QR codes and AR in print: a marketer’s guide

QR codes and AR in print: a marketer’s guide

The most effective uses of QR codes build additional engagement into printed media, and help brands gain direct relationships with their customers.

Tonya Powers, Director of Marketing Production Print Solutions, Canon Solutions America, notes that ‘print today doesn’t stand separate from your digital strategy.’

In truth, many marketers are probably continuing to treat offline and digital channels as separate domains. Those, however, who are thinking in terms of creating great customer experiences across every channel, are those likely to be earning the greatest customer engagement.

Little surprise, then to see the recent proliferation in technology which enables those customer journeys. QR codes, along with similar technologies which launch online experiences from print media – hereinto referred to as ‘P2O’ (print-to-online tech) – are on the rise. Between 2019 and 2020, the percentage of QR codes in direct mail in the US rose from 3.2% to 8.1%, and they are also now a familiar sight in brand magazines and brochures.


sustainable print

Brands’ motivations for using this tech are varied. Often the hope is to elicit a transaction. Particularly in the publishing industry, P2O is deployed to extend the customer experience with complementary digital content or experiences.

Increasingly, however, the tech these days is more likely to be used to capture direct relationships with customers, and collect insight into their habits and preferences, which you can use to improve the customer experience and tailor more personalized marketing. This is of particular importance in print, given its unique properties as a customer engagement channel, as opposed to a purely transactional one.

Brands should be considering how best to deploy this technology from an informed perspective. There is a wide range of possible applications for P2O technologies, which can be leveraged in different ways depending on your customer behaviour and your business goals. And the QR code, or the augmented reality experience, is only one part of the technology. Features such as the ability to integrate with your brand’s existing apps, or with your enterprise CRM, are also key factors in selecting the right supplier.

This article is intended to benchmark best practice in the use of P2O tech: sharing case studies and expert advice to help you understand the possibilities, set your expectations appropriately, and help you decide how to proceed.

QR codes: beyond the transaction

In September 2021, the cover of Vogue Singapore was emblazoned with a giant QR code. Scanning revealed alternative front covers showcasing digital works by two different artists, each of which is available to purchase at auction. Bidding starts at 12ETH (a digital currency –about £40,000 at time of writing).

fashion cover

Some Vogue readers may have £40k to spend on art; most of them don’t. And if Vogue had wanted to auction off artworks, it could easily have done so through any of its marketing channels.

The rationale becomes clear when you scan and discover that you’ve entered a landing page on the Vogue website; within two clicks, you’re reading fashion editorials on Vogue online, instead of in print.


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A post shared by Vogue Singapore (@voguesingapore)

There are essentially three reasons why a brand might deploy print-to-online tech:

  1. transactional – making offline media shoppable and measurable
  2. engagement: extending the value of print with multimedia content and experiences
  3. capturing first-party data so that the brand can identify customers and maintain a dialogue.

Transactional QR codes have been appearing in catalogues for years now with varying degrees of success. For a long time, the primary motivating factor for companies was capturing direct sales from print.

As Business of Fashion writes, these technologies…

‘…make glossy magazine ads something consumers can browse and shop. It also allows marketers to measure how consumers respond to their ads and monitor the results of their investment.’

This sounds like a great benefit for brands; the all-important question is whether consumers want this media to be shoppable.

To see the risks of getting carried away, you only have to look back 7-9 years to when P2O tech was at the ‘peak of inflated expectations’, on the Gartner hype cycle, and brands were placing them in all manner of ill-thought-out places. Two Guardian journalists even set up a blog, ‘WTF QR codes’, mocking the trend.

Today – with QR codes now on the ‘slope of enlightenment’ – brands are likely to blend multiple objectives, beyond eliciting an immediate action from the customer. The technology places the customer in an environment which may lead to a transaction, or capture some data, or simply improve the customer experience by providing additional content or opportunities to engage.


Print-to-online technologies, such as QR codes and augmented reality, are on the slope of enlightenment in the Gartner Hype cycle.

The Vogue Singapore example would appear to be one of those multi-purpose QR code deployments: making the print more engaging, but also possibly helping to identify customers who picked up the magazine in a shop, and previously had had no direct relationship with the brand.

In another recent example, David’s Bridal, an American designer and retailer of women’s occasionwear, has begun using augmented reality to enhance its customers’ offline shopping experiences.

The brand’s AR experience launches 360° views of their dresses, compiled of highly detailed 3D photography. No headsets or app downloads are required to engage with this technology, making it easily accessible.

Video of the technology:

QR codes are also to be found throughout in Wink, David’s Bridal’s recently launched catalogue.

This is an eminently rational use for the technology. Buying decisions of fashion items, particularly wedding dresses, often take place over weeks and even months. This same factor has always made high-quality print a preferred medium for high-end for fashion brands, since the ability to keep browsing at leisure adds obvious customer value.

