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When and How to Use Stock Photography

By Burkey Belser
January 22, 2015
When and How to Use Stock Photography

As previously published by Law Practice Advisor.

Not too long ago, I wrote that the indiscriminate use of stock photography is killing brand differentiation. That ruffled feathers among some and created anxiety among others. Here is the original post:

We’ve talked about this a lot. Stock photography needs to die. Yet the pace of business and the demand for more and more imagery constantly drives us back to the stock house. We’re guilty of it, too. But understand, the more you use stock photography, the more you kill your brand because at its core, brand is differentiation. Read this article from Wired Magazine. Yet another voice added to the growing voices that confirms brands on stock are brands on life support.

Okay, that was bold. And I meant it but, without backpedaling, I’d like to clarify when and where stock images have a role in today's brands. I’ll admit I sometimes speak in hyperbole but, like the father in the back of the room at the PTA, I just want to be heard. 

Why Stock Photography… and Why Not

The use of stock photography thrives for two obvious reasons—cost and convenience. Not everyone has illustrators or photographers on staff able to create stunning, appropriate original imagery on demand. Those talents have always been predominately freelanced. As far back as churches, universities and corporations go. Even if an organization did employ a stable of talent, not every demand can be satisfied by the requirements of the job. If the next global meeting is in Fiji and you want to lure meeting-goers with the beauty of the island, then stock is the right answer. We're not trying to be dogmatic or foolish and say stock imagery has no home in your firm's communications. The challenge occurs when "cost and convenience" slide over to "cheap and lazy."  

It's hard to imagine clients today spending $50,000 for five original illustrations for the firm brochure, but 20 years ago, this was not at all uncommon. We commissioned such assignments all the time. Imagine spending the same amount for creative photography for the same purpose. Actually, $50,000 or $100,000 would have seemed like a bargain to market leading companies before the Internet. Today, stock is so convenient and inexpensive that marketers turn to stock before they turn to their creative imaginations. The results are predictable, especially when the team culling (and “calling”) the shots is not particularly talented. (Not you, of course, or anyone on your staff but, you know… others. 

The result? The images on your website appear on your fiercest competitor's. The ad four pages away from yours uses the same imagery as yours… but with a different headline. “Cheap and lazy” comes with risk.  

There's another important reason stock photography thrives: human behavior. Although each of us wants to feel we are distinct and different, there is a common thread to our behavior well documented by social scientists. We embrace our similarities (conformity) much more easily than we celebrate our differences. (http://scienceblog.com/29223/is-there-a-lowest-common-denominator-in-human-behaviour/) We're almost certainly not aware that over the past 15 years we have driven original creative imagery out of the center to the periphery of marketing. You ask, “If everyone does it, then how bad can it be?”

Pretty bad. 

The Internet itself is half the problem. Not only does it deliver convenient images, it delivers quite beautiful imagery for pennies. It’s a beguiling Siren call. Dangerous and deadly, even tied to the mast, we are lured by stock. 24/7 communication feasts on imagery, gorges on it like Cyclops on Odysseus’ mates. Never has the demand for imagery been more incessant. Just feeding the marketing beast is, for most companies, an endless task. It’s so much easier to just let go and sink into the boundless ocean of stock… 

Stock Photography and the Do-It-Yourself Brand

…which has unexpectedly led to another issue we have also discussed in other articles: the demand for the Do-It-Yourself brand. This is a completely reasonably, smart client demand. Hire talent to give you the strategy, look and feel and framework, then they pass the baton to you and you take over. Your one-time investment will be amortized over the years. Does this work?  

Well, yes. In fact, we invented the idea of brochure systems clients built around charts, graphs, lists, maps and images. Understand the basic structure and philosophy behind the system and clients maintain these beautifully. Under this structure, routine chores like newsletters, alerts and social media survive pedestrian copywriters and trite imagery when the superstructure of the brand is strong enough. (The “superstructure” is the voice, tone and design elements in combination.)

Well, no. If you choose to maintain your brand entirely in-house without regular consultation from your brand design firm, your challenge is formidable. You must have unusual talent, clear and detailed brand standards and standards police in place to have even a prayer of brand survival. Typically, brands crumble like sand castles—lightly at first from sheer gravity, the grains loosen and slide, then the entire structure dissolves as waves of partners or executives assault the brand for their own interests all while budgets shift. Soon enough, brand has disappeared and someone else arrives with a shovel and pail wanting to create a new one. We’ve seen this so many times we can write the script… which is why we’re writing this chapter of our Branding Field Guide.

Your Takeaway

Firms and associations are not Fortune 100 companies with $100 million budgets. Your marketing budgets allow relatively few impressions on targets, so few that you cannot afford to waste a single one. We appreciate the financial reality and the competition from elsewhere in the organization for the marketing dollar. The problem is your most important marketing vehicles—your website and brand advertising—cannot survive the poor driving that stock brings to the wheel. Weak images equal weak brand expression.

Brands can run off the road for any number of reasons but the real reason is the “brand” isn’t understood or valued highly enough by its caretakers. If you care about your car enough, you’ll maintain the engine, retouch the paint, keep it clean. If you don’t know anything about cars, you certainly don’t make the repairs yourself. You take it into the shop. How well do you understand “brand?” If not so well, then take it to the shop every now and then.

Use stock photography appropriately when the occasion demands or when the images are not central to the brand. Repeat: not central to the brand. Not all images are created alike. A blog post can carry stock imagery but a brand advertising campaign shouldn't touch them unless they are selected by your agency. Self-serving? You bet. We care about our work. Serving you? We think so. Birthing brands is tough enough; raising them is much harder.