Brandbox #5: Imagery
Welcome to Imagery - Part V of the Amadeus Brandbox!
Each week, from the first week where we discussed Strategy, week two when we covered the logo through to colour and type, I’ve started off writing about how the element in question is ‘the most important part’ of the visual branding system. Like a loyal mother, unable to decide who her favourite child is, I quickly correct myself and start over again. There really is no one most important element in a visual brand identity. Like any great team, the sum really is greater than all of the individual parts. Once they are working together, brands are elevated and begin to truly communicate an organisation’s core vision, and importantly, their value proposition.
Imagery is no exception. To my previous point it is perhaps not the stand-out most important element, but some of the most powerful branding I’ve seen has been almost always been supported by outstanding imagery.
What is imagery?
Sounds like a trick question, but to the uninitiated it’s not. Imagery can be really obvious – such as big, impactful photographs. Think about an airline (Qantas, Virgin Australia, Emirates) and chances are imagery is front-and-centre of their visual brand to help them communicate messages around adventure, trust or freedom.
Imagery can also be stylised versions of photography. It could be photography that has been treated (or Photoshopped) in a unique and consistent style to support the brand message.
It could be a unique pattern. One of the most iconic pattern in the Australian advertising and brand landscape is David Jones’ timeless houndstooth pattern. As a lifestyle brand, DJ’s relies heavily on photography in its marketing and communications, but the houndstooth is never far away. Show this to pretty much any Australian and they would most likely tell you the brand it is associated with in a heartbeat. As far as brand equity goes, you don’t get much stronger than that.
Imagery can also extend to iconography. As we use and enjoy our smart devices more and more, branded communications need to be distilled in the simplest possible way. Icons are a great way to divide up information and provide visual signposts for a brand’s audience. It’s a design trend that is not going anywhere, and forward-thinking brands are investing in good design to create icons that are unique to their brand.
Devices are like ‘picture frames’ that house imagery within your document. Used consistently, they can be another powerful way to speak your brand and build equity amongst your audience. . It’s also really cost effective! Once you’ve identified and established a key device, execute this consistently and your audience will begin to recognise and associate this with your brand right away. Add some colour to the device from your core palette, and you have a really strong and unique imagery style that doesn’t take a huge budget to achieve.
How to procure imagery
For some of the big brands that I’ve mentioned (airlines, department stores) budgets are big, and with this comes an enviable ability to define a core photographic style for their brands. A lot of careful thought and expertise goes into defining this and then engaging the best talent to capture this for them.
Where budget allows, this is my # 1 recommendation every time. Creative, original photography will always be the best way to achieve an imagery style that 100% speaks your brand – because you get to define and create it. You get to dictate the style, the look and feel and when done well, this can be really powerful.
For those of us whose budgets don’t extend this far, there are other options freely available to procure imagery.
Create imagery yourself
Access to good-quality digital cameras is so easy now, with most smartphones boasting resolution around the 12MP range. Added to this, applications like Canva give you the ability to create your own graphics for pretty much anything, be it printed communications or digital media channels.
With a well-defined brand strategy around what type of imagery you brand should use, as well as a core colour palette and typography style, this is a really great option for accessing and producing imagery that consistently communicates your brand. Canva is actually a really, really good tool for brand management. With some good rules in place up-front, and the ability to define these 'rules' through saving your logos, colour palettes and typography choices, you can create and maintain consistency across all of your marketing touchpoints - a key component of good management.
As a branding professional, this is without doubt the best and worst tool at my disposal. It’s the best tool when I have total control over the selection, and the worst tool when it’s fallen into the wrong hands! (generally my clients who get a bit excited).
I highly recommend reading the article ‘Dear marketers, stop using generic stock images’, which sums up my conundrum perfectly. ("Why spend hours crafting a lovely blog post only to litter it with pictures of strangers in suits smiling at each other?").
There is a very definite art to selecting the right stock imagery. When done well, it’s a cost-effective way to procure imagery for your branded communications. When done poorly, it can do tangible damage to your brand. In short, proceed with caution, think very carefully before you purchase and above all, remember your sense of good taste.
8 things to bear in mind when choosing stock imagery
Full disclosure from me: 95% of all imagery I use is stock imagery. So how do I make it work?
1. If there are people in your images, do they look like people that you or I would personally know? Nothing screams ‘stock photo’ like a stupidly good looking person pretending to be a corporate/retiree/dad/[insert desired talent here]. No – it’s just a model that has been hired for the shoot and you are convincing nobody. Discard accordingly.
2. If they look like someone you or I would know, are they doing something that you or I would do? Don't be tempted by cliche; hitting your audience over the head with your message is never the best way to communicate.
3. Does it look like a scene that has been staged? Ideally, there should as little difference as possible between a stock photo and a photo that has been commissioned and shot by a brand. Granted – branded photography is always staged and shot by a photographer (so by definition, has been ‘set up’) but almost always in a way that makes it look like it took place naturally, and in-situ.
4. Apply a good-taste filter. Use your gut feeling. If it looks twee, unnatural, or plain daggy, just don’t do it.
5. Avoid overly saturated colours. Nothing screams cheap stock photography like saturated colours.
6. (Read carefully: this is possibly my number 1 tip). Avoid the literal. If you are searching for an image that needs to communicate a message about ‘leadership’, do not type ‘leadership’ into your stock photography search. Think a bit more broadly about what else could convey leadership. Here’s an image that I’ve used before:
I like how leadership is implied in this image of a young guy chatting to an older guy. You can see that his face is lighting up, and there appears to be a respect for the older guy, who is possibly this guy’s boss or is even more senior than that. You can tell that the younger guy respects the older guy, and, in doing so the concept of ‘leadership’ is ably demonstrated. Without resorting to this:
7. Don’t be lazy. A search for a good stock image can often take me up to an hour. Sure, I’ve learned some short cuts to finding the best photographers and contributors to the site, which cuts down my search immeasurably. But be prepared dedicate a decent chunk of time to finding the best image. It may well eventually be one of the first ones you saw, but you wont know that this was the best option until you have had a good hunt around and can validate this.
8. Further to this, look beyond the first page of the search results, especially if they have been sorted in order of popularity. In fact, I pretty much discard any option that appears on page 1-3 in order of popularity. Be warned that if you choose one of these images, there is a good chance another brand has chosen it too (duh, of course they have if it’s popular) and you have absolutely no control over the associated messaging that other brands are employing when using this photo.
When it's done well, it's beautiful
I'll admit, I teared up when I saw these Qantas advertisements over the Christmas break. The brand messaging is marvellous - everyone who has ever travelled, or lived away from their families knows how wonderful it can feel to come home. The photography style is perfect - although they are staged photoshoots, the choice of models (or 'talent'), the styling and the location is spot-on. This looks like any one of thousands of reunions that takes place around Australia and the world, on a daily basis. It made me want to fly Qantas now, and always.
I have a soft-spot for imagery in my brand practice. What sort of imagery does your brand use? I'd love to hear in the comments below!