subway stations so people could shop while waiting for their subway.

Lesson one: You can take your store to people, instead of driving people to your store. Instead of trekking to a store, anything that can be provided conveniently online should: retailers, clothing, household goods, baby products, etc. Capitalize on "tween-time" to fit into people's real schedules.

Korea and Singapore can get away with QR codes in subway stations as they have almost universal cell connectivity throughout their transportation system.

Integrate your product in a creative way

QR codes are ugly "blocky-block-block" eye-sores. The German online toy store myToys.de built QR codes out of Legos, both to drive traffic to their online store and drive purchases of Lego. The associated Lego box could be ordered directly from their website by decoding the QR code. This one is a "Sea Serpent attacking a pirate ship."

Lesson two: You can make QR codes out of almost anything, even your product, and place it in urban environments for people to scan. You just have to be creative about what the QR code will drive to, and what it will say.

Provide value

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student Matt Tomasulo posted 27 signs at three Raleigh, NC, intersections as part of the "Walk Raleigh" project. QR codes are ideal for walking environments and to communicate a message.

Lesson three: You do not have to always buy advertising to communicate. Sometimes it is better to ask forgiveness than permission. Just provide value so people are receptive. Guerilla advertising works.

Fill wait time with cause marketing

Chili's used table top displays with QR codes as part of a charity drive to give to St. Jude's. This integrated with a much larger effort to support the charity; however, table-top usage was particularly effective.

Lesson four: If your brand has a physical presence that requires people to wait -- any restaurant, any store with check-out lines -- then cause marketing with QR codes will work. The longer a cause is in front of a person, the likelier they are to act, and the positive association with a cause increases your own brand equity.

Wait time is different than "tween-time." Wait time is when someone is waiting for a meal, or a doctor, etc. They are already at their destination, not in-between it. I distinguish the two because of the way we are engaged during those two events. We "consume" the in-between times differently, and we attitudinally react differently within it. With wait time, the focus is more on why they are waiting, whereas in "tween-time" there is a desire to accomplish tasks.

Democratize knowledge

Wine is a product that many people fear. They fear making the wrong choice and looking like an idiot, or being judged for their choice. With QR codes, wines can provide complex information that can go beyond the vintage, to the grapes, the terroir, the vineyard, and the history of the wine; even offering a wine rating from Wine Spectator. All of this information goes to easing choice and allaying fears.

Lesson five: If you have a product that is in an "expertise information" industry, where a lack of that expertise can be daunting, your product can benefit from QR codes, as it democratizes the knowledge. Be it wine, or even strollers, cars, handbags, or shoes, any product category where the volume of information and choice is overwhelming can benefit from QR code usage.

Know what your consumer wants

This may sound simple, but often client brands are ignorant as to what their consumer actually wants, how they want to be engaged, and what you can offer them that is attractive and gets them to act. Mountain Dew and Taco Bell partnered on a promotion that let their consumers scan a QR code and download free music. They understood that for their customers, music is a way to differentiate and communicate among peers.

Lesson six: If you are going to have a promotion with QR codes, then drive to products your consumer actually wants.

Have them use -- and drive them to -- your product in the creative

What's a better way than telling consumers about your product? Actually engaging with them in a way in which your product is integrated into the creative. Spotify used QR codes to allow you to send someone a mixed-tape. Scan it, and they get a greeting card that would go directly to the playlist you created. What does this do? It not only provides exposure, but leverages the product of the company doing the creative to demonstrate its value.

Lesson seven: If you have an app, use creative ideas that integrate that app's functionality into your QR code creative strategy. QR codes, by definition, are a mobile strategy.

Make it personal, and connect your brand to emotional moments

Have you ever purchased something online and written a note to be included with your gift (your elegant words, not in your own handwriting, but a banal typed message)? I view this as one of the biggest drawbacks of ordering online, the lack of that personal touch. It is just so cold.

When you purchased a gift from any JCPenney store over the holiday season, you received a "Santa Tag" with an accompanying QR code. By scanning the code, the giver could record a personalized voice message for the recipient.

