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How to use stock libraries to differentiate your brand and communicate value

At Centerline, we’re fairly specialized in the types of companies we work with. Our focus on B2B tech means we’re familiar with a good portion of the companies we work with and their competitors even before we work together. It also means we see companies facing a lot of the same types of challenges and using similar tactics to generate success. One thing we often talk about is creative – specifically, how many companies are using the same stock photography and footage as others in their industry.

Before we sound too harsh, we want to give everyone a few excuses. The expectations of what B2B brands need to look like and deliver has been blown way out of proportion thanks to the likes of B2C giants with outsized budgets and first-rate customer experiences.

To make matters worse, markets are only getting more crowded. Everyone wants to differentiate and represent the kind of polish customers have come to expect, but budgets are constrained. Not every B2B tech company can afford to match the likes of household brands, nor should they try to. So when it comes to building out their creative libraries, many go to stock photography and footage.

The case for stock libraries

Stock isn’t inherently bad. Stock libraries are absolutely amazing and have opened a world of opportunities. In doing that, they’ve created a more level playing field for marketers. Every single company has access to the most available visual resources than ever before.

The problem with stock originates when a company uses it incorrectly, or, more embarrassingly, when two competitors use the same image. Imagine what customers think when they’re comparing the two options to see how they stack up.

So, how do you avoid a branding faux pas when a photo shoot isn’t an option?

Best practices for using stock libraries

1. Choose visuals that align with the brand

B2B journeys involve lots of interactions with a brand, often spanning across many platforms (digital and physical). Visual consistency is key to building awareness and credibility in a way that supports your marketing goals. That consistency helps people learn who you are, which assists in recall and primes them for lower-funnel sales pitches.

2. Choose visuals that support the messaging

Your visuals draw attention and often occupy valuable real estate. They should be thoughtful, not just there to fill space. If they don’t help communicate your message, it’s a wasted opportunity. B2B tech audiences in particular look for substance, not just style. Useless or irrelevant stock can frustrate them and erode your credibility.

3. Prioritize authenticity over polish

88% of consumers say that authenticity is a key factor when deciding what brands they like and support. That number jumps to 90% for people under 35. For B2B marketers, the stories you tell work best with stock that feels authentic. No overzealous reactions. No unrealistically stunning office settings. No posing for the camera. Authenticity isn’t staged. We all want to put our best foot forward but when things that feel unnaturally overproduced or polished it smacks of inauthenticity.

4. Consider what is appropriate for each platform

People have different expectations for what they see on channels like websites and social media. They’re looking for different types of content and experiences. While consistency is important, you want to account for these varied expectations with your visuals.

5. Don’t forget to research your marketplace

Images and videos help you set the visual identity of your brand. Before you select which visuals to use, make sure you have a good understanding of what others are already using in your competitive landscape. Evaluating the visual identities of your competitors and peers can help you find the white space.

When it comes to visuals, sometimes it’s more helpful to see the best practices in action. To explore these further, here are some thoughts from our creative studio.

Finding authenticity and avoiding cliches in common use cases

Josh O’Dell, Sr. Creative Director

For me stock comes down to two big pitfalls: finding authenticity and avoiding clichés. For whatever reason the majority of stock producers seem allergic to both. So it’s always a chore to find imagery that doesn’t feel staged and that isn’t a cliché buffet.

When we talk about authenticity, let’s look at an example of a common search: the businessman.

First, the bad…

Flat light, generic suit. He’s sloppy but not in a modern-slightly-sloppy-executive kind of way. And the thumbs-up is a little too on the nose.

This guy’s looking straight at the camera with a weird, unnatural pose. Smiling like he’s in an elementary school photo. Even light, not much depth. Weird futuristic background. This is generally not a direction I’d prefer to go.

The so-so…

We’re getting better here. More natural stance and smile, though still feels a bit posed. Practical environment. More earnest overall; feels like he might actually work here. Light is more natural.

The good…

Light from a natural source. Nice depth created by the foreground element. No cheesy grin at camera—feels like he’s actually doing something. In this one, the camera plays that fly-on-the-wall role rather than studio camera. It also has a bit of grit to the image, which always seems to make the image feel more authentic.

If you did need a direct-to-camera look, I’d favor something like this. Again, nice light, not overly dressed. NO OVERSMILING, which is key. Feels like a regular person.

Here, the lower angle combined with the guy looking beyond the camera implies the existence of someone else – i.e., this guy isn’t alone. He’s with others, contributing, leading. It doesn’t feel as solitary as studio shoots can sometimes be.

Now for the clichés. Let’s look at another common search: an image corresponding with “ideas” or “insights.”

The bad…

Cheesy lightbulbs are a commonplace cliché for this search. This one literally takes it to a new level by making the lightbulb a rocketship. I’d stay away from this one.

The so-so…

If you had to use a lightbulb, you can cut down on the cliché factor by finding an image that:

    • diverges stylistically, if the brand allows (first image)

    • or attacks the concept from a slightly different angle, e.g., showing the light a bulb emits as opposed to just the classic bulb itself (second image).

The good (better, anyway)…

If I need to convey “idea” or “insight,” I’m leaning more toward something like this. It doesn’t include a lightbulb but instead conveys the notion of breaking away, moving outside of a frame of thinking. For me, something like this is immediately more interesting and encourages the viewer to interact with the image more than a clichè lightbulb. It has cool colors, too.

Creating deeper immersion with creative sequences 

Brian Taylor, Group Creative Director

For me, putting in a bit more legwork to create sequences of shots can help you to tell stories within your videos, creating context and deeper immersion to what could have been a single, one-off stock clip. Using a sequence of multiple shots that draws the viewer into a scene or reveals the bigger picture can make your video feel more customized and thoughtfully-crafted.

For instance, let’s say we’re entering a moment within our video that calls for a team collaborating with enthusiasm. You could zero in the first image in this sequence and call it a day. It accomplished the task. Or you could dig deeper to discover that this clip is accompanied by an entire collection of shots from the same environment with the same models. Now with the addition of a few extra shots, you can create a sequence that brings your viewers into the room, shoulder-to-shoulder with the team.

An effective sequence can also be created with just two shots that look and feel like they could occur in the same place at the same time. In this example, we begin in a very simple, calm space with a woman working on the go. She feels focused and is obviously traveling via rail. By cutting from this scene to an exterior that leverages speed and an unique camera angle, we created an engaging visual and tonal contrast while also creating continuity between two pieces of stock video.

Addressing diversity and representation with more inclusive stock libraries

John Kaplan, Managing Director of Creative

Stock libraries have been plagued by lack of diversity, but that’s starting to change. In fact, Storyblocks has made a declaration to “bring diversity & equity to the stock media industry by surfacing untold and historically excluded stories.”

By making stock libraries more inclusive, marketers will no longer be constrained by geography or the actors available in their areas. It will allow companies to represent themselves and their customers in more authentic, global and diverse ways.

Evolving visual representations to align with cultural norms 

Erin Craft, EVP of Content and Creative

Another important reason to evolve how we visually represent ideas is that the world is changing. From the evolution of technology to the DEI movement, if you want your stock to look credible, you need to get with the times.

One pretty significant change brands need to consider when selecting visuals is how the pandemic has affected cultural norms. For instance – who still shakes hands? I sure don’t. Fist bump maybe? It’s just not nearly as commonplace as it once was…yet I’m three pages into an image search before I find something other than handshakes to represent “partnership” or “business”, and even then it’s just another version of two hands bringing puzzle pieces together.