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9 Reasons QR Codes are Bad for Your Brand

The tale of the QR code is a sordid story. The QR (Quick Response) code was originally the trademark name for a two-dimensional barcode system. It was invented in 1994 by Denso Wave, a Toyota subsidiary, as a way to track vehicles as they were assembled, and to scan components at high speeds. While Denso Wave holds the patent on the technology, they granted free license on it, going so far as to publish the specs online, and allowing anyone to use it.

Unfortunately, as we all know, free doesn’t always mean good and I think QR Codes take that assertion to a whole new level. Many brands initially diverted QR Codes from its initial purpose by jumping on the bandwagon as something new and exciting that allowed them to leverage the exploding mobile market to interact with real world products. However they quickly realized many of the technology’s inherent limitations.

It is not that QR Codes are dead or evil or anything hyperbolic like that - they are just horribly misused. There are benefits and useful applications for them, either technical or industrial for the most part. At the marketing level, for example, they already stand for something for a lot of consumers (implicitly telling the user "click here"). Also, they are the perfect tool for very specific actions, namely, initiating a commerce transaction on a specific item or acting as a coupon code and they will be continued to be used in this context for the foreseeable future.

One place, however, that we are seeing increasing aversion to QR Code use is among consumer-oriented brand marketing. What are the reasons behind the demise of such technology? Well here are 9 of them:

1)       QR codes and 2D Tags in general are ugly, generic and mess with a brand’s aesthetic, destroying much of the investment made by brands to develop distinct brand identities.

2)       The codes have limited uses and are only capable of translating into a text string that sends users to a website, phone number or SMS.

3)       Since they can only generate a text string they do not offer the possibility of advanced, connected content (for instance it is very difficult to connect Facebook ID with the end user through a QR Code and therefore track or provide relevant content).

4)       Since a unique 2D code must be displayed on everything they augment, the implementation is difficult to scale and lack the ability to be used retroactively across existing campaigns or inventories without extremely onerous and expensive efforts.

5)       In addition to needing to be placed on everything, ad agencies and Fortune 500 CMOs have found that managing the creative assets needed for implementing anything beyond a very limited QR Code-based campaign is incredibly difficult and inefficient.

6)       Because anyone can make them, the user experience (UX) is incredibly varied and frequently very low engagement.

7)       Consumers (especially women) do not seem inclined to use them resulting in very low click-through rates, unless it is something incredibly compelling to the target, like downloading the latest Lady GaGa song for free.

8)       Because consumers do not click on codes often and UX is generally of low quality, QR Codes have entered a vicious circle where brands expect low response rate and at the same time, most end users expect low quality content. This will continue to drive usage down.

9)       Many alternate technologies like Near Field Communications (NFC) and Visual Recognition (VR) are becoming commercially viable without the above issues faced by QR.

Through the multiple attempts to make QR Codes work in brand marketing, they have demonstrated a real demand for augmenting media assets but, at the same time, that they are not the solution and have faced extreme resistance from numerous segments of the population. Unfortunately, for a long time there were no other options so marketers were forced to try to work with them if they wanted to use mobile to interact with real world objects and images. This has led to abysmal adoption rates despite being on the market for almost two decades. If they were a marketing product instead of a free to use technology QR codes would have been forgotten a long time ago. Instead they have lingered until something better comes along. It takes a while to kill anything that is available for free, but this one has been circling the bowl for a while.

It is said that a technology has been mass market adopted when it becomes synonymous with its use. And while QR Codes have shown their limitations, I believe Visual Recognition has the potential to become that mass-market technology. It is a natural and seamless process, as easy as taking a picture, and now that we are starting to see a proliferation of powerful Visual Recognition solutions I believe Visual Recognition is poised to become a pillar of mobile and Visual Discovery of the objects around us (including Advertising and Product Discovery).


Written with Arnaud Saint-Paul, CEO of smartsy

Join The Conversation

  • Mar 27 Posted 2 years ago deancollins


    Uhm how will we know an image is "smartsy" enabled? Yep so you'll need some kind of logo etc.

    Ok next will we send users to "data" on servers apart from smartsy cant can you.

    Ok last problem will users interact with smartsy images from apps other than the smartsy app (eg third party developers) cant can you.

    OK so basically you are is something new and shiny BUT it still requires a logo, is reliant on a single server and a single app provider.

