When it comes to image, identity, messaging or branding it's important to understand the essence of a company or product in order to identify and clarify its unique differentiators — those attributes and characteristics that distinguish a company or product from its competition. As a marketing professional I have a unique process I take companies through to aid them in identifying such things and help them determine, commit and focus on a core message, supporting messages and a key concept that form the foundation of what that product or company is all about — it's essence.
For me, I usually create some key documents such as a brand doctrine and a messaging matrix and others depending on the client. These documents then help marketing, creative and ad personnel stay on the same page. So with this “foundation” we can create communications that reinforce and ideally enhance the doctrine and messages. In its simplest form this might be a standards guide including logo, tagline, color palate and imagery. But more importantly this then extends to advertising, sales presentations, the company voice in public relations efforts, customer service, supplier/vendor communications and so on. Because a brand isn't just a logo or a color. It's the entire customer experience. It's the feeling. And all these tactical elements simply should evoke and communicate that feeling. The rest is up to the company personnel and the experience a customer has with the company's products.
All of this is a long way to build my case for the importance of owning a unique concept in the customers mind. And utilizing imagery and messages that are unique to the company or product. This is where the concept of stock photography can damage or dilute a company's image or brand.
Just as much a company needs a unique position and refined messages that differentiate itself from the competition, it needs unique communications and imagery. Using a stock photograph can be safe if an agreement with the stock agency includes an exclusivity clause. But most marketers won't go for this because the cost is not only based on usage and frequency but a premium is added for exclusivity. For this reason, many resort to cheap online royalty-free photography.
If you're cheap, don't understand the importance of building and reinforcing unique messages through synergistic use of marketing tools and careless then royalty free stock photography is ok for you. But if you understand the complex process for creating or reinforcing an image based on your brands real attributes, then you'll likely source unique and exclusive photography or illustration. If you take the top 500 brands worldwide, you'd rarely find any use of royalty-free photography in the top tiers of its communications.
But the internet has changed everything. Hasn't it? Inasmuch as electronic publishing has virtually changed the printing and typesetting industries forever, email has virtually eliminated the need to fax anything. When's the last time you used the fax machine.
The internet has also changed the world of stock photography. Stock agencies used to publish massive phone book sized books of glorious photography so art directors could slip pages either in looking for the image in their head or hoping to find an image that would give them an idea for their head. Today, stock houses publish cute magazines, postcards or booklets that drive traffic to their data and image rich online databases.
This has also reduced the number of photographers competing for the miniscule photo assignments. Even product photographers are finding it harder and harder to get business due to the ease of shooting digitally.
So when I was chatting with an art director I work I espoused that at least art directors couldn't be replaced by internet or digital technologies. But he reminded me of a mailer that I received just the other day. StockLayouts.
This isn't necessarily a new idea. I mean blogs from every major blogging platform offer “templates” and that's why so many blogs look the same. In fact, there are very few really well designed blogs that stand out as communicating a unique image that reinforces the content of the blog. Most look the same. And there are a number that are hideous. Which is why I believe good art directors will always prove their value.
So STockLayouts seems to be a project from one of the large stock photography houses and aims to make designing good looking print or online materials easy for those challenged in the artistic sense. So while this might reduce the amount of badly designed materials over the years, I worry that communications from companies in every industry will turn stale and homogenized.
If so, it will just make the companies, blogs, etc that leverage smart design will simply stand out even higher in the continually raising noise of marketing and communications.