Take Stock of How Photography Represents Your Brand

Summit Financial ResourcesPhoto credit: David Buttigieg 

Brands Need a Language of Imagery

Branding and Identity Systems, in any budget, need a considered image language as much as a color palette, editorial style and type treatments. The image language is a fundamental tool that brings a brand to life. That language, well executed, creates a brand world that the audience can really be immersed in. Picasso may have never painted a fire hydrant, but we have an idea of what a Picasso fire hydrant might look like, and we’d probably be able to recognize a Picasso hydrant in the wild — so too a brand can evolve an imagery language that impresses and endures.

One of the greatest brand imagery evolutions (that started as a combination of image and technique) can be seen in the 2000 – 2007 Target retailer ads. Conventional product shots were presented in one hue, saturated and repeated in patterns, creating a kaleidoscopic and surreal effect. Humble, household CPG reached orgasmic visual appeal in easily iterated brandscapes that have become as iconic as Warhol’s Soup Cans. Sometimes the treatment is stronger than the shots, and often, a strong treatment is most recognizable.

The Stock vs Shoot Conundrum

Professional photography is often superior to stock photography — while some stock may be beautiful, shot very well and in context may really work, it’s the process that makes a creative idea come to life. When working with a professional photographer, the concept drives the process and the process discovers more in the concept as the shoot unfolds — the result is exponential, truly unique and indelible. When creators are searching for stock images, the concept can get warped and watered-down by what’s available, making for weak copy/image connections, or worse, forcing great copy and strategy to be re-written to accommodate the lowest common denominator.

For some clients, professional photographer fees are out of the question. Sometimes it’s a lack of resources, but often it’s perception. Deena Fayette at The Via Agency in Portland ME, often approaches the problem this way:

“Clients sometimes don’t believe that a shoot is necessary, so we go through the process of doing a full stock search to prove that a shoot is the only way to go. Then we present them the photography option and try to make it palatable cost-wise. Cost is usually the driving factor as to why clients are hesitant to do a shoot. A lot of times the only stock images that come close are rights managed, so depending on the usage sometimes the shoot is the best approach creatively and financially.”

For small enterprises, when the money simply isn’t there, a brand can get some real traction out of stock images if the process is driven by a rich brand story and if both client and creators have a lot of flexibility.

If Using Stock Photography, Own It

If you must use stock, own it. Own the rights and own the treatment. Random stock images vaguely referencing the copy ideas around them do not communicate — they are mute decorations painting your brand irrelevant and removed. When developing a system of images for your brand communications, you can own the images and create a real impact by doing the following:

  1. Develop a great brand story. The stock images you source will only communicate as well as there is a good story to tell. Rich copy will always generate an engaging image concept — images that just label your brand for the industry it’s in, or for the basic idea of what you are offering, will always fall flat. Particularly, over-used metaphors like light bulbs, globes, puzzle pieces, etc. can be harmful to a brand in just how brutally banal they are.
  2. Search like crazy. Do your best to choose images that suit some highly developed messages very well. You may search a bunch of stock houses to find a good grouping like Corbis and Veer. You can also send specific requests to your account rep. and get them to help you hunt down something specific and special.
  3. Retouch. Some images will need some love. All of them will need a re-toucher to align the lighting and color palettes more closely. This is especially important for images going to press.
  4. Add graphics, intelligently. There should be opportunity in a well- articulated identity system to develop a treatment or a graphic that brands the images. In 2002, for Cadwalader, I presented an imagery concept for their web site where I had all the stock images changed to black and white, and then colored one object in each image. This created an instant protagonist aligned with messaging that spoke to individuals looking to have a career at the prestigious law firm — a place in the Cadwalader story.
  5. Be consistent, but don’t be inflexible. The treatments described above could be applied to many different ideas and layouts consistently but with enough variety that the brand feels alive — leaving room to evolve over time. In 2007, I developed an identity system for Summit Financial Resources based on the order, balance, logic and dimension personified in their logo. I articulated the brand concepts using stock photos by creating graphic treatments that link the messages to the images. That simple idea has gotten more visual depth as the brand story got more editorial depth. Summit now has a full, flexible and modular system that iterates easily in all media.
  6. Avoid the typical pit-falls. Sometimes it’s not the stock image’s fault. Here’s a great article describing typical stock image mistakes from @designshack.

Have you used stock photography to your client’s advantage or disadvantage? Please share.

One Comment
  1. The reason this beautiful Summit system works so well is that Christa ties it together using the graphic language from the logo. Pieces of the logo come apart, get bigger and smaller, are shaded and translucent — and these dynamics allow the imagery to come alive. Best of all, it’s subtle and therefore very effective.

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