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Graphic designers can be a judgemental bunch.

We’re often asked, against our will, to turn hideous, client-supplied content into desirable and attractive sales and marketing material.

It’s not the done thing (if you want to keep your job) to tell your clients that their logo is so repulsive it shouldn’t be displayed in daylight, in case it startles a small child or an unwary pensioner.

So, you can imagine the sideways looks, tutting and eye-rolling in the ad agency where I worked when one of our clients insisted on slapping some new-fangled square slabs of gibberish called QR codes all over their lovingly crafted magazine advertisements.

This was 20 years ago, and it was the first time I’d seen a QR code. The problem with them at that time (apart from being damned ugly) was most people didn’t know what they were, and few had a phone capable of scanning them.

So, they just sat in the corner of an ad, taking up valuable real estate and drawing all the viewer’s attention away from the carefully curated masterpiece we’d spend hours (or weeks) creating. We were artists, dammit (we had an art director to prove it) – I’m sure Leonardo da Vinci never had to put up with this kind of meddling!

But technology has now caught up. Almost everyone now has a smartphone in their pocket capable of scanning QR codes, and they are everywhere (even in my own artwork).

A Brief History of QR Codes

Quick Response (QR) codes were first invented in 1994 by the Japanese company Denso Wave for the less-than-sexy task of tracking vehicle parts around the automotive industry. However, their usage has since exploded across various sectors, including marketing, where they are used as a tool to engage and interact with customers.

The unique structure of QR codes allows them to store much more information than traditional barcodes, making them a versatile tool for marketing. QR codes are machine-readable and are scanned using a smartphone camera, which in turn opens up a web page, video, coupon, or other digital content.

This allows marketers to quickly and easily present customers with valuable information, such as promotions, product descriptions, or company websites, without them having to key in unwieldy web addresses.

QR codes quickly gained popularity in the marketing industry due to their convenience and accessibility. For customers, scanning a QR code is a simple and seamless process. For businesses, QR codes provide a cost-effective way to reach customers and track the success of their marketing efforts.

Today QR codes are easily integrated into a wide range of marketing materials, including flyers, posters, business cards, and packaging.

Creative use of QR Codes

There are many examples of the innovative use of QR codes. Restaurants have started using them to create contactless menus – driven partly by their experience during the COVID pandemic. Couple them with online payments, and you suddenly need fewer printed menus and waiting staff.

They can be added to your business cards, so people can scan the code and instantly add your contact information to their phones. Or you can do as I do and include a QR code linked to my mailing list’s sign-up form – it’s a seamless way to grow a subscriber list.

Qr Codes at a Networking Event

A variety of QR codes on display at a recent 4N Networking event

Business Cards Are a Prime Place to Include Qr Codes

Business cards are a prime place to include QR codes

The number of applications is almost endless – airline tickets, food packaging, competition entries, timetables, online payments, billboard advertising, digital service sign-ups and joining WiFi hotspots – their use is seemingly only constrained by marketers’ imagination.

And one of their critical benefits to marketers is their ability to track engagement. Business owners can measure the number of scans, time spent on a landing page, and even the type of device used to scan the code. This data can provide valuable insights into the success of a project and help marketers make informed decisions about future campaigns.

Downsides of Using QR Codes

Despite their many advantages, QR codes have not been without controversy. Some experts have raised concerns about privacy and security, arguing that scanning QR codes could expose users to malware or phishing attacks. However, you can mitigate these concerns by using QR codes from reputable sources and by consumers taking simple steps to secure their smartphones.

If you are using them in your marketing, use a reputable QR code generator. There are many free providers out there. Test your codes before using them, and make sure they don’t have an expiry date. And don’t forget to include a call to action – “Scan this code for more information” – there are still people out there who are unsure what they are.

From being an unglamorous tool for stock control, QR codes have evolved to become an integral part of modern marketing, providing a convenient and cost-effective way for marketers to reach customers and track their success.

What innovative use do you have for QR codes in your own marketing?

author avatar
Keith Barker Designer & Marketing Consultant
I'm Keith, the driving force behind Keefomatic Marketing & Design. With a career spanning over 35 years in marketing, design and advertising, I offer a comprehensive, results-driven service tailored to the needs of small business owners.