In today’s modern marketing world of high-volume content needs, tight timelines and decreasing production budgets, stock photography and videography has become a ubiquitous tool for brand content creation. Stock has been around for almost 100 years now, so this is nothing new. And with the realities of Covid over the last year, stock usage has become widely pervasive in brand communications regardless of marketing budget. Case in point: Superbowl Stockgate.
We all know the benefits of stock. It’s cheap. It’s fast. It requires minimal production. It’s there at a moment’s notice. And it’s not going anywhere.
In fact, the popular stock site Unsplashed has everyone from independent bloggers to large publishers, and small businesses to Fortune 500 companies using their platform touting 110 million image downloads a month.
But what are the risks? When do the benefits become counterproductive to larger marketing goals and initiatives? What role does it or should it play in your brand toolkit? And how do you weigh out short versus long-term implications for both brand and business?
I’m not here to advocate against stock photography or videography. We use it every day in support of client and agency initiatives. The following seeks to provide some critical considerations in evaluating the role visual stock plays in a brand ecosystem, and how invested—or dependent—you may be on it as a go-to solution and potential outcomes of that.
#1 BRAND RISK – Are you willing to jeopardize the work and investment done to date?
Whether you are investing thousands or millions of dollars in your marketing efforts, everything you do—from brand architecture and product design to brand identity, communications and user experience—is in effort to create a unique brand that resonates with your target consumer and supports business growth.
By its very nature, stock isn’t original. It’s seldom ownable. And what you do or don’t have rights to use for commercial use may be a little fuzzy.
Stock provides generic scenes with generic backgrounds that allow the content to be of use to the greatest number of creators—it’s how the industry makes money. Additionally, unless you invest in exclusive usage, there’s no guarantee that your direct competitor isn’t using the exact same stock image you are. Often times, even when you buy category usage, that doesn’t mean that same assets won’t live elsewhere in your target consumer’s purview. Most stock image companies sell assets non-exclusively, meaning that literally anyone can purchase and use them. This becomes more prevalent at lower price points.
If you are using stock, use it sparingly and consider how you may be able evolve a stock asset into something more unique to your brand. Make sure the creators you are working with are doing basic image searches to better understand where else an image may live out in the world before usage. And lastly, make sure you have rights to use what’s in the photo or video, not just the photo or video itself.
A few years ago, the USPS was ordered to pay out $3.5 million for using what they believed was a stock image of the Statue of Liberty on a stamp issued in 2010. However, the stock image was actually a photo of another artist’s sculpture depicting the Statue of Liberty at Las Vegas’s New York-New York hotel.
#2 INHERENT BIAS VS NEW NARRATIVES – Are you a follower or a leader?
Another common downside of stock is that in effort to be more accessible to the greatest number of people, the content—and even the algorithms themselves—can ironically be homogenous, predictable and stereotyping.
It’s hard to change a category, tell a new story or resonate with your consumer in a new way, when you’re working from an archaic system. Now, there are a number of emerging platforms and brands working to change this—which is awesome.
But, relying on others for content, also means your brand is only able to move as fast as others actively working on change, and, as a marketing leader, you are betting on the fact that the end result of someone else’s efforts will be relevant to your industry, brand, product and consumer.
Consider the following in your visual brand representation—whether when leveraging stock or original content.
- PRESENCE – Who is physically depicted?
- PERSPECTIVE – Through whose lens are we seeing this character? How are you presenting people?
- PERSONALITY – Are your characters defined by one characteristic or something deeper? Is this a REAL person or a representation of one?
- PRESUMPTION – Are you making presumptions based on personal bias that considers something as “normal” and something else as “other?”
- REPRESENTATION – Are you acknowledging the varied and complex nature of human identifiers or are focused on checking a box? This may include, but is not limited to: ability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, body image, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, family of origin, family composition, geographic or regional background, language and social beliefs.
#3 CONSUMER CONNECTION + EXPERIENCE – Are you investing in your customers in the same manner you want them to invest in you?
Original content costs money. But it also carries with it an intrinsic, tangible authenticity, and allows us to bring really big ideas to life that move business.
While visual stock assets can support important supplemental needs, they can’t capture what your brand, business or consumer is all about. Compromises need to be made to find an image or video that is “good enough.” And this comes across to your customers when they engage with the content. A little here and there is okay. Customers get it. They understand how marketing works. But they also understand how marketing works. Repeated inauthentic connections across multiple touch points in your brand system degrade experience. And degraded experience affects loyalty, trust and preference. You’re saying to them: they’re not as important to you as they are to other brands that provide authentic content and along with it perceived ownership. Whether that’s true or not, consumers don’t live in a vacuum and hold you to the standard of most, if not all, brands they engage with in and outside your category.
Additionally, is it incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to bring a unique concept to life when limited to using stock. These assets were not created with your brand, key message or creative concept in mind. Creators often find themselves spending unrealistic amounts of time scrolling through pages and pages of stock to find something that fits to save time and money on a project—putting in more hours with less success. Unique or original concepts may end up needing to be reworked to fit available assets—often breaking down the concept carefully crafted to your unique brand and strategy.
SHORT-TERM VS LONG-TERM COSTS
At the end of the day, stock is an incredibly useful tool to have in your brand toolkit. But leveraging it too much as a quick-fix or supplemental resource for your larger ecosystem will have long-term effects on any brand. While budget and timing pressures are real, not seeing the forest for the trees more often than not requires exponentially more money and time for fixes down the road. – SA