Lesson eight: Making something personal provides the emotional connection to a "branding moment."And brand moments happen when that emotional connection occurs simultaneously with your brand. That is what actually cements brands in synaptic pathways to aid better brand recall. "Branding" is not an ad, or a campaign; it is a strategy that makes moments that "brand" people.

I have written much about the concepts of branding on my website sxcmarketing.com, and I provide clients with help in defining more accurately what success looks like for them. Oftentimes, marketers get into ruts of "this is a brand campaign" and "this is direct response." Those delineations are often a result of how they will be measured, not what they are accomplishing for the brand. This is what branding is.

Encourage sociability by making it worth their while to share

Verizon ran a campaign where in-store customers could scan a QR code that shared their competition entry on Facebook. If a friend used that link to buy a Verizon mobile product, the original customer would win a smartphone. Not could, not maybe, but would win. Verizon saw a $35,000 return on a $1,000 investment, plus brand awareness on 25,000 new Facebook profiles.

Lesson nine: If you want someone to share something on their social profiles, do not give them the chance to win something if someone from their social network acts, let them get something. It is a commission, and they are a salesperson. Treat them that way.

This is often difficult within companies as different groups control different budgets. The key is to get senior-level approval to reinvest marketing dollars that directly generate revenue into offers to continue them. In this way, you can grow campaigns that use incentives, instead of having them fail continuously because one group benefits. There is a need to elevate marketing out of the current role as "expense" and into the role of investment with return. Start educating groups internally that you are in competition with your competitors, not each other.

Check-in and don't be shy

Check-in behavior on apps like FourSquare and Facebook provide an opportunity to connect to an "action" moment. Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest distributed more than 50,000 condoms in QR code-emblazoned wrappers. The wrappers enabled people to scan the QR code with their smartphone to check in at wheredidyouwearit.com and anonymously let the world know where they practiced safe sex.

Lesson 10: By associating your brand with a check-in behavior, you aid brand recall and use. It does not have to be sexy like this example. A diaper that you can scan and check-in to show baby changes would work. People want to share "hi-low" events; either their triumphs or when seeking sympathy.

It is almost never a bad idea to take a risk. We are often stuck with generational mores that have us stuck in a "too controversial" mindset. Generation Y and lower have no compunctions about sharing significant intimate details. There is not the same delineation between personal and professional. If you want to reach these generations, it is ok to be a bit more risky.

However, as I stated with the diaper example, the uses for check-ins with products is something that QR codes can do very well.

Identify a consumer pain-point and help

At the Denver International Airport, a traveler can download free Sudoku puzzles or full versions of free books, courtesy of FirstBank. They identified "travel troubles" as one of the biggest pain points for their customers, and they've offered these books and puzzles as part of their helpfulness campaign.

Lesson 11: There are many lessons here. It is another example of "tween-time." In addition, public domain content, be it full books, Sudoku puzzles, or offers and discounts, abound. You do not have to spend money on licensing fees and picture rights of a cheesy stock photo. There is a lot of value in the public domain -- use it.

Make it real-time

QR codes are, by definition, mobile. What do I mean by that? Well, you are not scanning them with your computer, are you? And often when we use mobile devices, we are, well, mobile ourselves. Frankfurt, Germany introduced smart posters in train cars, which provides commuters with travel information, transport connections, special events, and points of interest, as well as special offers for travel card holders.

Lesson 12: Information is often not static, and yet for some reason we often treat it that way. QR codes can take customers to real-time updates anywhere where there is a constant flow of information and where time is essential -- train stations, bus stops, department store sales, weather, live events, restaurant specials, or airline bookings. By providing real-time information, your brand can be contextually relevant to the situation.

Replace the static with the dynamic on longer shelf-life items

We often produce information in a static way. Anytime we produce a sign, a placard, or almost any other printed material it exists in that form until we print something else. The San Antonio River Walk has twelve points along its route with QR codes that each link to an audio narration, historic photos, and renderings. When you make something like a sign for a path, or a marker, they are often made and then never updated. History however is rarely static. New information comes about all of the time. You could even, in this example, provide seasonal information about those locations. The key here is to be thinking of ways that you can change the backend content and therefore increase efficiency.