Print catalogues have always come at relatively high direct cost to the brand; Wink is free to customers both in-store and online. But according to Vertebrae, the brand’s technology provider, the introduction of AR resulted in a ‘100% lift in conversions to make in-store appointments,’ and a 30% lift in revenue per visit.

One must take a vendor case study with a pinch of salt, but this does indicate the potential for P2O tech to extend the value of print marketing for brands and customers alike.

Adding customer value to print productions

There is a risk, however, that an overly transactional focus may actually deter customers. Julia Raphaely, CEO of Associated Media – which prints Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire – noted the importance of a balance between engagement and product advertising.

‘We started placing [QR codes] around the magazine but in a very integrated way, because you don’t want to suddenly become a catalogue…’

Increasingly, the winning formula for brands is to market around customer engagement, in order to be front of mind when your customer decides to buy.

19 Crimes, an Australian wine brand, used their bottle labels to tell stories in augmented reality. When scanned by a smartphone, the person on their ‘living label,’ will begin to talk, telling the story of a crime they committed.

19 Crimes is a well-known marketing success story in the drinks industry, regularly posting impressive annual growth figures. How much of this can be attributed to the AR campaign is uncertain; what’s clear is that the AR experience adds additional customer value to a product category that’s crowded with poorly differentiated competitors.

GWI’s Connecting the Dots 2021 Report refers to this trend as ‘entertainmerce’: a demand for non-transactional, branded media that seems to be especially pronounced amongst ‘high-income earners and millennials.’

The trend is not restricted to brand marketing. Wild Alchemy Journal, an independent magazine printed by Park, described by its publisher as a ‘mixed media platform’, deploys AR experiences throughout its printed product to launch online content.

independent magazine

These innovations appear to be welcomed by these brands’ audiences, but as P2O tech crops up in more places and industries, it will inevitably become more difficult for brands to differentiate themselves simply by offering things to scan.

To gain long-term, recurring marketing benefits, brands will need to focus on the capture of first-party audience data, in order to gain direct customer relationships and issue personalized marketing.

Building direct relationships with customers

Vogue Business reported this October that ‘the collection of zero-party data is set to be a key priority for marketers.’

‘Zero-party data’ is a marketing buzzword, but it refers to a useful concept. It essentially refers to first-party data which is qualitative in nature. Rather than simply telling you what the customer bought, when, and what their size/age/hair colour is, zero-party data is intended to yield emotional insights such as the customer’s values, interests, and perhaps their dislikes which you might pick up from engagements with customer service.

Breaking dependencies on third-party data is now critical for brands in a world where customers value a direct relationship with the brands they love, and privacy from those they don’t – and where regulators and technology companies are working to enforce these standards.

That has spawned investment in channels where brands own the customer relationship, such as loyalty marketing, and longer-form print, which is increasingly a tactic of brands’ loyalty and CRM teams.

Of course, print lacks the inbuilt feedback loops of loyalty CRM platforms – and print that starts with a brand’s database may also be less measurable than direct mail issued by an agency. Voucher codes may be used, but other measures – of the publisher’s reported database demographics, and short-term spikes in transactions and brand engagement – work more effectively at large scale, than in the thousands or tens of thousands that characterises a typical branded print run.

Print-to-online tools compensate for these economies of scale by providing granular reporting to individual customer-level – if the customer scans – and also yields recurring marketing benefits in the form of rich customer insights, which can be used for further personalized marketing.

This makes them especially useful for the smaller audiences which are characteristic of most direct-to-consumer brands; indeed, print campaigning today is increasingly likely to be tailored to precise customer segments, rather than to broad demographics.

Jen Clinehens, Customer Experience Strategy Director at Havas Global, explains

“Instead of the assumption that you’re going to send out a magazine to your customer base, brands can look at their database and … customise the content to address a particular client or group of customers.

The goal is not to send direct advertising out to everybody, but to craft relationships with customers.”

To find out exactly which customers to send that marketing to, the trick is to pull customers into a digital environment where they can be encouraged to shed insights of ‘zero-party’ quality.

Cocokind, a beauty brand, is a good example. The brand sells direct-to-consumer, but about half its sales are through mainstream retailers – which share little useful data with the brands they sell.

Cocokind’s packaging bears a QR code which prompts the user to scan and learn more about the sustainability of the product.

qr packaging

It’s a little misleading; the scan actually launches a product page where the sustainability information for that item is listed under product information, about two scrolls down the screen (see image below).

Nonetheless, it’s an intelligent data play. In the words of Patrick Kulp, a technology journalist:

‘In some ways, a scan of a QR code is an even more meaningful interaction in terms of reading a consumer’s purchasing intentions than a click or an online view, considering how involved of an interaction it is.’ – (Patrick Kulp, Adweek, 2021)

As a consciously sustainable brand, Cocokind will have calculated that likeminded customers are most likely to opt into the various promotional messages that meet them at the brand’s site. First, you see a prompt to join the loyalty program (‘Club Kind’) in the top banner, followed by a full-screen promotional popup.