    Dean Collins

  • Jul 15 Posted 3 years ago smith.l.mark

    Great article, I agree that QR codes are being misused. I do not enjoy the QR code popping up on almost every ad that now appears as I feel that it distracts from the actual message. I have recently begun to play around with LogoGrab, an app that allows companies to use their logo as a QR code. This allows you to have access wherever a logo is located, ridding the issue of having to scan a QR code right away. It also allows you to easily link your content to your social media pages, promotions, etc. allowing users easy access to important company information. I found the platform easy to use and believe that it brings visual recognition to the mass market.

  • Jun 18 Posted 3 years ago kristenhanna

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful post Paul Dunay. Every developer should work on this to overcome this issue. For now we are working on all magento extensions (Magento Product Reviews Extension) but hoping for a better solution. 

  • Jan 25 Posted 4 years ago LMarriott

    Interesting article, Paul. I especially agree with your point that in some instances, QR codes are “horribly misused.” For example, QR codes are often placed on advertisements in subways where there isn’t a cellular signal, or on billboards that are located too high or too low for people to easily scan. Ease-of-use and placement is paramount to the successful launch of every QR initiative.

    Over the next few years, we will see QR codes being increasingly included in programs due to the high rate of engagement they offer for a cost effective price. As brands continue to use QR codes for consumer engagement, they will need to stay ahead of customers’ expectations by putting relevance, value, creativity and innovation at the forefront. Continued and consistent consumer adoption of QR programs is key, and for that reason, the future of QR codes rests heavily on the successful deployment of QR programs. 

    -          Laura Marriot, CEO, NeoMedia

  • Laëtitia's picture
    Jan 24 Posted 4 years ago Laëtitia

    While scan rate doubled last year in Europe (comScore, Inc., september 2012), QR code users still represent only 14% of the total smartphone audience. The "bleam" which is easy to scan, explicit and meaningful, impacts more end users.

    Brands can create and customize bleams to strengthen their brand identity and to inform users on the associated service. The bleam is an alternate technology which is commercially viable without the above issues faced by QR.

  • Kent Ong's picture
    Jan 19 Posted 4 years ago Kent Ong

    I agree with your 2nd point.

  • Jan 19 Posted 4 years ago

    Hallo Paul,

    Interesting article but not complete and IMHO bias. So, a pinch of salt in advance for a little ranting and sissy behaviour.

    1. QR codes like most (1D/2D) barcodes are found on (nearly) all products from all brands. Yes, ugly they are but very usefull. Does not mean you put them in the clients face all the time and everywhere!

    2. If you claim them to have limited use, please list what you miss, not only three of the countless abilities of these code usable by mobile devices. That is misleading readers.

    3. ? really! Call me and I'll show you how. Social media exposure via QR codes is vast and not only limited to Facebook at all.

    4. Heard of dynamic QR codes? Determine what it does when at your leasure and even track it all.

    5. Corporations generally have that problem with any 'new age Internet' marketing media. Look at how they (try too) deal with social media. I'd say same goes here.

    6. Here I totally agree with you. Today still, our findings are that many QR codes created via 'free' services are not suitable for mobile audiences. And many commercial marketing agencies use these services without bothering to understand!

    7. Sexist remark and off topic. Tip: Know your market and their mobile activity and if not relevant = don't use QR codes. Seems sort of obvious or not?

    8. Don't know where you get your input from, but we see both. Bad or plain dumb use (QR code + no context and Mobile unfriendly destination) is guanranteed fail and poor results. Relevance and added value with an understanding of where and when to use it delivers better ROMI (return On Marketing Investment) than any (interactive) DM campaign can dream of.

    9. QR codes = free. Other technologies are not. People will think twice before deploying paid services with no tangable result upfront. So guess the amount of polution between free and paid. But do agree that too many poor user experiences results in a rejection of QR codes.

    QR codes are for the people. It remains a choice to scan or not! Bluetooth and NFC NOT! We know what happened to Bluetooth! Used and abused, at the end of the day the people will choose to use QR codes or loose them and at present the quality of it's use in the EU is improving daily. Bluetooth isa non-feature and NFC has little interest at present. Do take into account that each technology has it's place. None of each is a replacement for the other but can be used together.

    As long as ignorant marketing agencies scramble to sell 'whatever new technology' to there clients to make a buck, whithout having a clue what they're dealing with it will remain a commercial problem for economic results.

