How to Use Stock Photos for Branding (and Not Screwing Up)

If you run a small business or you’re bootstrapping a new startup, coming up with great branding ideas and materials on a shoestring budget can be the cause of more than one headache. But screwing up your branding strategy would be far worse. 

While stock photos might not be your first thought when looking for ways to enforce your brand awareness, they are actually quite a useful resource for branding and commercial use… if you know what to do with them. 

Today we want to talk about the right way to use stock photos for branding, and teach you how to achieve the perfect branding images in just three steps, even if you're not a graphic designer or marketer. 

Ready? 

Preface: The Truth About Brand Image and Stock Photos

Before diving into the graphic design process of defining, selecting, and using stock photos to brand your business, let’s quickly address the basic concepts, concerns, and misconceptions about the marriage between branding and stock photography. 

What is Branding? Why Should I Bother with It?

A marketer would define branding as setting up a name, symbol, or design that becomes easily associated with your company, to visually identify it. Furthermore, branding is also about making sure all the elements (visual and otherwise) of your marketing strategy are consistent with your brand identity. 

In plain terms, it means to make sure everything in your company is aligned under the same concepts. That when you're sending out an Instagram story, you make sure the content in it fits together with your Instagram wall, and your website, and your ads. They are all parts of a whole, and together they tell the world what your brand is about.

Need help with creating visuals for your business? Read our guide to the best photos for marketing!

Branding is absolutely critical to succeed in business, as the visual impact it has on your audience is more convincing and effective than any other marketing trick you try. 

Having a brand image that sets you aside from competitors and that people can immediately connect to your product or service is as good as business success gets. 

Take the example of Tentsile, a small company selling tree tents and hammocks that nailed their brand image by associating it with breathtakingly beautiful outdoor scenes. We are not talking about the typical, cliché camping sceneries but truly unique, immersive natural landscapes. Check their website, social media, or blog, you’ll see what we mean!

Can Stock Photos Be Good for Branding? Won’t They Hurt My Company’s Image? 

If you started to look online for good ways to brand your company, you probably stumbled upon people advising against using stock photography for this, and more or less openly saying that stock photos can hurt your brand image. 

Detractors will mention how stock photos are low quality, and they look it, and how that will lead people to think your brand is equally subpar. They’ll bring up the fact stock photos are too generic and can fall under clichés, which washes out the relevance of your company in the audience’s eyes. Finally, they’ll tell you the same stock images you pick are already in-use by everyone and their mother, including your competitors, and how that erases any chance of differentiation and uniqueness for your brand. 

But you know what? They’re wrong. The concerns they raise might have been valid a decade or more ago, but stock photography has long since evolved and those are simply non-issues today. 

In 2021, the most popular stock photo libraries are all about high-resolution images that are authentic, realistic, and intimate. Mold-breaking concepts and in-the-now topics are the hottest visual trends they all pursue to cover, and you will find high-end, curated collections for almost every topic and purpose you have in mind. 

It’s very easy to identify and license great, high-value stock images, and it’s also very simple to make them look native to your brand, just as if you had hired a photographer to craft them up for you. 

To learn how just follow the three steps below! 

Your budget doesn't include a graphic designer? Then you should definitely use our 102 Tips for Creating Visual Material yourself!
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Step 1: Do the Groundwork Around Brand Image 

You cannot know what photos are ideal for your brand image if you haven’t first defined your brand image to a tee. The first step, then, is to do your marketing homework: 

  • Define your brand identity – Go beyond what you sell and what for, and think about what do you want to achieve for your company as a whole (this is your goal); what’s your voice and what do you want to say with it (tone); how do you want to be seen and perceived by your audience (style).
    For example, Coca-Cola's brand identity isn't about being a refreshing soft drink, but about “happiness and sharing”, and all their marketing campaigns are focused on that message.
  • Know your audience – Don’t stay with just demographics, get to know your potential customers well! Whose people are you trying to help with your product or service? What are they like? What do they like? How does your style fit in with them? 
  • Build your brand’s narrative – Take all the data you collected in the previous steps, and turn it into a passionate baseline story to market your company: who you are, what you do, how you do it, why you do it, for whom you do it, what you hope they take from it. This is what Coke does, and that's a successful strategy if you ever saw one.
  • Create a visual personality – Transform your brand story into a visual one! Pick colors for your logo and use them across branding –here’s our guide to best color combinations to assist you in this–, choose a graphic style and photography aesthetic that goes with your brand identity as well
step 1 in action
Let's say there's a startup launching a new app, a time management assistant for busy, working women. This how we build a brand image:

1. Identity: This brand wants to help its users reach all their objectives efficiently, and enjoying every step of the way. They believe time management is key for living stress-free, accomplish more, and enjoying life.
2. Audience: The app is aimed at professional women, mainly aged 18 to 45, who have to fit in a lot in a day: competitive students, working mothers, business owners, etc.
3. Narrative: They are a team of women who know first-hand the struggles of staying on top of their to-do lists, and the added stress of missing the mark, and they've used their experience to produce a solution that is focused on simplifying reminding, tracking and completing tasks timely, leaving plenty of free time for leisure.
4. Visual personality: They've selected light pink, white and black accents for their logo and brand color palette, and they will use very stylish, minimalist, feminine photography for their visuals.
Pink flat lay with smartphone and tablet
Copyright: VICUSCHKA / Photocase.com, all rights reserved.
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Step 2: Find the Perfect Stock Images

There is an overwhelming amount of photos available online, finding the perfect image for your brand can seem an impossible task. If you follow these tips you’ll realize it’s a lot easier:

  • Find a stock photo agency ally – When looking around stock photo sites to download images, analyze their catalogs and prioritize the stock library that better aligns with your brand’s visual personality (the one you defined in step 1). There are many great stock photo providers but not all are a good match for every business. For example, Photocase has an artsy, quirky, and fun vibe, while Shutterstock is the king of commercial-like imagery, and iStock is a mix of both that takes commercial-styled photos and adds a little artistic twist.
    Pro Tip: Stock photo subscriptions demand a long-term commitment to an agency, but they offer the best value for your money, saving you a lot compared to buying photos à la carte. It makes a lot of sense to spend some time studying agencies’ styles and buy a subscription to the one where you know you can find the most on-brand images for your business. 
  • Consider mood & composition of photos – When you don’t know much about photography it’s easy to assume the main focus when picking photos has to be their overall quality –that they are high-resolution and professional-like–. While this is actually crucial, when it comes to selecting photos for branding purposes it is equally important to analyze the image’s mood; what it evokes and to whom is it speaking. There is a big difference between a photo of a gloomy dawn scene in the forest and one of the sun rising in the jungle, and a photo of a person using their iPhone can drastically change its meaning if the subject matter is a teenager than if it is someone in their 60s. These factors determine how well a photograph fits into your brand narrative, so don’t overlook them!
  • Aim to be diverse and inclusive – Diversity and inclusion are the biggest social trends of our times, not aligning your brand to them would be a big mistake. Every time your brand and products aren’t ethnically or gender-based niche, you should try and use multiracial and multicultural images. Even if you are in a niche, you will find places with diverse stock photos that represent your niche audience in a beautiful, honest, and modern way.
  • Go for high-quality images – As we briefly mentioned before, quality is crucial in photos for branding, as the images’ quality will affect how people perceive your brand. However, quality doesn’t just mean shot with the ultimate gear and sharply edited. It also means shot by a skilled professional and having a clear artistic and visual relevance. 
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Styled Stock Society Screenshot > How to Use Stock Photos for Branding (and Not Screwing Up)
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Step 3: Make Your Stock Photos Natively Unique

Remember how earlier we spoke about stock photo detractors would mention these images are too generic and overused to use in branding? This is where we –and you– prove them wrong. Because not only are today’s stock photos a lot less generic than they used to be, but there are also relatively simple creative ways to make them look and feel like they were made for your brand: 

  • Select photos that tell a story – Visual storytelling is a fruitful marketing resource! Telling your brand’s story with images is a lot more likely to make an impact on your audience, versus just pretty pictures that have no connection with anything beyond the moment. A storyline is especially critical to have when it comes to photos for social media.
    Pro Tip: When you find a stock photo you love, make sure to check that artist’s portfolio page on the stock photo agency; very often they’ll have a whole series of images from that same photoshoot, and even from other shoots but using the same models. These are great for enforcing a visual story!
  • Have a consistent photography aesthetic – We already covered the relevance of mood and style of images. It is also important to keep that consistent over time, too. If you have a happy-go-lucky photo of people smiling under the sunshine followed by ten noir-styled images where models are lingering in shadowed rooms, people will be confused about your brand and what it offers. 
  • Edit the images to make them your own – Stock photos are versatile not because they are generic, but because they are fully editable; through creative editing, you can achieve a final image that is entirely unique to your brand, even if the same image is used by others, elsewhere. Filters, color treatments, cropping, overlays… there are many resources to personalize your stock photos so no one can tell they are stock!
  • Be in line with all other marketing resources – You’ll often use visuals in combination with other resources: text is the most common one. Be it overlaid on your images or as a text block accompanying them, photos and copy are a team, and they have to look, feel, and be perceived as such. So, visually, you have to make sure your font style is aligned with the photographic style –and your brand image as a whole–. And content-wise, you must have coherence and consistency between what is said in words and what is said with images, at all times. 
step 3 in action
To promote their time management app, our friends have opted for running Instagram stories daily, illustrating the many tasks their app can help with, and the in-control, relaxed state their users will be in thanks to them.
They've found a goldmine in the form of Kastoimages portfolio on Photocase, as it's full of images in the same bright style, portraying the same model in everything from working to exercising to attending a doctor's appointment and traveling, that they can use in their stories! They'll also make sure to include cool flat lays by VICUSCHKA, and inclusive shots of professional women by Criene, which despite being produced by different photographers, are all visually coherent and fit the brand's narrative perfectly.
They'll take it a step further by using cropping and filtering strategically, to make the photos even more personal to the app.
And that's how they're finally on track to successfully brand their product and company!
Blonde woman smiling while working from home
Copyright: kastoimages / Photocase.com, all rights reserved.
Photocase kastoimages portfolio screenshot > How to Use Stock Photos for Branding (and Not Screwing Up)
Some of the images available at kastoimages portfolio on Photocase.com, all rights reserved
African woman working from home with little girl
Copyright: Criene / Photocase.com, all rights reserved

Stock Photos are a Good –And Undermined– Branding Resource

Before reading this, would you have known it’ll take 3 steps to have great branding imagery ready to use? 

Well now you do! Our goal here was to show you how stock photos can elevate your brand if you use them correctly, and how relatively simple it is to do so. 

As long as you: 

  • Know exactly what your brand image is 
  • Put thought and care in choosing stock photos 
  • Make them feel unique to your brand 

You’ll be capable to build a strong and memorable brand in your own right. 

Happy branding!

I am Content Manager, Researcher, and Author in Stock Photo Press and its many stock media oriented publications. I am a passionate communicator with a love for visual imagery and an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge. Lucky enough to enter the wonderful world of stock photography working side-by-side with experienced experts, I am happy to share my research, insights, and advice about image licensing, stock photography offers, and the stock media industry with everyone in the creative community. My background is in Communication and Journalism, and I also love literature and performing arts.

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