It doesn’t matter what kind of interaction occurs. At this stage, simply the capture of an email address would constitute the creation of a piece of zero party data: a first-party datum, with a clear indicator of the customer’s values, that can be used to enhance further marketing.

Choosing the right technology for your needs

Marketing departments who are interested in using these technologies face a wide range of choices. Things to consider include whether your brand has an app, the timeframe of your campaign, the number of scans expected, and the number of copies printed.

Benchmarking by Park has indicated that the running costs for a typical campaign range from a few pounds to a few thousand, whilst setup costs and technology integrations may add a few thousand pounds more. But with so much choice in the market, it’s best to start your thinking with the option which best caters to your business goals.

There are two broad categories of technologies within the realm of print-to-online technologies: AR and non-AR, both of which can be accessed by a user scanning a printed QR code or image with their phone.

AR technology brings together the physical and the digital world and can be used to superimpose digital content over a real-world environment. For example, it can be used to see how a product, such as a piece of furniture, might look in the home, using a smartphone camera.

Non-AR uses of QR codes would involve simply launching a digital environment, such as a website landing page, a social media channel, or online content such as a video.

Beyond this binary, there is an ever-growing range of suppliers with diverse USPs. To illustrate the range of features from four of the providers which Park benchmarked…

  • Thyngs – a QR-code-based solution, whose subscription fees include landing page templates which you can include in your website or app, mitigating the need for developers to create new screens for your campaign.
  • Strax – an American provider which depends on image recognition, rather than QR codes, to launch AR experiences, so that any page can be made scannable. End-users must download the Strax app to engage with brand campaigns.
  • Rezolve – which also alleviates the need for a QR code and is also app-based. Rezolve offers its software development kit (SDK) for free so that brands can integrate it easily into their existing apps.
  • UnifiedAR – an app-free solution with low monthly costs and a very low barrier to entry for brands looking to invest in augmented reality.

These differences highlight the importance of considering your campaign goals before speaking to tech suppliers. No brand is going to build an app for a single campaign – nor will customers download one for a single engagement, although they might download one if the app becomes part of their ongoing relationship with your brand.

On the other hand, without an app, a simple phone camera scan won’t yield any personalised customer insight – so you’ll need to elicit a purchase or data capture to identify customers, or print personalised QR codes so that every customer scans a different code. That, of course, depends on your print reaching a known customer. It also depends on printing digitally, since personalised print cannot be done lithographically.

Many providers also charge a monthly fee for subscriptions. That won’t be an issue for a direct mail piece since the print will likely be thrown away within 30 days. For a collectible brand magazine, you could incur annual costs in the hundreds or thousands of pounds for the QR codes to continue to function.

On the other hand, that may still extend the value of your print investment – since you can change the landing page that the QR code points to. That might mean you can redirect the user to the latest season’s styles, the latest content, or a different style they may like, if the one they scanned has sold out.

Whichever solution you choose, it would be wise to choose a provider which offers easy API integration with your CRM. That will ensure your campaign data can complement existing customer insight, rather than leaving you with a new data silo. Some providers, such as Thyngs and Unified AR, will offer this as part of their service; others will either charge you for a custom integration, or leave you to pay for one at your end. This is likely to cost a few thousand pounds – which won’t deter larger brands, but will send many smaller businesses looking elsewhere.

Harnessing recurring benefits from print marketing

What constitutes wise usage of print-to-online technologies seems to be a question of balance.

On the one hand, the nascent market in print has been caused, at least in part, by fatigue with digital channels. For some customers, print may serve as an escape from the sheer weight and volume of mostly irrelevant brand messaging that characterises the real world.

Doubtless, there’s a risk your customer may reach to scan for a QR code, spot a social media notification, and forget your print entirely – let alone taking the desired action. It seems likely that many people who scan Cocokind’s packaging will never find the sustainability information they were looking for before, because it’s so far down page; these user journeys need to be planned and considered.

On the other hand: digital channels can lend super customer value – such as the opportunity to receive tailored, personalised promotions, to communicate with the brand directly, to participate in promotions, and to engage with multimedia content – which can’t be delivered in print. Failing to anticipate customer journeys and customer relationships which, inevitably, will cross digital terrain, would seem an oversight.

As with all marketing today, the correct approach for your brand and your campaign is one that begins with customer data, and that ends with an enriched customer experience. Whether your comms are issued in print or online, it’s quality and personal relevance that earns you the right to keep the conversation going with your customer. That, in turn, yields the additional insights needed to market to them more effectively next time around.





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