Person using a mobile device to read QR codes

QR codes (an abbreviation of “quick response codes”) were invented in 1994 by a subsidiary of Toyota Motors. They were originally designed to track car parts during the manufacturing process, but it quickly became clear that the technology could be re-purposed for a wide variety of uses.

Despite being around for over a decade, QR codes were a fairly obscure technology until the advent of smartphones made them a fairly common part of modern life. Marketers and technologists are experimenting with all sorts of different ideas to make the most of QR code technology. Below I’ve highlighted — in no particular order — five of the best and five of the worst uses of QR code technology to date.

5 Brilliant QR Code Uses

#1: Free Sudoku Puzzles and Books in Denver International Airport – FirstBank

In Denver International Airport, you’ll find stark, simple billboards with little else except for several large QR codes. When scanned, the codes take you to free Sudoku puzzles or full versions of free books. If you’ve ever found yourself stranded in an airport due to a layover or flight cancellation, you can see the obvious potential in FirstBank’s QR campaign.

FirstBank QR Codes in Denver International Airport

QR codes in Denver International Airport by FirstBank (Image source: kaitlyndennihy.com)

An unprepared, stranded traveler can download Treasure Island, Moby Dick or The Art of War on their mobile device, and make far better use of their time than they would otherwise. FirstBank has identified travel troubles as one of the biggest pain points for their customers, and they’ve offered these books and puzzles are part of their “helpfulness” campaign. The fact that the books are public domain — circumventing all copyright issues — makes these QR codes truly brilliant.

#2: PYOW! – The Rocket Science Group

QR codes aren’t just for large corporations anymore. Thanks to The Rocket Science Group, small business owners can email personalized QR codes for their customers for as little as….free. Using MailChimp, a popular email marketing platform, marketers can use their latest feature (which they call “PYOW!”) to send a unique QR code to each recipient.

Pyow Scanning RQ Code

A Business Owner Using "PYOW!" by MailChimp (image source: blog.mailchimp.com)

The QR code could offer a discount, freebie or any other kind of gift or incentive. You can even determine the number of times each code can be used. Enabling the use of QR technology for small businesses and start-ups – at literally no cost – has earned “PYOW!” recognition for brilliant use of QR codes. The (aptly-named) Rocket Scientist Group has made QR codes accessible to even the smallest organizations.

#3: Virtual Tickets – MogoTix

Despite being the industry standard, paper tickets have a lot of downsides. First, they need to be printed, often with holograms or foil stamps to prove authenticity. This ultimately raises costs for both company and customer, and it’s wasteful to put money and materials into short-lived, one-time-use items. Mogotix has invented a virtual ticketing system that is greener, cheaper and more convenient, and you’ll never guess what kind of technology they use.

A MogoTix Virtual Ticket

A MogoTix Virtual Ticket (image source: mogotix.com)

Their tickets are essentially individualized QR codes. They don’t need to be printed, it’s very hard to lose them, and they fit the purpose with efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Plus, if you’re old-fashioned type who just has to have everything in paper form, you can always print out the virtual ticket. Just be prepared for a few smirks and chuckles at the ticket line as you neglect your smartphone to search for a crumpled piece of paper.

#4: Interactive Menu at Radisson Edwardian

Radisson Edwardian, a British hotel chain, has employed QR codes on their restaurant menus that lead to videos of the preparation of their dishes. Menus could never be as descriptive as HD video, and as a result they often leave the customer with questions like “how exactly is this prepared?” or “What does this dish look like?”

A QR Code in The Radisson Edwardian's Interactive Menu

A QR Code in The Radisson Edwardian's Interactive Menu (image source: econsultancy.com)

Because picture-filled menus are considered a sign of a low-class eatery, QR codes provide the visual information while keeping the menu modern and classy. This careful accommodation of both proper menu design and technology is a brilliant combination.

#5: Content-Rich Resume by Victor Petit

While this QR code use doesn’t benefit the bottom-line of a business, it’s still a brilliantly creative use of the technology. French student Victor Petit effectively rewrites the book on “Making Your Resume Stand Out.” If this doesn’t get the attention of a hiring manager, nothing will. You have to see it to understand:

Content-Rich Resume by Victor Petit

Content-Rich Resume by Victor Petit

5 Worst QR Code Blunders

#1: QR Code Scarf by Lendorff Kaywa

Lendorff Kaywa is a collaborative project between knitters from London and mobile technologists from Switzerland. The association between these two companies is strange, and their flagship product is even stranger.

