September 23, 2021

The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of QR Codes – Why Pharma Marketers Should Care

Young Asian woman looking at smartphone

Why do QR codes seem to keep popping back onto our radar every few years? What do you need to know about them now for your brands? And what are they, exactly, anyway? We’ve got all the answers for you. Let’s begin.

What Exactly Is a QR Code?
A quick primer for sticklers: What you and I might think of as “QR codes” are probably more accurately referred to as “2D barcodes,” a more encompassing term. “QR code” is becoming a proprietary eponym (when one brand name becomes a term for the class of items, as has happened with Kleenex, Xerox, or Coke). Of the three images below, you might call them all QR codes (we would have) but only the image with the three corner squares is, technically, a QR Code. The image with the center square is an Aztec Code, and the one without any is a Data Matrix. But we’ll stick with “QR code” here as a generic term for simplicity’s sake.

Image of Aztec code
Aztec Code. Source: Wikipedia
Image of QR code
QR Code. Source: Wikipedia

The Pandemic and the Return of the QR Code
Around 1994, QR codes were invented to manage inventory in the automobile industry. And that was good. But for them to become part of everyday life, we’d all have to, what, carry around tiny machines that let us scan codes? Obviously, that was the realm of science fiction in 1994. So, as we wore our scrunchies and watched Beverly Hills 90210, QR codes languished, resurfacing every few years but never quite gaining a foothold.

And then … there was a pandemic. And the world suddenly really, really needed a way that people in a certain location could be directed to information, without a person having to stand in front of them offering it. How do you give outdoor diners a menu? How do you get people to complete a COVID questionnaire or register their presence for contract tracing? Particularly if you’d prefer not to clean or dispose of objects, and you don’t want people to have to type a long URL, or share their contact information … QR codes, of course, are the answer.

And while this is happening in front of the consumer, QR codes have become increasingly important for pharma brands behind the scenes. Inventory tracking – their original purpose! – is even more important for medications, considering concerns about counterfeiting and authenticity.  

“I don’t see QR codes going away post-pandemic anytime soon, especially since people are comfortable with them now.” – Andrew Grojean, Associate Director, Innovation

QR Codes in Healthcare and Healthcare Marketing
QR codes can be read by a smartphone’s camera these days; a separate app is no longer needed to read them. And since 85% of Americans have smartphones, that once-significant barrier to QR code use has disappeared. What’s more, Bitly has reported that, over the past 18 months, QR code downloads have increased 750%. Bonus: They work upside-down or sideways, unlike bar codes, and they can hold much more data than a bar code can, making it possible to encode long URLs or open an app.

Intouch innovation expert Andrew Grojean attended the 2020 HIMSS conference and reported that “QR codes were everywhere.” He believes they will be staples in touch-free booths for downloads and contact information even as hybrid conferences turn into in-person conferences. Further, Grojean says, since web augmented reality (AR) is displayed in a mobile browser without any downloading or apps, it’s a really low barrier way to implement AR applications.

So what else can healthcare marketers do with QR codes?

  • Marketing materials. Link to additional, in-depth medical communications in emails, newsletters, flyers, conference posters; consider pre-populating messages to send for an SMS campaign.
  • Medication administration. Inform caregivers and patients about the exact dosage, timing of the medicine, and procedure of the medication to be given, thereby, saving time and error. 
  • Patient education. Explain a treatment, answer common questions, link to videos at the point of care, in HCP waiting and visit rooms.

Next Steps for Brands
Here are a few conversation starters to consider for your brand!

  • What physical locations do your patients, caregivers, healthcare professionals, and office staff frequent?
  • What information can help your customers when they find themselves in those places?
  • Can your patients and HCPs find out more information by QR codes on your materials?
  • Are your global brands considering how QR codes may soon be used to pay for services?

Talk to your Intouch team about how QR codes might be able to help you meet your customers where they are.