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

For small businesses and bootstrapped startups, coming up with great branding on a shoestring budget can be the cause of more than one headache. But a bad 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 quite resourceful for branding and commercial use… if you know what you’re doing. 

This article explores the right way to use stock photos for branding even if you’re not a graphic designer or marketer, with a simple three-step guide to the perfect branding images. 

Looking for a way to handle this whole branding thing easily? Then look no further than Canva! Their Brand Kit feature is perfect for non-designers to create beautiful, on-brand visuals, as it lets you set up your brand identity elements –logos, colors, fonts, etc.– and automatically apply them to new graphic designs for multiple purposes. You can even create custom templates to use time and time again! Very cool.

Ready to learn about visual branding?

Preface: The Truth About Brand Image and Stock Photos

Before getting to the graphic design side of using stock photos to brand your business, let’s quickly address basic concerns and misconceptions about the marriage between branding and stock photography.

Won’t Stock Photos Hurt My Company Image? 

If you search for “how to do visual branding”, you’ll stumble upon people advising against using stock photography, and more or less openly saying that stock photos are bad for this.

They’ll mention how stock photos are and look low quality, and that will reflect poorly on your brand’s quality. That they are too generic and can fall under clichés, washing out your company’s relevance. Finally, that the stock images you pick are already in use by everyone and their mother, including your competitors, and that erases any chance of differentiation and uniqueness for your brand. But you know what? They’re wrong. These points might have been valid a decade ago, but stock photography has evolved and those are non-issues today.

In 2021, the most popular stock photo libraries are all about high-resolution images that are authentic, realistic, and intimate. And fully customizable.

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. 

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!

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 your marketing strategy elements are consistent with your brand identity.

In plain terms, it means to make sure everything in your company is aligned under the same concept. That when you post an Instagram story,  the content in it fits your Instagram wall, and your LinkedIn profile, and your website, and your ads, even your stationery design. 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!

Having a brand image that sets you aside from competitors and that people can immediately connect to your product or service is absolutely critical to succeed in business.

Visual branding, from brand color combinations to photography, is more impactful and high-converting than any other marketing trick you try.

Take the example of Tentsile, a small company selling tree tents and hammocks that nailed their brand image by associating it with breathtakingly beautiful, immersive natural landscapes and outdoor scenes. Check their website, social media, or blog, you’ll see what we mean!

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 the top 3 brand-defining factors: 
    • Goal: what your company sets to achieve
    • Tone: what’s your voice and what it says
    • Style: how do you want people to perceive you
  • Know your audience – Don’t stay with just demographics, get to know your potential customers well!
  • 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
  • Create a visual personality – Transform your brand story into a visual one! Select content as bricks to build up your visual story: color combinations, graphic styles, photography aesthetic, etc.
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. 
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 simple yet effective solution.
4. Visual personality: They've selected peach, 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.

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. 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 offer the best value for your money. 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 it comes to selecting photos for branding purposes it is equally important to analyze both the overall technical and artistic quality, as well as the image’s mood; what it evokes and to whom is it speaking. A photo of a person using their iPhone can drastically change its meaning if the subject is a teenager than if it is someone in their 60s, or if it’s gloomy versus well-lit. 
  • 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. There are many collections with diverse stock photos that represent minorities as well as multicultural groups 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. It doesn’t just mean shot with the ultimate gear and sharply edited. But also by a skilled professional and having a clear artistic and visual relevance. 
Step 2 in action
Our time management app startup has budgeted a whole battery of digital presence: website, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, even YouTube. When it comes to photos, they identified that styled stock photos are the best match for their brand. After studying the options available, they got a membership at the niche agency Styled Stock Society, which has beautiful, minimalist, professional-looking pictures that align with their brand perfectly. As a bonus, they are also seizing their free stock photos. Plus, they will also use Photocase to buy higher-impact royalty-free photos for their social media posts here and there. 
Styled Stock Society Screenshot > How to Use Stock Photos for Branding (and Not Screwing Up)

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 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.
    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 photo shoot, and others 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 followed by ten noir-styled images, people will be confused. 
  • 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: copy 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. Make sure your font style is aligned with the photographic style –and your brand image as a whole–; this is particularly relevant for infographics. And content-wise, 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!

Avatar of Ivanna Attié

Ivanna Attié

I am Content Manager, Researcher, and Author in StockPhotoSecrets.com and 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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