Stock Imagery vs. Custom Illustration: Why B2B Brands Should Get Out of the Stock (Photo) Market

May 24, 2023

Stock photography might be hindering your brand’s creative more than you think. Yes, it’s cheaper than custom photography and illustration. Yes, there’s a ton of options available. But you need graphics that can differentiate your brand from the competition, communicate ideas and emotions, and ultimately enhance your design, and thus campaign strategy.

If you’re tired of getting lost in the noise, see the five key ways custom illustrations can shake up your campaigns and yield stronger results.

1. Kiss Deja Vu Goodbye

Do you ever get the feeling that you’ve seen a photo before? The model looks really familiar, but you can’t quite place where you’ve seen them. A billboard maybe? Or that ad from the dentist’s office? It’s not in your head. The open secret of stock image sites is that yes, while they all appear to have different images, most of them ultimately pull from the same pool of stock photos. 

To be fair, the clues were in front of us the whole time. The very definition of stock tells us everything we need to know: 

stockAdjective: so regularly used as to be automatic or hackneyed.

However, that’s not what we think of when we look back on the most memorable campaigns in marketing history. How can you set yourself apart if you’re using the same image featuring the same model as the one on your competitor’s website? 

Illustrating your concepts instead of sourcing semi-relevant stock imagery is a great way to avoid this issue. It means that your visuals are as unique and on-brand as your concept. You own your assets and your campaign because no one has what you have. Say goodbye, Déjà vu, and rest assured you’re not going to see your assets on a Reverse Mortgage Ad.

2. Tell your Story with Intention and More Freedom

We are in the midst of enormous cultural and ideological change. The growing shift towards embracing inclusivity, sustainability, and ethical sourcing has highlighted the values of younger generations and indicates where culture will continue to head in years to come. 

Companies are no longer separate from their customers and the world they live in. Brands are now “open source.” As Dr. Emmanuel Probst says in his book, Assemblage, “Brand managers increasingly endorse the role of brand ambassadors who must listen and represent the brands’ audience.” 

And as such, many brands are looking for inclusive representations that feature and celebrate diversity in their marketing materials. But it can be challenging to source stock images with very specific criteria through keywords and filters. 

Custom illustration sidesteps this flawed process and allows you to focus on the message, and not the specific details of images. You can communicate your brand instead of ticking boxes and connect with your audience by representing them, not talking at them.

3. Put Your Budget to Better Use

Buying stock images used to be a simple and cost-effective alternative to traditional photo shoots, which consist of hiring a photographer, selecting models, scouting locations, requesting permits, etc. It’s time-consuming, rivaled only by that of Sisyphus (you know, the Greek king who was punished with the never-ending job of pushing a giant rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down every time he neared the top)—and at times, is just as rewarding. 

Stock image sites were a great solution for marketers with limited time or budget, but they’re operationally pivoting. Now, as subscription plans begin to replace traditional à la carte purchasing, the cost of images is on the rise. Licensing has become a minefield, with sites offering standard, extended, and unlimited licenses, all with different restrictions and red tape. Meanwhile, Getty has introduced a new service called “Market Freeze,” where you can have an asset removed from their site for the specific duration you have negotiated. 

There may no longer be a turn-key solution for finding assets, but working with a talented graphic designer for custom illustration services provides an option that is less complicated, yours to own, and most importantly, completely unique in the market. There are no complicated licensing calculations or Market Freezes necessary, and it’s easier than ever to unlock the control and input of a photo shoot for less investment than you might imagine.

4. Stop Asking How and Start Asking Why

From time to time, campaigns call for highly-specific imagery. For example, a print ad that requires a photo of a man watering his lawn with a bear sitting in a car talking on a cell phone. After a quick perusal of the stock image sites, I can confirm that this image does not exist, and if so, it is certainly not for purchase. While this example is extreme, it serves to highlight the limitations of most stock. 

Another more common example is marketing for data companies or businesses that sell software-as-a-service. These products are highly complex and integral to our day-to-day lives, but visually communicating their benefits through stock imagery can be challenging. We’ve all seen ads showcasing images of pensive, sometimes smiling people on laptops or tablets in a professional setting. Without copy or context, it could be an ad for anything. 

Custom B2B illustration saves you these image limitations and overly generic representations. With the visual not limited by what already exists, you are free to create equally unrestrained concepts. What would you create if you didn’t have to consider how and could just focus on the why?

5. Commission Authentic Brand Expression

Let’s be clear: There is a good reason that stock sites exist and thrive. I don’t know any agency that doesn’t rely on at least some stock imagery in their daily work. It’s efficient, useful, and affordable. 

Stock sites operate, like most services, as a tradeoff. They provide access to a vast array of resources from thousands of photographers and illustrators from all over the world, all searchable by keywords, colors, and dozens of other criteria. It makes finding something close to what you wanted very efficient. That’s the tradeoff: A lot of options with no control. It’s in this simple compromise that we lose a little of the message. It’s exactly this tradeoff that erodes the concept and your unique claim to it.

Commissioning custom illustrations means no compromises. You go to the source and get the work you want from the artist you want to work with. Instead of thousands of generic options, you get unlimited input with just one talented illustrator. It’s not a transaction, it’s a collaboration. It’s a better investment, and in the end, you get exactly what you wanted.

So, for your next B2B campaign, why not skip the stock photography sites and give custom illustration a try? It’s clear that stock can be useful as a supplemental resource, but when time and budgets allow, try creating custom illustrations that offer a level of complexity and depth that you won’t find in most stock photos. It’s a worthwhile investment that gives your brand an edge and elevates your message in a way that other mediums can’t support.