You see a two-way billboard on your way home. On one side, an ad from a diaper company shows a stock photo of a smiling father holding a baby. It’s cute, and easily understood without inspiring curiosity. On the other side, an ad selling life insurance featuring the same image. The fourth wall flickers, and the illusion crumbles: It’s just another soulless ad. Suddenly you’re not in the mood for diapers or life insurance.
It’s an exaggerated scenario, but the one-size-fits-all, hyper-polished sheen of stock photography severs a viewer’s connection with your brand. While their digital accessibility makes them clear candidates for marketing material, there are immediate and long-term ramifications when using them.
Here we’ll learn how they can affect your business, and suggest more effective alternatives.
Stock photos are photos created without a particular project in mind. They’re often called visual clichés, as their “stock” nature makes for easy production and mass distribution. Think of them as the elevator music of the photography world: Soothing with blandness rather than titillating with ingenuity.
Some stock photos can be licensed individually, being anywhere from completely free to costing hundreds of dollars. Their inherent ambiguity also makes them open for use by different industries for different purposes.
But in marketing, the quickest solution is seldom the best. Recall, affinity, and top-of-mind awareness (TOMA) often determine how customers interact with a brand. This is why stock photos hurt your business: You work hard to get your prospect’s eyes on your product or service, only to meet them with materials whose mood board would read “N/A”.
Everyone uses them, including your competitors. There is no guarantee that your competitor isn't using the same stock image you're using on your website or in your marketing materials. Most stock image companies sell those images non-exclusively, meaning anyone can purchase and use them. It's challenging to stand out when your brand looks like another.
They are often ill-fitting or stretched to fit your brand. Your business has an identity of its own, and stock photography puts it in a box. Many stock photos barely fit your business concept, and bring no meaning to the content on your site. Businesses who use them often end up settling for "close enough" rather than perfect. And, given that you likely have some amount of branding present on your site or materials, it also makes your messaging and image inconsistent.
You have little creative control and IP rights. Is your stock photo too bright? Too dark? Does it need cropping? Too bad. There’s little you can do to stock photos in terms of edits and manipulations. The photographer or the image company holds most stock photos' rights, so you would need countless permissions to alter the stock photos—the opposite of what you wanted when you considered stock images in the first place. You also have to provide proper citations for each stock photo you use (if you got it for free).
They don't save you money or time. It seems cheaper to purchase stock photos, but the price adds up when buying new images for every blog or social media post. And if you factor in the time spent searching for the best-fit photo for each mini-project, you spend more time and, by extension, more money.
Stock photos add little to no value to your brand. This is the big one. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a stock photo is the crumpled, clearly-copied-from-Wikipedia entry that gets an F-minus and a “see me after class”. Whenever you lose the chance to connect with your customers, you direct them to your competition. All your competitor needs to do is show a little novelty and creativity to win them over.
These are just a few reasons to avoid stock photography if you want to grow your brand. But hey, it’s not all doom and gloom.
An illustration is an artistic visualization created to explain an idea, concept, or point in simple terms. They seek to communicate, educate, and sometimes decorate. Illustrations are built on an understanding of brand differentiators, and use creative imagery to illustrate what a product or service can do for prospects. It’s why illustrations are in high demand these days.
Illustrated designs would’ve helped the aforementioned diaper company connect with their viewer. It’s the reason we enjoy art: A simple concept beautifully captured lights up our brains. Neurons fire as carefully chosen imagery prompts us to fill in obvious details through context, building a lasting impression that puts your brand front of mind when they need what you offer.
There’s clarity and consistency in your messaging. We’re wired to perceive and process information quickly, and we discard messages or themes that can't be easily grasped. But because we can process visual elements better, concepts and ideas are better understood when illustrated. One study showed that people who followed illustrated instructions were 323% more successful at completing complex tasks than people following non-illustrated ones. Illustrations clarify your brand's message and give you a consistent look that builds brand equity through association.
Your brand can tell a story or direct a narrative. Mobile apps have hacked storytelling through illustrated designs. When looking for an app, the first images you encounter will most likely tell a story about the benefits you’ll enjoy while using said app. This is possible through illustrations that steer a narrative.
Bespoke illustrations give you full control. You can develop an illustration style for your business which complements your brand values, business direction and logo. Maybe your business has a modern edge; calling for vector-based illustrations. Going for a softer feel? Hand-drawn imagery can give you a more gentle feel. With an illustrator by your side, it’s your design and your choice.
It makes your brand inclusive and accommodating. With few exceptions, most brands strive to be accessible. Illustrated designs help your brand achieve this by giving you the flexibility to include different demographics and help bridge cultural gaps. This is another area where stock photography falls short: Prepare for profoundly un-diverse groups of people pointing at pie charts.
You get to excite your customers. People remember beautiful things. Illustrations meet viewers with the right amount of creativity, and leave room for light interpretation. This helps customers see all or part of themselves in your brand, which builds brand affinity.
Knowing when and how to use stock photos is essential. They may cut it for the odd blog, but they can be harmful when used as marketing materials. “Close enough” isn’t good enough for the modern consumer, who has endless options when considering where they take their business. Even if you don't think illustrations are a match for your look and feel, used sparingly in the right places they can have a huge impact. Check out this blog we wrote about customers we've helped find the illustration advantage
Stock imagery can't fully represent your brand, services and products. The associations customers make with your brand are just as important as the quality of your product. The significance and effectiveness of illustrated designs and owned photography assets can't be overemphasized.
You wouldn't slap a sticker on a Bugatti, so why slap stock photos on your brand? Talk to us today and we'll help you get started with illustration.
David is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at Superside. A former journalist with bylines too numerous to enumerate, he brings his love of storytelling and semantics to the marketing world. Recognizing the sizable gaps in the creative-as-a-service (CaaS) sector, he jumped at the chance to fill the creative void for ambitious brands. In his off hours, he enjoys loud music, making vegan meals and being made fun of for making vegan meals. He’ll gladly talk to you about any of the above on LinkedIn.
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