QR Code Scarf by Lendorff Kaywa

QR Code Scarf by Lendorff Kaywa

It’s essentially a scarf with a large QR code knit into the tail. It’s not really clear where the QR code leads, or if you can even request a certain URL for your scarf. I guess you just buy a scarf and find out later exactly what you’re advertising on your chest. If you don’t like where your QR code leads, then you’ll probably like it even less when people chase you with a smartphone trying to get a clean read on your scarf. This is mostly fashion, very little function.

#2: New York Subway Ad by Pix 11

While this QR code attempt isn’t particularly obnoxious, it does have some fatal flaws. The small, unobtrusive code doesn’t overtake the large poster ad, but keep in mind that this poster exists underground in a New York subway tunnel.

Underground QR Code Advertisement in New York City

Underground QR Code Advertisement in New York City (image source: splatf.com)

Cell phone reception is very poor at best underground. The fact that it leads to a video download – a much bigger file than a webpage or image – only compounds the problem. I’m not sure this QR code campaign was thought all the way through, and for that reason, it earns its spot among the 5 worst. (JetBlue had a similar advertisement involving QR codes several hundred feet underground.)

#3: QR Codes on Direct Mail Envelopes by Geico

I hate to pick on Geico; their advertising is better than most, and they really do offer good insurance. But, their combination of direct mail and mobile marketing is a little questionable. Geico experimented with QR codes on the outside of direct mail envelopes.

GEICO's Confusing QR Code Envelope

GEICO's Confusing QR Code Envelope (image source: blog.euservices.com)

Do I scan it or open it? The biggest challenge in direct mail marketing is getting the recipient to open the envelope. These QR codes are on the outside of the envelope, distracting the customer and even discouraging them from opening it.

If the customer opens the envelope, it’s a failed mobile marketing initiative.If they scan the QR code, it’s a failed direct mail campaign. It’s almost as if Geico’s mobile marketing team and their direct mail team are having some kind of contest to determine which will prevail between cutting-edge, experimental mobile marketing and tried-and-true direct mail. Whether the recipient chooses the code or the envelope, Geico ends up with wasted effort. The customer might just neglect the confusing envelope entirely, which would be doubly bad.

#4: QR Codes on Croatian License Plates by Bruketa & Zinic

Bruketa & Zinic proposed that all Croatian license plates display a QR code that leads to the Croatian Tourist Board’s website. This would supposedly promote tourism, but I’m guessing it would only promote car accidents.

QR Codes on Croatian License Plates

QR Codes on Croatian License Plates (image source: bruketa-zinic.com)

What could be safer? You simply take one hand off of a wheel while driving, look down at your smartphone, thumb to your QR code app, and then attempt some one-handed, high-speed tailgating on the Croatian car in front of you while desperately pointing your smartphone at its license plate. If you happen to scan it, you can then browse a tourism website while you continue to drive (recklessly) on Croatia’s narrow, twisty, mountainous roads.

I’m guessing this effort to increase the amount of tourists with mobile marketing might actually decrease the amount of tourists, because they’d all be dying by rear-end collision or by accidentally driving off a Croatian cliff.

#5: QR Codes on Tombstones

I don’t mean to disrespect the dead or the mourning, but I was very surprised to learn that quite a few dead people have QR codes on their tombstones. These often lead to websites that state obituaries and information about the deceased.

QR Codes on Tombstones

QR Codes on Tombstones? (image source: abcnews.com)

This is problematic for a few reasons. First, QR codes are not exactly mainstream, and they might never be. Not every graveyard visitor has a scanning app, or even knows what a QR code is. Less tech-savvy visitors are essentially left in the dark. Second, QR codes could become just another fleeting fad. Would you want a Betamax biography to serve as your lasting impression on the planet? Or perhaps an autobiography available only on MiniDisc? QR codes may look silly in a few years, and I can’t think of anything more permanent than a tombstone. Third and most important, it involves the upkeep of a website about the deceased, which is likely left to an aging widow(er) or descendant who isn’t always a web or mobile enthusiast. They might just want closure, and updating their deceased spouse’s website to be HTML7 compatible or iPhone 8 compatible would be painful for a lot of reasons.

Conclusion

QR codes are a highly experimental technology. It’s not surprising that we’ve discovered a wide variety of good and bad ways to use them. This is a common part of any development process: We used to make denim jackets before we learned that it was best to just make jeans. Dimes used to be 90% silver before we realized that the raw metal was worth more than the dime itself. Progress is made through blunders and brilliance; let’s hope that QR Codes find their true purpose and stick around for a while.

Image credit: youngguns.me

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