Lesson 13: If you are producing material that has a longer shelf life than an ad (be it on a membership card, or even the label on your product), you can't change the QR code, but you can change what the link you use ends up on, says, or communicates. For example, a tag on a dress that, when scanned, texts you back an encouraging phrase of how good you look.

Use what's in your brand's attic

Brands have histories, and with those histories they have content. The goal of the "World Park" campaign from New York's Central Park Tourism was to attract younger, more social visitors. With more than 50 QR codes, Central Park was turned into an interactive board. From walking through exhibits, to standing and seeing concerts that were performed, essentially this campaign time-shifted, like a TiVo, what was in the brand's attic into the present moment.

Lesson 14: Many of you have "brand attics" -- a whole slew of material from years of advertising and marketing. You have legacies of creative work and people interacting with your brands in the real world. That material can be leveraged.

This is one of the most innovative and beautiful integrations of technology and location. The reason it is successful is for the same reason the JCPenney campaign is. Brand attics contain a treasure trove of emotional moments in people's lives. Branding happens when you tap into that emotion, for it is at those exact moments that those emotional experiences get attached to your brand. It is not about the number of exposures or click-thru rates or GRPs -- branding is solely the purview of emotion and our connection of brands to it.

Better than an expert

Even at the most basic level, a QR code is just a link, and, when used well, that link is to information. The Home Depot uses QR codes on their flowers and plants. With it they provide a way for people to get information on how often the plant is to be watered and how much light it needs.

Lesson 15: Retail is no longer staffed with experts; it is staffed with flesh pods who take up space, and even when you can find one of these flesh pods, they are rarely able to answer your questions beyond reading what is on a label. At least this way you can help your consumer out, and, better yet, deliver information in a consistent way. Home Depot actually is one of the better places where people can at least sometimes help you -- at most retailers the staff just walks you over to the product and reads the display card. I sometimes want to scream, "I can actually read, and probably better than you." At least with QR codes, you give the consumer a chance to avoid your clueless flesh drones and have your brand be viewed positively.

Show them, don't tell them to download your app

Instagram, you know, that company worth a billion dollars because they are...uh...umm...Why are they worth a billion dollars again? Anyway, they demonstrated their product functionality in a QR code that drove downloads of their app.

Lesson 16: Like a virtual version of lesson two, if you have an app, QR codes are ideal if you want people to download that app. But please do something a little more creative than the basic black and white "block-o-blocks." Demonstrate what your app does, and tie it to your brand. Make the ad your app. Show them, don't tell them, to download your app. This idea can be used for any company with an app.

And please, and do not ignore this: Test the bejesus out of that QR code, and make sure it is able to be scanned. Sometimes creative directors get a little too creative. So much so that they avoid the technology that the creative is supposed to enable. Test the creative of the QR code, test it again, and test it at various sizes and from various distances. And then have three other people test it. When companies implement a technical solution and do it poorly, the entire effort backfires, and instead of the company being viewed as an innovator, they are viewed as incompetent.

When there is a "purchase," target who is not the "use" target, bring something to life

Sometimes, if not often, we are not shopping for ourselves. We are shopping for someone else. How do we know the person we are buying for will like what we are purchasing? "The Great Big Toys 'R' Us Book" has QR codes for selected products that resolve to multimedia content showing the toys in action.

Lesson 17: When you are trying to get someone to buy your product who is not the end user of your product, it helps to bring that product to life so they may understand it better. If you are selling perfume or makeup or shoes or handbags, a man is not likely to understand the joy of a handbag he is purchasing unless he sees a women using it and smiling. In general, he understands the practical, not the emotional. QR codes can help, because often, we just don't "get" it.

