QR codes have been around for years but it took a global pandemic to make them mainstream for businesses and individuals.
On August 17, 2021, 22-year-old Italian student Andrea Colonetta got a QR code icon tattooed on his arm. The reason? It was a social experiment. “I wanted to do something new to remember this period in time and I wanted the idea to be as original as possible,” Colonetta tells us over email.
This particular QR code links to Colonetta’s Green Pass, an entry card for people that have been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from COVID-19. The card, which is widely used across Europe, is required for indoor dining and accessing public spaces, such as museums, gyms, concerts, and sports stadiums. After getting inked, tattoo artist Gabriele Pellerone tested the QR code’s effectiveness in front of a TikTok live audience and sure enough, it scanned.
In a post-peak COVID world where vaccine passports are likely to play a big role in our future, having yours permanently tattooed isn’t a terrible idea. Thanks to QR codes, vaccine passports are easily accessible on phones, ensuring a much smoother entry process than carrying around a paper card. Before they were used for proof of vaccinations, QR codes played a major role in aiding people and businesses during the pandemic.
From shopping to banking, over 11 million American households reportedly scanned a QR code in 2020. This is one growing trend that is providing a solution for all of users’ accessibility needs, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Here’s how the QR code evolved, and what the future holds for the multi-faceted barcode.
Andrea Colonetta shows his QR code tattoo on Instagram
How QR codes work and their history
The Quick Response code, better known as QR code, is a scannable barcode invented by the Japanese corporation Denso Wave in 1994. QR codes are made up of a series of pixels that store encrypted data in a two-dimensional square grid. When a QR code is scanned, it leads you to websites, apps, personal accounts, payment information, coupons—the list goes on.
Although they have been around nearly 30 years, QR codes didn’t become mainstream until social media and smartphones with cameras became the norm.
Social messaging app Snapchat was among the first, acquiring the QR code startup, Scan.me in 2014 and integrating them into their platform as an effortless way for peers to follow one another. SnapCodes (the platform’s version of a QR code) became a hot topic on social media, with users posting theirs to network and grow their audience.
In 2016, Twitter took a page out of SnapChat’s playbook and launched its own profile QR codes. Apple followed suit one year later, adding QR readers to all of its iPhone cameras. Next came the mobile payment service Venmo implementing QR codes on user profiles, making it easy to find friends’ profiles and quickly transfer money. QR codes had officially taken off.
QR codes during COVID
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, QR codes began popping up everywhere. The early adopters were restaurants and bars, cleverly creating QR code menus that were fully accessible by phone, as the virus provoked a shift to health and safety measures that demanded touchless interactions. According to the National Restaurant Association, over 50% of full-service restaurants now use scannable QR codes, and more are expected to follow.
Jeff Katz, managing partner of fine dining restaurant Crown Shy in downtown New York uses QR codes for the restaurant’s food and drink menus, and has since expanded their use to include his new restaurant Saga and cocktail bar Overstory. “QR codes have been a tremendously useful tool over the last 18 months,” he shares over email.
Restaurant staff aren’t the only ones who have embraced an alternative solution to physical menus during COVID. According to Technomic, close to a third of consumers said single-use menus would make them feel safer about returning to restaurants once they reopened after the pandemic closures, while a survey from QSR Web found that 45% of people would rather review the menu and order on their phones over interacting with a server.
As health fears grew, online payment platforms quickly responded to the need for touch-free transactions by implementing QR codes into their software. In May 2020, PayPal rolled out a QR code payment system that enabled users to buy and sell products in 28 markets worldwide.
In November 2020 touchless payments expanded into retail, with CVS Pharmacy being the first retailer in the United States to offer touch-free checkouts through the use of Venmo and PayPal QR codes.
QR code benefits for businesses
In addition to COVID-19 safety, Katz also sees QR codes as a solution for restaurants’ environmental waste, and says that digital menus means no longer wasting paper printing new menus for every evening shift. He says he is also confident in the continued use of QR codes at cocktail bar Overstory on the 64th floor. “I’d hesitate to use paper menus for fear of them flying away.”
In the art world, museums were one of the earliest adopters of QR codes from 2009, sharing them to guide visitors through exhibitions and expand the amount of information available for each artwork. The use of QR codes in a museum has a range of important benefits: helping provide accessibility for those who may have learning disabilities or physical limitations, as well as attracting a diverse audience. In 2020, it was reported that 31% of museums in Italy were using QR codes, while 41% planned to use them in the future, as needs for distanced exhibitions grew during the pandemic.
