Think back about a dozen years. Imagine you’re walking past a bus stop on a city street or picking up your mail for the day. You notice oddly shaped barcode-type things, encouraging you to scan them with some phone app called a reader. What the heck?

And with a lukewarm start that confused more users than it didn’t, the QR code soon became the latest marketing fad that had flopped.

Changing Times, Changing Technology

Fast forward a decade, and the landscape has dramatically changed.

The combination of the pandemic, a savvier smartphone-using consumer base, and greatly improved mobile technology ultimately revived the practice of using QR codes in marketing campaigns and advertising communications.

And by all accounts, QR codes are here to stay.

By definition, quick response (QR) codes are two-dimensional barcodes that can be scanned with a smartphone’s camera to quickly access online assets, including websites and social media profiles.

That special app is no longer required.

According to research from eMarketer, usage of QR codes by US smartphone users jumped 24.9% in 2020 over the year prior.

This surge was ushered in primarily by retailers, quick-service restaurants, and hospitality businesses, especially during the pandemic’s peak when being “contactless” was essential.

Brand marketers quickly followed suit — and with QR code usage in the US projected by eMarketer’s research to hit nearly 100 million by 2025, marketing and advertising QR codes are now in use pretty much everywhere.

How Brands Use QR Codes

Brands now use QR codes in offline marketing materials like posters, signage, end caps, billboards, product packaging, and mailers to help move consumers through the marketing funnel.

They’re placed out in the wild just about anywhere there’s an opportunity to drive audience awareness, consideration, or conversion. Brands also leverage QR codes within digital channels, such as connected TV and over-the-top (CTV/OTT) advertising, to help drive engagement from one digital medium to another.

Tiny Bully has helped several of our clients connect the dots between offline and online channels — and steer consumers toward action — with QR codes. Below are just a few examples of how we’ve put QR codes into use.

💻 Website Traffic and Social Participation

One of the most common uses of QR codes is to be traffic drivers to brands’ websites or social media accounts. Marketers leverage the technology on physical items of all kinds to steer interested consumers to learn more about a brand’s mission, engage with its community, or take further action of some kind.

World’s Best Cat Litter®, as part of its “#GiveACrap” cat adoption program through a network of partner animal shelters, uses QR codes on so-called Adoption Boxes.

The boxes, which are shipped to shelters, are given to new cat parents at the time of adoption and are filled with free litter, branded magnets, a coupon, and more — including a QR code for the adopter to scan and donate more litter (for free) to shelter cats by filling out an online form and sharing a photo of their new cat playing with the box. An option to sign up for marketing emails is also included.

In addition, the adoption box contains a “Gotcha Day” postcard where the adopter can scan a second QR code to register their new cat’s name and day of adoption with the brand. In doing so, users are opting into marketing communications and will receive a special acknowledgment, automatically, on the first anniversary of the adoption date. They’re also proactively sharing data with the brand for use in future personalized communications.

💲Sales and Promotions

Brands also use QR codes to drive trial and product purchases through sales and promotions. They can be used everywhere from supermarket shelves to the front windows of retailers who want to give their customers a reason to try out something new — and ultimately, to buy. A quick scan that delivers a discount code or coupon can be especially effective.

SAPJACK, a Vermont-based organic maple syrup brand with national distribution, launched a partnership with Airbnb and other rental organizations where 100 hosts received bottles of SAPJACK syrup to stock at their respective properties.

The hosts’ guests were then not only able to enjoy free syrup during their visit at their “Sappy Place”, but scan a QR code — via a SAPJACK-branded table tent set up in the kitchen — to get a 20% coupon off syrup purchased at the brand’s website.

📱Technical Information and App Downloads

Another common use for QR codes is to provide a quick and easy way for customers to access additional information about a product or service. They can be especially useful for products with a lot of technical information that benefit from supplemental guides and resources — including apps — that are available online.

Wagz, a pet tech brand, uses QR codes within its Freedom Smart Dog Collar Quick Start Guide (a printed insert in product packaging) to encourage users to download the companion Wagz App on their iOS or Android device(s).

The QR code, which also includes the Wagz logo mark, is set up to automatically detect which device the person is using to scan it and directly opens the Wagz App page on either the App Store (iOS) or Google Play (Android). Users can then easily download the app to their phone and set up/configure their Wagz account and dog collar.

📏Measurement and Management

QR codes are inherently measurable. When the links that power the codes are appended with parameters like Google Analytics’ UTMs for campaign tracking, data can be gleaned to learn more about customer behavior (e.g., time on site, page consumption, etc.) and what people do once they arrive at an online destination from an offline channel (e.g., sign up for a newsletter, purchase a product, etc.).

In addition, many QR code providers such as Rebrandly and Bitly’s QR Code Generator have robust reporting and analytics dashboards themselves that help marketers manage multiple campaigns that leverage QR codes — and include the ability to track devices used, location of the scans, and much more.

This data can be used to not only inform future QR code usage but provide considerations for larger-scale marketing strategies as well.


QR codes are a useful and versatile tool for brands looking to engage with customers and track the success of their cross-channel efforts — and we know how to put them to work for your marketing programs.