The Rise and Rise of the QR Code

The QR code, short for Quick Response Code, is a 2D barcode that was originally developed for use in manufacturing by the Japanese Denso company in the early 90’s. In the last 5 years its use in marketing as bloomed with the explosion in smart phone use.

The appeal of QR codes lies in their ability to link the printed or real world with the digital one, in an instant. Think of it as an alternative to typing in a URL, or text, or even the contents of a business card. Any smart phone, or tablet computer, with a camera and one of the many free Apps available is all you need.

Creating a QR code couldn’t be simpler, again there are a lot of free websites such as or simply enter the website, or text and away you go!


Particularly relevant for ambient campaigns the QR code works well on poster sites, (bus shelters, buses, shop windows, etc. As well as taking you to a website they can be used to trigger a video or an augmented reality experience, act as a money-off voucher that can be redeemed at suitably equipped EPOS terminals, and in job ads.

Here are a couple of nice examples…












There are limitations to this technology – the more information you include the more complex the code becomes and the larger it has to be printed to ensure it can be successfully read. Also because humans don’t read ‘QR’ without checking you don’t actually know what it says or where the link goes – the dangers are obvious. So is the potential for less scrupulous marketers, perhaps a competitor, to hijack campaigns by replacing the authentic code with fake – who’s to know until you scan it.

Also there are some places where QR codes are just wrong. Anywhere someone driving might want to use it – for example the back of a bus (inside or on the side would be ok), or I have seen it used on the small ads above public urinals. If there is one place you don’t want to whip out your camera phone it is standing shoulder to shoulder with two strangers answering a call of nature!

And finally don’t put QR codes on your website, you’re already in the digital realm, they are unnecessary and just look daft.

Where next?

The error correction built into QR codes allows for some of the real estate within the barcode to be omitted and companies are using this area to include a logo, there is also a smaller micro QR code that can hold up to 35 characters – but frankly its uses are limited.

Ultimately QR codes will be superseded, one of the favourites that is starting to take off in the USA is the Snap Tag, which comprises a company logo surrounded by a broken circle the number and position of the breaks in the circle providing the unique code. Then there is digital watermarking, or Digimarc that recognises ads, product packaging or anything printed to link you through to online content.

Unlike QR codes Snap Tag and Digimarc are not free to implement and this will slow their progress, especially with smaller companies, so QR look like they’ll be around for a few years yet.