Once-maligned QR codes are making a comeback during the pandemic, with brands like Burger King, CVS, and Walmart jumping on the bandwagon

  • QR codes are making a comeback in the pandemic era, adopted by bars and restaurants and in marketing, retail, technology and payments. 
  • Burger King, CVS, L'Oréal, 1-800-Flowers, and Walmart are among brands that have used QR codes in marketing or retail in recent months, for things like coupons and contactless payments that are considered more sanitary during the pandemic.
  • QR codes' momentum has been helped by tech platforms including Snapchat and Pinterest rolling out their own versions and Chinese apps like Tencent and Alibaba popularizing their usage and standardizing their technology.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

At the peak of the pandemic in April, Burger King launched a marketing stunt offering people free Whoppers through its app. Instead of using augmented reality or geotargeting as it's done in the past, it deployed the humble QR code to get people to snap a photo of a black and white square on their TV screens to win a burger.

QR codes — quickly heralded by marketers in the early 2010s, only to be dismissed as gimmicky — are making a comeback in the pandemic era. The boxy, geometric codes have been adopted by bars and restaurants and are also showing up in marketing, retail, technology and payments. 

For instance: Instagram recently incorporated QR codes in its app, while PayPal has bet on QR codes with shoppers. CVS has integrated PayPal and Venmo QR codes at its checkouts, while Starbucks is using them for contact-tracing in the UK. And L'Oréal, 1-800-Flowers, and Walmart have used QR codes in their marketing in recent months.

"People have been reticent and skeptical of them in the past, but it feels like QR codes are going through a renaissance," said Simon Gill, chief creative officer at Isobar UK and chief experience officer at Dentsu Aegis Network EMEA.

QR codes have waxed and waned in popularity over the years

QR codes, short for quick response, have been around since the 1990s, when they were invented by Masahiro Hara to track automobile parts in Japan. With their ease in scanning objects in the real world and smartphones, they seemed poised to take off.

But that never happened. Adoption was limited, with only 6.2% of mobile users in the US having scanned a QR code, according to a 2011 comScore report. Marketers ended up trying to force them into campaigns without providing much value to consumers or leading to embarrassing gaffes like Heinz ketchup bottles leading people to porn sites. The likes of ad executive Gary Vaynerchuk and publications like Forbes criticized them for being used in lazy and spammy ways.

But in recent years, tech platforms including Snapchat and Pinterest have pushed adoption by rolling out their own versions. IOS and Android have enabled people to scan QR codes without having to download an app. Plus, Chinese apps like Tencent and Alibaba have been using QR codes to enable monetary transactions for years.

These developments, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic, have helped QR codes go from being experimental add-ons for advertisers to something ubiquitous in daily life, said Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer at Publicis. 

"The pandemic has dramatically accelerated trends that we were already seeing at a time when adoption is also peaking," he said. "QR codes allow you to put a digital experience on a physical surface, and become pretty important tools in a world where more consumers are going digital and contactless."

The pandemic has been a tipping point for the adoption of QR codes

As brands and retailers reopen, many are adapting their marketing and retail experiences for a no-touch world. QR codes, driven by the rise of contactless payments and e-commerce in general, are regarded as more sanitary and safe.

"We do see this as an inflection point, a moment in time where perhaps real change can be driven," PayPal's CFO John Rainey told Business Insider recently.

L'Oréal replaced physical testers of its products with QR codes at retail outposts like Sephora, letting people virtually try on products using their smartphones, said Camille Kroely, global head of digital services and open innovation at L'Oréal.

"We realized that when people come back to stores, there's no way they'd want to touch the products anymore," she said. "So we needed to make sure that we offered them an omnichannel 'phygital' experience, which merged the physical and digital worlds together." 

Companies are seeing other uses for QR codes beyond pandemic-driven ones. A retailer like Walmart could use them to provide product information in stores, while a chain like Starbucks could use them to enable transactions through its app, said Goldberg. A fast-food chain could use them to promote app downloads or coupons, and a CPG brand could use them to promote content like recipes.

1-800-Flowers, for example, used QR codes to promote a bouquet collaboration with fashion designer Jason Wu. Each bouquet had QR-coded tags that when scanned, showed behind-the-scenes footage of the designer's runway show at New York Fashion Week and sent digital thank-you notes to senders. 

Being connected to smartphones makes QR code campaigns easy for brands to measure. 1-800-Flowers president Amit Shah said that the brand's recent QR campaign had positive engagement from consumers, while L'Oréal's Kroely said that the makeup company was extending the QR code try-on functionality to retailers in other countries. Chick-Fil-A said it boosted its app downloads 14% using QR codes.

Jason Vincent, CEO at Aeguana, a company that produces QR code-operated vending machines for retailers, said he expected QR adoption to grow because of all the data and marketing possibilities they bring.

"With digital campaigns, they know how to track you and remarket to you when you're going to different websites. But when you go into the store, it's a blind spot," he said. "As soon as you get them to scan one of these QR codes, you're bringing them back into that online ecosystem."

Demand is catching on, but will it last?

To be sure, QR codes aren't the only options out there. Some retailers are going with near-field communication (NFC) technology for their contactless initiatives, which allows electronic devices to communicate over short distances. Kroger, for example, recently announced a pilot program where people will be able to use NFC to pay using Apple Pay, Google Pay and mobile banking apps.

And outside of enabling payments, QR codes' other marketing uses may be limited because people's increased sensitivity around touching things will fade, said Zach Goldstein, CEO of Thanx, a customer engagement company that's been helping restaurants digitize their menus using QR codes.

But for now, demand seems to be catching on. A recent study by B2B publisher Paymnts.com found that one-third of consumers that shop using digital payments said that they would not even consider making purchases in a physical store without them. And Seek, a company that makes QR code technology, said that it has seen a 600% increase in demand since March for its augmented reality and QR code solutions, according to Modern Retail. 

"Compared to historical data, there's certainly a huge uptick," said Aeguana's Vincent. "The behavior that's being instilled in people to be able to just turn the camera on and scan something, I reckon there'll be a lot of really interesting use cases for that to come out of this."

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