Corporate Eye

QR Codes Find New Life for Brand Marketing in China

QR Code ChinaQR codes were the big buzz a few years ago, but their popularity among U.S. consumers never reached the potential that brand marketers had hoped for. What seemed like a great way to connect mobile consumers with a brand’s digital offerings was viewed by most consumers as inconvenient.

The future looked bright for QR codes in 2011 when QR code scanning skyrocketed by 4549% during the first quarter and 14 million U.S. consumers scanned QR Codes during June. At the time, people who scanned QR codes primarily did so to access discounts, coupons, deals, and information.

However, just a few months later in September 2012, a study found that 60% of U.S. consumers who scanned QR codes did so only one time. Not only did QR codes have a barrier to cross in getting people to try them but also in getting people to use them again after the first trial. That study echoed the results of the June 2011 study and found that people wanted QR codes that gave them access to discounts, coupons, and information about a product or service.

In Europe, hope wasn’t lost for QR codes in 2012. A report from that year found that the number of Europeans who scanned QR codes nearly doubled during 2012 to 17.4 million users. That number was equal to 14.1% of the total smartphone audience in Europe at the time.

A Different Story in China

The debate over the effectiveness of QR codes for brand marketing abated as more marketers shifted budgets away from QR codes in favor of other mobile marketing tactics. However, while all of that was happening in the West, QR codes were doing quite well in Japan and South Korea. Now, Advertising Age reports that QR codes are alive and well and living in China bolstered in part by the highly popular mobile app WeChat (272 million monthly active users), which includes a QR code scanner as part of its social and ecommerce features.

Why are QR codes so much more popular in the East? AdAge speculates that consumer behavior and integration into popular apps like WeChat are two of the primary reasons:

One likely reason for QR codes’ success in China, the world’s No. 1 smartphone market, is that many consumers are more accustomed to mobile internet than desktop computers. To them, using a phone to scan a code comes more naturally than typing a web address. Numbers on usage are hard to come by, but mobile coupon company Imageco tallied 113.6 million QR codes scanned in China in October 2013, up more than 38% from the month before. Some in China use personal QR codes to identify themselves on social media. The codes are also at the heart of a price-comparison app called Wochacha, with 140 million users.

Western brands have had success with QR codes in China, but that same success hasn’t happened at home. Are QR codes dead or is there a chance to give them new life in parts of the world where they haven’t performed well in the past? Ease of use, timeliness, relevance, and payoff are the biggest factors to motivate Western consumers to scan a QR code—not just once but again and again. Can the consumer perception of QR codes be redefined as advances are made in developing visual QR codes that are prettier, interactive, animated, and more interesting? What do you think?

Image: bfishadow

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Susan Gunelius is the author of 10 marketing, social media, branding, copywriting, and technology books, and she is President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company. She also owns Women on Business, an award-wining blog for business women. She is a featured columnist for and, and her marketing-related articles have appeared on websites such as,,, and more. She has over 20 years of experience in the marketing field having spent the first decade of her career directing marketing programs for some of the largest companies in the world, including divisions of AT&T and HSBC. Today, her clients include large and small companies around the world and household brands like Citigroup, Cox Communications, Intuit, and more. Susan is frequently interviewed about marketing and branding by television, radio, print, and online media organizations, and she speaks about these topics at events around the world. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.