Stock photography and illustration offer many advantages over custom images. Stock imagery has become ubiquitous in brand and marketing communications over the past decade—and for some good reasons. Let’s consider why they are so popular. The biggest advantage is price. Royalty-free images are plentiful and can be obtained at a low cost. You can also preview them in advance so you know exactly what you’re buying. You can download them immediately, which is advantageous when facing a tight deadline. There’s no doubt stock imagery is a valuable resource and appropriate for many creative projects. But there’s a downside as well—especially when it comes to branding.

A Few Considerations

1. One of the main objectives of branding is to present your company as unique. The more you can differentiate yourself from your competitors, the stronger your brand will be. The problem with stock images is they’re available to anyone. You and a competitor could be using the same images which could cause confusion among your customers.

2. While the quality of stock images gets better all the time, many just look “canned”. Authenticity is crucial in building a strong brand. The more authentic you appear, the more likely you are to win the trust of your customers. Using images that look staged or feature models that look too good to be “real” can be off-putting. When selecting stock images for my clients I often spend hours combing through stock sites viewing hundreds of images in order to find a handful that are well-crafted, interesting, and believable.

3. Stock images are so ubiquitous, and so similar that people can have difficulty engaging with them. How many pictures do you need to see of business people sitting at computers, shaking hands, or having a meeting before you begin to tune them out? If you want grab the viewer’s attention today, it requires something new and fresh.

So, What’s the Alternative?

We always urge our clients to do one of two things:

  1. Look for stock images that are different, authentic, and appropriate for their brand and negotiate exclusive usage rights for a period of time or,
  2. Engage a talented photographer or illustrator to create a library of custom images just for them. While this is certainly an investment in the short term, it pays big dividends in brand awareness.

We’ve taken this approach with many companies and the resulting bespoke images went a long way toward making their brand communications easily identifiable and unique to their brand. Here are some examples:


examples of custom photos created for PeopleSoft

Custom photo collage images for PeopleSoft.


custom illustrations

Bespoke illustrations gave Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International a unique look.


brochure featuring custom images created for Cohesive Systems

Custom-designed photographic images for systems integrator Cohesive Systems.