Skip to main content

QR Code Crash Course: Are They Right for Your Business?

You might not know what it’s called, but you’ve definitely seen it—even in the pages of this magazine. The little white square box littered with precise drops of black ink is called a Quick Response code, or QR code. It’s the next generation of bar codes and, thanks to its customizability, it could be the next great tool for your business.

QR codes are popping up everywhere. You see them in Best Buy stores, on Calvin Klein billboards, on plant tags at Home Depot, and in even election mail from New York State—and for good reason. Since the primary method of reading QR codes is through a smartphone app, businesses are almost instantly able to engage potential customers with product information, how-to videos, and instant links to buy products right on the spot. Through that engagement, you can build brand recognition and loyalty, as well as potentially drive sales.

Here’s what you need to know about the QR code trend to make them a part of your strategy.

Driving Adoption

QR codes have been used in manufacturing since their inception in 1994 by Denso, a Japanese automotive component company that used them to track inventory. Though they’ve been popular in Asia for several years, widespread smartphone adoption and persistent mobile data connectivity have recently led to their growing popularity in the U.S.

Mark Donovan, senior vice president of mobile and senior analyst with comScore, believes that the popularity of QR codes is ramping up because of the increasing popularity of smartphones. “I think that we’re seeing things like QR codes just start to reach critical mass,” said Donovan. “Today, one in three people in the U.S. owns a smartphone. It’s a good and fairly ubiquitous way to reach those people and there’s still some novelty to it, which can be interesting to consumers.”

According to a recent comScore study, 14 million mobile users in the U.S. scanned a QR bar code in June 2011 alone. Of those who scanned the codes, 53.4 percent of them were in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic and 36.1 percent had a household income of more than $100,000—both very desirable groups for marketers and advertisers.

There are lots of different ways to create an attractive QR code for your business, and it goes way beyond just basic black and white. QR codes can also store more information than a traditional black-line bar code. These are major pluses for companies looking to elevate their product packaging or ad campaigns.

Packaging 2.0

One company’s bold experiment led it to remove much of the text from its packaging in favor of QR codes. Headphone maker V-Moda created a QR code with dripping blood for the packaging on its True Blood series of headphones (the code takes you to the V-Moda True Blood product line website). The company also rotated the QR codes on its packaging by 45 degrees, transforming the square into a hipper-looking V. On V-Moda’s Crossfade M-80 headphones, the helmet-style code leads to a video demonstration of a DJ using the headphones.

Val Kolton, founder of V-Moda, said part of the company’s strategy was to differentiate its headphones from all the others on the shelf by giving the packaging more of a “USA Today [look] instead of Wall Street Journal.” By adding more icons and removing paragraphs of text, the company is aiming to make its designs more eye-catching, engaging, and easier to digest for potential customers.

QR codes were a key addition to V-Moda’s packaging and helped the company gain a cleaner, more Apple-esque look. “One of the main ways that we’re trying to use QR codes is to lead customers to video clips so they can see more information... if they see a video of us touching and feeling the product and explaining it, then it kind of gives them a different experience,” says Kolton. The company only recently redesigned its packaging to include the QR codes, so only a few of their products—most notably the aforementioned True Blood headphone series and Crossfade M-80 headphones—sport this technology.

While it hasn’t received much feedback from customers yet, V-Moda is planning on taking a wait-and-see approach to determine its QR code strategy going forward. Obviously, increasing sales is the ultimate goal, but Kolton also said that he’s interested to see how the codes affect purchase decision time—will the codes hasten a decision or prolong it while the potential customer goes home to learn more about the product?

Picking a Partner

One of the reasons QR codes are becoming so popular is their low barrier to entry. If you print materials or packages, you’re already absorbing the cost of physically printing a QR code. Creating a basic, no-frills QR code is the easy part. The amount of behind-the-scenes work will depend on where you want to lead your customers—whether it’s your mobile website, a YouTube video, an app, a coupon, or a link to purchase something.

A simple Google search for “QR code generator” will lead to numerous free QR code generators, such as,, and However, many of those options don’t allow users to update what URL the QR code is pointing to, and they don’t provide extensive tracking and clickthrough data. If a company is just trying out a code, or if the code is planned for a flyer or postcard where it will likely be used only once, these are worthwhile options.

There are also companies that will work with you to create, update, and track QR codes. Though companies such as Scanbuy (which LAPTOP uses) and NeoMedia charge for their services, they also give users the ability to redirect codes that are already active and provide analytic data on a QR code campaign’s success. While Scanbuy tailors packages to customers’ needs, services generally range from $25 a month with limited scan traffic (for businesses that are getting started with QR codes) to packages that start at $1,500 for larger marketing campaigns.

Home Depot on Board

Home Depot used Scanbuy’s ScanLife platform this past spring for two campaigns—one in print ads and one in stores. The print campaign included QR codes in Home Depot’s direct mail inserts promoting a new line of Martha Stewart kitchens. Scanning the code on a smartphone launched a mobile-friendly page where consumers could call a kitchen designer, request more information, watch a video featuring Stewart giving kitchen planning tips, and shop

In stores, the codes were used to enhance information on flowers and plants. Instead of cramming vague plant care instructions onto a tiny little stick, Home Depot put QR codes on the plant spikes. When scanned, the codes provided detailed care information.

Though Scanbuy has worked on larger campaigns for Macy’s, the Tribeca Film Festival, and a collaboration between Taco Bell and MTV, the company has helped smaller customers find success with codes, too. “We’ve had people put it on the menus and integrate into the order delivery system,” says CEO and president Mike Wehrs, noting that this takes strain off the waitstaff and eliminates order confusion. Other restaurants have put a code on their window that leads to their menu and website as a way to stick in potential customers’ minds and differentiate them from other establishments that rely on paper menus.

QR Dos and Don’ts

The absolute first thing you’ll want to do after creating your QR code is to tell people how to use it. While QR codes are much more prevalent now, it’s not safe to assume that your customers will a) already have a scanner app installed on their smartphone; b) know where to find a scanner app if they don’t have one; and c) know what to do when they see the code. QR codes are meant to make digital experiences easier—but consumers will walk right past the code if they don’t know what do with it.

Your best bet is to direct customers to download a QR code scanner (such as BeeTagg, Google Goggles, or ScanLife) by going to their smartphone’s respective app store. You can also invite the user to go to a mobile website or text a number for a download link.

Just as there are myriad ways to create a unique-looking QR code, there are numerous ways to customize the experience once a user clicks on the code. However, there are basic rules to follow to avoid irritating the customer. Above all else, make sure that the web address you’re sending customers to is optimized for mobile. Users will most frequently scan a code with their smartphone’s camera, so don’t force them to load a website that is too cumbersome or impossible to navigate on a small screen. Second, make sure that the link sends the user somewhere specific that will have an immediate benefit.

“The number one thing [businesses] need to understand [when] using a QR code is that they should not just dump someone at their homepage,” said Wehrs. “They need to figure out, ‘Okay, look, someone is going to access whatever content I put here on a phone.’ It has to be relevant to the advertisement where they’re using the QR code.”

Bottom Line

The main benefit of QR codes is that they make it easy to direct the consumer wherever you want to lead them. Anything businesses can do to engage potential customers will enhance the “stickiness” of that company in a person’s mind. With enough compelling engagement on your part, potential customers just may become lifelong customers.

Kolton believes QR codes are well worth the investment because it’s one key way his products stand out from the competition. “At the end of the day, if we’re adding more to the V-Moda experience for the customer than we can convey on the packaging, then I think it’s a win for us.”