How stock photos can hurt your brand image

by John Furgurson on May 27, 2008

Please, not another image of your “friendly, courteous staff.”

How many times have you heard that cliché on a local radio ad… “our friendly, courteous staff is here to help with all your _______ needs, blah, blah, blah.” Chances are, you changed the channel before they could finish the sentence.

Crummy stock photos have the same effect on people. How many times have you seen this image on a corporate website?

It’s the classic, customer service visual cliché, and it’s just as bad for business as the blather you hear on weekend radio commercials.

Unfortunately, images like this are a dime a dozen in Powerpoint presentations, company websites, corporate brochures and annual reports. iStock Photo alone now has over 3 million images to choose from, and they only cost a few bucks apiece.

At my firm, our art directors work really hard to avoid the milk-toast visuals that are so prominent on low-cost stock photo sites. Unfortunately, clients often question the custom photography line item in our proposed budgets.

They think the perfect photo’s just waiting to be downloaded for 99 cents.

“Stock photos don’t tell a story. That’s what makes them so universally appealing,” says Senior Art Director, Eric Haag. “For those photographers, it’s just a volume game… they want their images to sell a hundred times over, so they make ‘em as generic as possible. In that case, a picture’s definitely not worth a thousand words.”

The question is, do you really want to hang your hat on a photo that’s already being used by hundreds of other companies, including your competitors? Or do you want a compelling image that will help differentiate you from everyone else?

Mike Houska, commercial photographer and owner of Dogleg Studios, says easy access to so many images is both a blessing and a curse… he’s selling more stock photos (rights-managed) but the assignment work is harder to come by.

“The royalty free stock images are so cheap and easy to get, it’s pretty much eliminated all the low-end and middle budget work,” Houska said.

“Back in the day, buyers had to comb through a bunch of giant stock catalogs, then call the stock company to do a search that may or may not turn up something. It was a hit and miss proposition at best, and the shots weren’t cheap. Now, in a matter of seconds you can have a hundred images that fit your criteria. They’re not great, but they’re close, and that seems to be enough for a lot of people.”

Let me pose this… does “close enough” fit with your corporate culture or your personal approach to business? What would happen if the engineering department just said, “oh well, that’s close enough”? Does that sort of mediocrity apply to other areas of your business, and if it does, how’s that working out for you?

The fact is, your brand image should be just as important to you as the quality of your product.

The last couple weeks I’ve been involved in an on-going photoshoot for a client of ours. It’s a country club — a cliché just waiting to happen. There are thousands of good stock images we could use:  The guy on the tee, holding his best Tiger Woods follow-though. Smiling, happy couples clinking their wine glasses together. The dad and his son, bonding while walking down a lonesome fairway.


There’s nothing compelling or unique about any of ‘em. Nothing that will lead the viewer into the shot or tell the unique story of this particular club. They’re the type of stock photos that won’t offend, but they won’t impress either.

So we’re not using any of ‘em. We’re setting up every shot with painstaking attention to all the details that make custom photography worth every penny.

Not your typical Country Club cliche

I believe that successful brands are built on three things: credibility, relevance and differentiation. Stock photos can hurt you in all three areas… If you’re trying to convey a message of quality, your credibility goes right out the window with a cheap stock shot. If the shot’s used by anyone else, differentiation is out of the question. And there’s nothing relevant about an image that’s designed to appeal to a mass market of consumers age 25 to 54.

So the next time you’re thinking of throwing another stock photo into a presentation or report, stop for a minute and ask yourself this: Will this image add anything to the story I’m trying to tell here? Does it convey a specific idea, or is it just a vague reminder of a general concept?

Is it just another visual cliché, like the good-looking customer service rep with the headset?

If it is, dump it! Either spend a lot more time refining your search, or hire someone to get the right shot for the job to begin with. Your brand will be better for it in the long run.

I’d like to hear about the worst clichés you’ve ever seen in marketing. Visual or otherwise. Post a comment, or e-mail me personally:

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