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The QR Code Revolution: How Pandemic Revived the QR Technology?

The QR Code Revolution

Short for Quick Response, QR Codes have become ubiquitous in 2023, finding applications in advertising and marketing, asset management, inventory control, digital payments, healthcare, hospitality and education etc.

QR codes, like any other technology did not become an instant success. First invented in 1994 at Japanese auto parts manufacturing company Denso Wave, QR code uses were limited by the technology of the day. Between 2011 and 2012, the QR code utilization witnesses a 4000% increase but scanning a QR code wasn’t a great experience even then. Oftentimes QR code scanning needed a dedicated mobile app installed in your smartphone. Many digital marketing strategies used QR code for promotions and advertisements. The movie Inception (2010) made used of QR codes to hype the mystery around the Leonardo DeCaprio’s movie and made flyers, t-shirts with small QR codes that led to a promotional website: What is Dream Share?, a very cryptic strategy that was quite successful at the moment.  In later years, Google, Mountain Dew, Hershey etc. also used QR codes for promotions.


What is a QR Code?

QR code, full form Quick Response Code, is a two dimensional barcode image with black and white patterns in a square shape. It was inspired by the popular game GO which also has black and white patterns.

Developed in 1994 by a Japanese engineer working at Denso Wave, Masahiro Hara, QR codes can be encode with data such as image, text, PDF, URL, phone number, address etc. As the name, QR codes are very responsive and scan pretty quickly. It can also be written with more data than a traditional 1D barcode, since it holds data vertically and horizontally.

Typically the traditional1D barcodes with actual ‘bars’ can hold as much as 20 alphanumeric characters but QR Codes can hold about 7,089 numeric characters or 4,269 alphanumeric characters. To put this into context, a QR code can hold the 272 words Lincoln Gettysburg address (1863) easily.


When Apple Integrated QR Code Scanning Feature in iPhone

As I said, earlier you needed a dedicated QR Code scanning feature to successfully scan a QR code or a dedicated barcode scanner. Then in 2017, Apple Inc. integrated the QR scanning feature in their iPhone line up (iOS 11 beta) and QR codes got a new life(even though android phones had this feature long before). Quickly many other smartphone manufacturing companies followed suit. It allowed users to scan a QR code directly from the smartphone camera, without needing a third party app.

Given the fact that virtually everyone now has a smartphone and they spend a significant amount of time (avg. USA, 4h) on smartphones, marketers and advertisers got a new chance to target customers through customized QR codes that led to a promotional websites or digital flyer or opened a digital menu.  Digital payments using a QR code also become a thing.

And then came the covid 19 pandemic.


How Pandemic Revived the QR Technology?

According to Statista, a study done in 2020 found that less than 15% respondents had not scanned a QR code and over 30% respondents had scanned a QR code within a week, meaning the pandemic boosted the QR code usage significantly.

The 2-3 years long covid 19 pandemic forced people to minimize the social activities like going out, giving credit cards/debit cards for payments, and social distancing became the norm. People also cut back on cash payments for the risk of catching the covid19 virus, the coronavirus.

This prompted business owners to come with QR code integration in many services as physical menus turned into QR based digital menus, QR based contactless digital payments replaced cash payments/card payments, and QR based digital business cards became popular.

Developing countries such as India with 1.3B population had more stark problems during the coronavirus pandemic. Apart from implementing strict lockdowns, India also promoted contactless digital QR based payments. The UPI (Unified Payment Interface) was integrated with QR technology to allow people to make payments digitally and avoid cash payments and the coronavirus in the process.

The QR code was also used for digital vaccine certificates and contact tracing as well. And Masahiro Hara, now 66, who invented the QR code, was pleased to know that people were using QR code during pandemic for various purposes including safety. He said, “I’m really pleased that it’s being been used to help improve people’s safety,….Back in 1994 we were focused on its use in the economy … we never thought it would be used for something like this.”


QR Codes in 2023

The QR codes have come back. And it has come back with a bang. It’s true that pandemic did boost QR uses to a great extent, but a lot of QR applications that we see today are out of sheer creativity, especially by the advertisers and marketers. Email marketers, social media influencers, digital advertisers, even print, and TV, QR codes have established themselves with great usability and also with a low cost point of view. It’s the cheapest technology to say the least.

To generate a QR code, you can simply go to a QR generating web/app page and do it for virtually free. You can customize it with company logo as well as the desired data, be it a URL, image, text, numbers, address, SMS etc.

Apart from advertising in the form of QR code, on flyers and billboards, QR also finds great application in retail, healthcare, education and hospitality. Restaurants are using it for digital QR based menus which has been a great hit, and saves papers and helps the environment.

Most importantly, QR codes have pushed the digital payments economy in an unimaginable way because in a developing country like India, most people have seen QR, the first encounter being while making a digital payment using QR code and UPI (Unified Payment Interface), an RBI (Reserve Bank of India) payment initiative.

As the smartphone penetration increases in most countries, we are likely to see more QR code adoption  and I’m sure it won’t fizzle out this time around like in early 2010s.


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  • Created on Jul 25, 2023

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