For corporations, QR codes can create a direct line of access for brands to reach consumers through marketing and promotions. In February 2021, Nike teamed up with luxury Japanese brand Ambush to design an exclusive sneaker, and used QR codes to promote a raffle for the shoes on its SNKRS app.
Small scale businesses, too, are finding useful and unique ways to leverage QR codes as a tool for their customers. Ben the Painter, a professional residential painter and Linktree user in New South Wales, Australia expanded his business marketing by placing Linktree QR codes as stickers on his trucks, making it easy for potential customers to discover and order his services (here’s a guide on how to download your QR code from Linktree).
Ben added the Linktree QR code integration when setting up his Linktree account, and chose to add a custom image of an owl to the center of the QR code. He then took the downloaded PDF of his custom code for his local print shop to digitally print it as a sign and vinyl sticker. “The process was very easy and I go back to work next week and will be using that trailer for marketing soon,” Ben shares over Instagram DM. “My signage works on every job so I know 100% the QR code plus using it set up with Linktree is going to be a win.”
Ben is one of many people downloading Linktree QR codes (a free feature) to promote their business or grow their brand. According to recent Linktree data, more than 1.3 million visitors to Linktree accounts have come from QR codes in 2021 so far, and more than 180,000 Linktree users have downloaded their QR code in the last 90 days.
How influencers use QR codes
Influencers are finding the most creative ways to promote their brand holistically with QR codes. Skip rope influencer Carter, better known by his Instagram handle Skip Hip Hooray, cleverly branded the back of T-shirts with a large QR code after entering a Linktree QR code competition in 2020. His innovative idea led to Carter winning a lifetime Linktree PRO membership.
Linktree user Skip Hip Hooray placed a QR code on the back of T-shirts and won a lifetime Linktree PRO membership.
Carter attributes a lot of his social media growth and the reach of his custom skipping playlists to the marketing efforts of his QR code T-shirts and stickers marketing efforts. “I will certainly continue to use QR codes after the pandemic, as they have become a vital part of my business and created a low barrier for entry when customers would like to learn more about what I do,” Carter says.
From the early 2010s days of Tumblr, artist and Creative Director Sean Brown began adding QR codes in emails that linked out to playlists, which could be accessed by users through phone scanning apps such as Quick Scan. Brown was inspired by the QR code links he saw next to artworks at exhibits at the time and began implementing the codes into Needs & Wants Paper—a bi-annual lifestyle publication he launched in 2014—to lead people to more information. “I was only thinking about the future of convenience, COVID made QR codes about the future of safety,” Brown says.
As Brown continues to be at the forefront of artistic innovation, QR codes are a big part of his journey. In 2019, Brown opened a bookstore in Toronto that sold only one item: a photo book he had created titled “In No Particular Order,” which was a visual essay on the subjects of travel, research, and design, mostly captured on an iPhone 5s. Brown’s bookstore was just a display, though, so all purchases had to be made by scanning the QR code in the window.
So what’s next for the influencer? Brown is currently iterating a QR code paperweight that will function as a piece of art while connecting users to an exclusive ever-changing musical playlist.
Are QR codes safe?
Like most modern technology, there is bound to be a certain level of risk with storing personal information. However, there’s been a high level of communal trust displayed in QR codes worldwide. In China, about 1.5 trillion dollars in payments were processed via QR codes in the fourth quarter of 2019 alone. Over in the United States, the largest companies accepting QR codes are household names like Apple Pay, Amazon Pay and PayPal.
That’s because once a QR code is printed, the URL it goes to cannot be changed or tampered with. As an added layer of security, many companies are now using secure watermarks to protect their QR codes from hackers. Still, as a user, it’s always a good rule of thumb to implement two-factor authentication to private apps and webpages for general safety measures.
The future of QR codes
QR codes are providing additional value for businesses by the day and are expected to become a vital piece of the customer journey. As collecting user data becomes more difficult due to increases in data privacy laws, QR codes help businesses follow a customer’s actions, and ultimately access their consumer’s needs.
Meanwhile, for individuals navigating this new landscape of vaccine passports and touchless interactions, quick response codes will continue to be used for the purpose of public health and safety, as well as the increasing desire for daily access and convenience in all facets of our lives.
Brown envisions a future where QR codes are the centerpiece of our connectivity and accessibility. “We use QR codes everyday. I think it’s one of those things that’s here to stay, like high speed internet. It’s a part of our post-COVID world.”
Living in a world where QR codes are second nature may not be here—just yet—but with an abundance of information at users’ fingertips, QR codes are here to stay.
About the author: Gustavo Oliver is a marketing consultant and freelance writer living in Los Angeles.