    We see a 'once bitten, twice shy' result in the EU, and I like it. If companies implement QR codes badly and it is in their eyes a failure they tend to not 'just do it' again soon. Leaving room for those who know how to use it well and wisely to stay ahead of the competition. TIP: Understand marketing for mobile devices and people on the move!

    As company, use QR codes wisely and they will be your business friend and attract clients. Are you trying to keep up with the competition and to lazy to do your homework then chances are you will get burnt and serves you right.

  • mobilead's picture
    Jan 19 Posted 4 years ago mobilead

    Comparing QR Codes©, Visual Recognition and NFC could not be done this way.
    Each technology has strengths and weaknesses.

    QR Codes©, Visual Recognition, Steganography and NFC might be very useful if used correctly.
    Any mobile content, any native application, any mobile Web Application should be able to benefit from those shortcuts to the Mobile Internet. No need to type a URL on your device to reach a Mobile website.Today, software such as Google Goggles and Bing Visual Search are able to embrase QR Codes©, OCR and Visual Recognition at once. On Androïd and Windows 8 devices, you may also use your mobile phone to read NFC tags.

    Talking about brands, Visual Recognition has limits in the way to identify products. It may be easy to find a brand using it's logo; to find a specific type of products ; but there is no way to turn each box into a unique link to some tailored and personnalized information. To do so, you have to have a specific software; a software linked to a specific database. With QR Codes©, any ISO/IEC 18004 compliant reader points to the specific target stored in the QR Codes©. Each Visual Recognition software will point to a different target, allowing your competitor to use your visual to point to their content.
    Even Google wrote they were unable to process an image and compare it to a database if not a printed image. In order process the image of a box, you have to have multiviews and lightings of the box. What could be done on a magazine, could not be done on a product.

    Variable digital printing allows to turn each box into a unique link to some tailored and personnalized information from any reader. Each box is made unique, either having a unique identifier stored in a QR Codes©, a Steganography or an NFC tag. This is not waht Visual Recognition is able to.

    Visual Recognition raises a good question but is obviously not the good answer.




  • Jan 18 Posted 4 years ago derekeh

    Enjoyed the article and is a nice segue to the much smarter, younger, better looking sibling of the QR Code...SnapTags.

  • Jan 18 Posted 4 years ago BGray

    Just got this link sent to me this morning....seems there are plenty of brands who ARE using QR codes well and seemingly, targeting females too. Definitely worth a read:


  • Jan 18 Posted 4 years ago Mike Gamaroff

    It is very refreshing to read an article not slamming QR but drawing on the simple reality that very few have ever used them properly. As a social innovations lab, we have found ways to activate these codes so that they do something useful and rewarding for consumers instead of the major anticlimax of just going to pointless URL.

    In today's fast moving tech world, it's possible for really great enablers to come onto the scene, but because they're used so badly, it can bring down all the potential of it and even kill it stone dead.

    QR needs innovative thinkers to find more interesting and purposeful uses for them. Incentives are a great example. If a consumer knows they can be entered into a draw or get a free sample by scanning the code, immediately there's a way to make them more exciting. Capture an email address in the process, and you have a meaningful and effective real-world digital activation channel.


  • Jan 18 Posted 4 years ago maedko

    The problem is that there isn't currently a solution for marketers who think they need QR codes, but hopefully with the direction of technology in the direction of voice and eventually AR, things might change.

  • Jan 17 Posted 4 years ago erictran

    Hi Paul, thank you for the points. We're also planning to implement QR code or Visual Recognition on our website. Our main product is software (magento extensions), which one do you think is better?

    Thank you in advance

  • jonmikelbailey's picture
    Jan 17 Posted 4 years ago jonmikelbailey

    You make some excellent points. However, any form of digital communications can be the victim of misuse. SMS is often misused but can be incredibly effective. Email marketing is often misused but can be incredibly effective. I also agree that NFC and VR will become very popular, but they are not there yet.

    If you plan, test and test some more, you can effectively integrate QR Codes into your communication strategy. And integrating them into visual design strategies can be done quite well as you can see in the McDonalds example posted in the comments above.

    I believe that QR Codes will continue to be effective for those companies who are using them well.

  • RogerSmolski's picture
    Jan 17 Posted 4 years ago RogerSmolski

    Paul you had better let McDonald's know as soon as possible

  • Randy Milanovic's picture
    Jan 17 Posted 4 years ago Randy Milanovic

    We've seen many people who just haven't figured out QR codes yet...

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