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Stock photography and your brand: three questions to ask

Stock photography and your brand: three questions to ask

Slack and Company | November 16, 2017

B2B marketers are asked to be and do many things every day, and that list is growing.

The problem is, those “things” are sometimes at odds with each other. Which is a surefire recipe for needing a good antacid unless, of course, you have a nice decision framework handy.

Today’s challenge: balancing the need to get visually strong content created fast and within budget while standing out and while staying “in brand.”

Specifically, when should you and when should you not use royalty-free (aka “RF,” aka “stock”) photography?

Here’s a thoughtful take from our team of Visual Strategists.

Why does this matter?

In stock photography, as in anything else, you get what you pay for. Royalty-free (RF) stock photography may look like a bargain—especially today with some stock sites touting RF images for as low as $.50 an image for a subscription package of five XXL images.

When budget and the timing of “feeding the content beast” are assaulting your temples, the idea of having a ready-file of images to purchase cheaply and quickly is more than appealing—it’s marketing magic.

Anything that easy, though, is going to have some serious drawbacks, too, and these can ultimately impact your brand.

As a B2B marketer, you know that your brand image should be just as important to you as the quality of your product, and you’re always on guard to protect that image.

So it’s critical to understand that RF collections are marketed far and wide, and some are much better than others. Chances are most agencies and design firms that are doing work for your competitors have the same subscriptions.

And because they’re not rights-managed (RM), anyone can use those images, at any time, for any purpose. That means you’re gambling that the sheer number of images in all the competing RF collections will make a duplicate use unlikely.

In reality, it may seem a safe bet, but there are reasons why sometimes it isn’t. Like for a tradeshow booth. Imagine the embarrassment if you discovered one of your competitors just down the aisle using the same image in the booth imagery. True story. It wasn’t one of our clients, but we discovered it at one of the several shows we attend along with our clients. Which is why for some situations, RM makes sense.

That said, here’s how to think through when RF makes sense and when it does not.

The three key questions to ask

1. Is using RF “in brand”?

For B2B marketers at the top of their games (or with decent brand budget), the answer to this question is hopefully laid out in a brand standards and/or visual identity standards (VIS) document.

When we create a VIS for clients, we almost always* account for the need for stock photography. Knowing they typically don’t have budget for shoots, we provide specific guidelines for what kind and style of images to source, how they can be used and which style of images should be avoided—like cheesy, clichéd handshakes.

*As we’ll discuss in a bit, the very nature of some brand platforms requires exclusivity or specificity of images at all times.

If you have a VIS, start there and stay there.

But what if you don’t? As a brand steward, you’ll need to step back and think about your brand and what it stands for and use those insights to make decisions. If you need to make a one-off decision today, just keep that in mind. But see question #3 for the long-term view.

Using stock means striking a balance between optimizing project costs and maintaining your brand image. Ultimately, you just need to exercise good, discerning judgment.

“It all comes back to, ‘Should I buy pictures or find budget and ask my agency to commission a shoot?’ Obviously shooting your own is great—as art directors, this gives us complete control—but we never rule stock out up front.”

Kim Jones, Design Specialist/Video Production

2. How do you balance brand, budget and time?

If RF use is in brand and you’ve determined you just don’t have the time or budget for your project to hire a photographer, stock agencies such as Getty Images, Shutterstock or Adobe Stock make it easy and affordable to find high-quality visual resources.

That’s why we’ll even recommend stock over custom photography depending on our clients’ needs; the quality of stock photography has risen dramatically, and in just the last decade the entry price of using these assets has plummeted.

You can even get around the “ownability” problem inherent to using stock by pursuing rights-managed photography instead of royalty-free. In that case, you can purchase the license to the image for a limited period of time to legally prevent anyone else in your industry from using it for the duration of the licensing agreement.

“I mean, commissioned photography can also be bad, right? You need to exercise good taste. Your discernment is the X factor that makes your photography good, bad or hilarious.”

John Mork, Senior Art Director/Visual Strategist

3. How do you use RF consistently?

The reason we push for every client to develop a VIS when helping establish the company’s brand or rebrand is exactly so the individual decisions, such as when and how to use RF, are as easy as looking up the guidelines and applying them.

If you lack a VIS, we still recommend that you work with your agency/designer/alter ego marketer or designer to come up with your own guidelines for when and when you don’t wish to use RF and follow those guidelines consistently and share them with all other content creators (getting buy-in as needed).

If your marketing features a haphazard mix of RF and commissioned photography, no matter how careful you are with all the other brand elements, the overall impact of the brand will be greatly diminished.

B2B buyers are, like everyone, increasingly visually oriented and glued to digital visual mediums where they will encounter your brand.

“Deciding to only use stock right from the get-go, no matter what, isn’t a great idea. Then, it's no longer about making the best idea a reality, but about making the most possible idea a reality.”

Mike Ritt, VP, Associate Creative Director

After reading this, have you changed your mind about RF versus RM versus commissioned? Let us know on LinkedIn or Twitter. And if you ever want a second opinion, we’re ready to help.

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