Don't underestimate the power of the desire to share that which we can't have

Exclusivity creates scarcity. Scarcity creates desire. Association with exclusivity creates an "in and out" game of trying to separate us from others. Are Diesel Jeans worth $250? That is the wrong question. They are worth what they want them to be worth. Do they cost much more than Levi's to make? Probably not. Unfortunately, in a consumer based culture, this is the type of ego-feeding that we are taught. This desire to distinguish ourselves is powerful. Think about it, if it wasn't there, there would be no brands, just products.

Diesel launched a campaign in which you could scan and "like" a product. People "like" to be associated with certain brands. Their egos demand it, and they want to share that. Diesel is also a smart digital marketer. It created a mobile-specific site and Facebook integration that made it simple for consumers to accomplish what they wanted. Too often brands link a QR code to a non-mobile site, with no share-ability. Diesel knows better.

Lesson 18: People will share what they want to be associated with. Even if they do not buy, it creates the jealous effect of those who cannot afford $250 jeans. The jealous effect and the ego are behind a lot of sharing. If you have a product that elicits those feelings, QR codes can help create buzz around your products.

Personalize and drive to retail

Not everything is about big brands and national programs. Using MailChimp, a popular email marketing platform, marketers can use their latest feature "Pyow" to send a unique QR code to each recipient of an email. These emails are then printed out and redeemed at retail.

Lesson 19: People do actually go to physical stores, in the real world, with real people. Customized coupons, offers, and redemptions are great ways to drive foot traffic and determine the success of your email campaign efforts. If you are a smaller brand, this solution is ideal. This is a solution that will almost exclusively work for small local retailers as the staff will have to have the technology to scan the offers and integrate. That's OK, small business needs some exclusive loving.

Men are not very complicated; just tease us and we respond

You know, I would like to think that as men we have evolved beyond some of our basic instincts; however, sadly, I do not think we can. Those baser instincts are just that, base instincts that we are almost hard wired with. I can choose to react more softly to them; however, completely ignoring them would just cause those instincts to be repressed. And things that are repressed for too long tend to come to light in very ugly ways. Better to acknowledge those instincts, bring them into the light, and then choose how we react to them. For it is really our reaction in society that is important, not our thoughts.

Victoria's Secret incorporated QR codes into its "Sexier than Skin" campaign. The concept was simple: Huge billboards were installed with nearly nude models. QR codes were then placed over the most "revealing" areas, enticing users to scan the codes to reveal the secret -- the "secret" being their line of women's lingerie.

Lesson 20: Men will almost always respond to the thought that maybe, just maybe, we will get to see some boobs. Somehow, the one-in-a-million error will happen, and we are just going to see the naked photo. I do not know where this reptilian brain thought comes from that we temporarily delude ourselves into believing in the possibility of the impossible, but it happens.

Those who deny our baser instincts usually do not believe in evolution, for this is almost certainly a combination of evolutionary desire combined with a misogynistic cultural upbringing. I suspect that future generations, as sexual desires are more open than they used to be, will respond less to the "sex sells" motif; however, this specific campaign is designed well. It targets those who they have always targeted to drive their brand -- males -- and it does it in a way that integrates their product.

Victoria's Secret is in the business of fantasy creation, and they manage it very well.


QR codes serve a purpose, but only if we are asking ourselves the right questions. And that question has nothing to do with QR codes, but a sound digital marketing strategy.

Tweet this by clicking on it* @seanx. I resolve to sign "The QR Code Anti-Stupid Usage Pledge."

*The fact that some people had to be told means that they should have definitely clicked on it.

Sean X Cummings founder and difference maker, SXC Marketing.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Scanning QR code with mobile" image via Shutterstock.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Marcelo Di Franco

2012, May 15

Hey Sean,
I have to say this is by far the best article I've read on QR. Most of the stuff out there is just about good examples and basic best practices. I think you nailed it.

Commenter: Sean X

2012, May 10

It was actually student at The Miami Ad School that did the Victoria Secret idea for QR Codes. May VS should hire them to do their guerrilla advertising.

Commenter: Sean X

2012, May 10

Turns out I may have been giving Victoria Secret a little too much credit. That example is a concept from ad students. Nice to know the next generation of ad creatives is as fascinated with boobs as my generation. Ugh ;)