Why brands are putting QR codes on everything

When QR codes were introduced to consumers in the early 2000s, they were a gimmick. Now brands are putting them to all sorts of uses.

Cocokind added QR codes to its packaging in March 2021. (Photo: Cocokind)


Ju Rhyu’s mantra for 2021? Put a QR code on it.

Following a successful TV experiment, the founder of pimple patch brand Hero Cosmetics is bullish on the powers of this not-so-new tech. The brand had been featured in a segment on The Today Show, which saw a QR code flash on screen, directing people to Hero Cosmetics’ products on Amazon. Sales that day jumped 70%, Rhyu says.

“It’s interesting because QR codes never took off in the U.S. – until Covid,” she reflects. “People are getting used to using them, and I think that’s really what drove the increase in sales that we saw.”

Now she’s considering putting QR codes on everything. A new lineup of products coming out this fall will feature QR codes to give customers more information on the products, while an upcoming sampling campaign will use QR codes to direct people to purchase full-sized products. Rhyu also wants to use them to add a digital element to its brick-and-mortar retail experiences, with QR codes placed near the products on the shelf.

“I’m really eager to be one of those brands that really embraces [QR codes] in a much bigger way,” she says.

The QR code’s comeback

Hero Cosmetics is not the only brand that’s been experimenting with QR codes. Yesterday, sustainable apparel brand Pangaia announced that it would be adding product-specific QR codes to its garments, which provide information on the product’s production impact. In March, skincare brand Cocokind released a packaging update complete with a QR code that shoppers can scan to learn more about the brand’s sustainability efforts. Florence by Mills, the beauty brand founded by actress Millie Bobby Brown, uses a Snapchat QR code as a gateway to its makeup try-on service, which uses an augmented reality Snapchat filter. Sunscreen brand Supergoop uses QR codes on its Sephora retail displays, while seltzer brand Recess has QR codes on its cans that take users to a meditative cloud-popping game.

But while many direct-to-consumer brands are learning that QR codes can help them with something they’ve been doing all along – blurring the lines between digital and physical retail experiences – this technology is hardly new.

In 1994, the QR code was invented by Masahiro Hara, an employee at Japanese automotive firm Denso Wave, who was trying to find a more efficient way to manage the company’s parts inventory. The codes were considered a significant step up from the barcodes that came before them, capable of handling up to 200 times more information.

A hit in the manufacturing industry, when it came to consumer-facing retail and marketing settings, QR codes struggled to take off.

“When QR technology was first introduced [to consumers], you needed a third party app,” Jim Norton, chief revenue officer of Flowcode, a QR code software provider whose clients include Supergoop and pajama brand Lunya. “And, even if you went to that extent, at the time that QR codes were released websites had not been made responsive or optimized for mobile. So by default, you just got a really poor user experience.”

Norton says the resurgence of QR codes today is attributable to two things: Apple’s 2017 update that allowed QR codes to be scanned via the iPhone camera (with other smartphone makers following suit) and – unsurprisingly – the pandemic.

“The tailwind of the pandemic has been consumer adoption of scanning QR codes,” Norton says. “Because for the last 15 months we’ve essentially lived in a contactless world, there’s this ubiquity of QR codes, much of that driven through the restaurant industry.”

He says brands are now using QR codes in increasingly varied ways in order to deliver unique experiences in different settings. From adding a digital element to print advertising to using the tech to reorder items directly from our mobile devices, brands are in the mood to explore what QR codes can offer.

Feals’ packaging – complete with QR codes. (Photo: Feals)

Packaging – but smarter

Since it launched in 2019, CBD brand Feals has used QR codes to link customers to the lab testing certificates for each of its CBD oil batches.

“Providing our customers with visibility into how we’re testing our products has been important from the get-go,” the brand’s cofounder Drew Todd says. “It’s really difficult to provide all of that information on the product, or even in the product information packet, so we realized the QR code was a way to provide, very quickly, a tremendous amount of additional information.”

Transparency is a big issue in the space in which Feals operates: in July 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a study showing that more than half of CBD products are inaccurately labeled.

The QR codes appear on the bottom of the cardboard tubes Feals uses to package its full-sized CBD oils, and on the back of its sampler packs. A scan of the QR codes takes you to the company’s third-party testing certificates, which detail exactly how potent that product is, and also show that it is clear of herbicides, pesticides, and heavy metals.

Todd says a small portion of Feals’ customers use the QR codes – around 5-8% – but that they are easy and cheap enough to add to the packaging that it’s worth it. Feals works with a third-party platform that charges a subscription fee to create, track, and manage the QR codes on its packaging.

Like Hero Cosmetics’ Rhyu, Todd is also wondering how QR codes can be put to use in other ways. “Where out-of-home marketing really lacks is that you have a difficult time understanding impact, but by using QR codes you can see how many people are impacted by that ad,” he says. “Consumers are a little more educated about what to do with [QR codes], but it does feel like we’re in the early innings of adoption.”

What is Thingtesting?

Thingtesting is a database of internet-born brands. We’re building the un-sponsored corner of the internet where consumers can come together to talk honestly about new things. Read more about Thingtesting.

Create a free account so you can make your own lists, whether that’s because you love them or because you want to try them.

Feedback? Yes, please.