It’s important to note that it’s not lifestyle imagery that’s intrinsically problematic. Coca-Cola, for instance has always had a firm grasp of their brand identity and how lifestyle fits in. Their Open Happiness campaign features imagery of various occasions, all of which have Coca-Cola as central to the happy occasion. Coke brings joy! The imagery is stylistically consistent. The point of view is designed to bring the viewer into the scene, rather than viewing as an outsider. Coke very clearly demonstrates how imagery can reflect and be an extension of their brand.
While family is, and has always been central to Coke’s positioning, they effectively extend their campaign to include sponsorships and other events as illustrated by this NASCAR image:
The takeaway is that the imagery must align with the brand values and personality. It should differentiate the brand and be fully ownable by the brand. Lifestyle imagery is a more obvious choice for lifestyle brands. Outdoor gear and clothing retailers REI and Patagonia both use imagery effectively. While some use of stock imagery may be inevitable in this category for its cost efficiencies, its instructive to see how each uses custom imagery. REI was founded as a consumer cooperative in 1938. Before REI sells a product it must pass their employees’s review. Their employees are outdoor enthusiasts and lifestyle advocates. A product’s inclusion in the store is tantamount to an endorsement. The company has always featured membership as a strategy for creating connection and loyalty. This strategy of community and inclusion long pre-dates the social influence marketing trends. REI’s use of imagery starring members and provided by members is a powerful differentiator and reinforces their customers and prospective customers’ emotional connection to outdoor experience.
REI and Patagonia both use imagery well to promote their environmentalism. REI stays with their focus on their people and uses imagery to represent volunteerism and eco-sensitivity. Patagonia embraces the Earth’s waters as their relevant connection to the environment. As well, being product-centric, Patagonia has a micro site called the Footprint Chronicles devoted to illustrating a product’s journey from design to delivery and the resultant environmental impact. This is a particularly engaging and innovative approach to marrying product and cause, and it is executed with admirable transparency in instances where their products do harm.
Brand building imagery is more of a challenge in the B2B world. ADP provides a good example of a great website with imagery that is merely decorative without furthering the brand. This site is strong on the web brand building categories not under discussion in this post – content, usability and information architecture. If they had incorporated a true brand imagery strategy rather than the good, but cliche images chosen, we could hold it up as a paragon of a B2B brand site. The B2B space is chock full of great companies and great website content if you can disregard the imagery. The trend across all categories, but especially true for B2B users, is a desire to get information quickly. Users thwarted in their attempt may abandon and be left with a poor experience. Imagery should help them along their path to understanding or you’ve just got pretty pictures taking up space. Pretty might win awards, but it doesn’t help the B2B user. It is surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) difficult to point to a B2B site with ownable and differentiating brand imagery. I end up appreciating sites that don’t force it, but use imagery in a supporting role. For instance, 37 Signals, the hot company responsible for the Basecamp project management application, Uses their illustrated logo in a central position with illustrated icons representing product features branching off it. It’s simple, uses white space elegantly and is on-brand. The Our Customers tab brings you to the page where they use photographic imagery. The snapshot quality of the imagery feels authentic and effectively portrays a product that is the right choice for small businesses.
If any readers would like to point out great B2B use of imagery, I’d love to see it. However, I don’t think that the paucity of examples is permanent. As the economy picks up momentum, I believe we will see more website and imagery innovation coming from the B2B space. The recent lean years have likely had a limiting effect as organizations tightened their belts to ride it out. Going forward, users ever-increasing demand for speed and usability will effect imagery strategies, as will increased reliance on mobile devices. Today’s winning strategies may become tomorrow’s dinosaurs.