Why QR Codes Work in Japan and Not Here (Mobile Marketing)

Japan QR Code commercial

The big mobile marketing attention-getter on Twitter yesterday was “Why QR Codes Won’t Last,” a blog post by Jon Barocas on Mashable.com.

John brings up some great points about the limitations of QR codes in favor of what he proposes to be its replacement, visual mobile search. The main problem with QR codes is that not very many consumers seem to know how to use them.

Before we jump into the future, though, let’s take a look at the past to find out why QR codes are accepted in their home country of Japan.

The QR code was invented and patented (yes, patented) by Denso Wave, a division of Toyota. It was designed for the automotive industry, but the patent was not enforced in order to allow widespread acceptance. In my interactions with other mobile developers, I’ve had the good fortune to correspond with two other Americans who lived and worked in Japan as mobile developers. They told me about QR codes long before I saw my first one here. QR codes are no longer a novelty in Japan, and their use is widespread.

I am based in San Diego, California, and QR codes are everywhere here. We even have surf shops where every single item has its own barcode. When I travel, I notice almost every airport sign has a QR code and they are starting to creep into the advertisements in the inflight magazines, too.

So, if marketers are so excited about QR codes, why aren’t people using them like they do in Japan?

The missing piece of the puzzle is, of course, education. Most American consumers don’t know what a QR code is or how to use it. In Japan, DoCoMo, the Japanese telecom, sponsored full television advertising campaigns. Yes, DoCoMo paid to teach people how to use them.

Here is an example of a Japanese QR Code commercial. If you can’t see it embedded, here is the direct link: : www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxFR6r-Dqk4

It seems the obvious answer is that if marketers want consumers to do more than look confused while contemplating a QR code, they are going to need to step up to the plate and show America (and other countries) how to use them.


4 Responses to “Why QR Codes Work in Japan and Not Here (Mobile Marketing)”

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  1. Jonathan says:

    Feature phones (which still make up jand-held devices in Japan) come pre-installed with QRCodes scanners. There are more users use their mobile than their desktop. And as 14-34 year olds are out of the house going shopping, hsnging with their friends; the only way to attract this group is by advertising where they roam. Keep in mind that in Tokyo, everything is condensed. In other words, in a minutes walk, one could pass 3 restaurants, 4 boutiques, a few bars and a couple of real estate companies. Advertising nearby could attract consumers. Also keep in mind that the majority if japan does not have street names- they use a block system. They call them “chome”. And to find these “chome” names are quite hidden within the advertising. How to give them directions to these places? Qr codes.
    America is slowly incorporating them. There seems to be an overconfident state of mind of business owners that think qr codes are useless. They have no idea how many users out there use these qrcode readers. If mobile carriers pre-install qrcode scanners (next to the email and call icons on their screens), there would be more qrcode users. Until such large company owners who still hold onto their blackberries, it may take some time for qr odes to hit mainstream here. Sad but true. We can simply say that qr odes will be big here but not as fast as it had grown in Japan. Hence Asia is far more advanced than we are.

    Btw, I have lived and worked in Tokyo for over 14 years. Spent half of my time working in the mobile design and development industry

  2. Holly Kolman says:

    Jonathan, thank you so much for stopping by. You are one of the mobile developers I had in mind when I wrote the article. That is interesting to note that the QR codes are built into the phones. I was having a discussion about QR codes with my husband today, and he reinforced the idea that most people do not know they have to download an app to read a QR code, or how to use that app once it is installed.

    As always, it’s great to learn your perspective.

    Kind Regards,


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