When we think about the most fundamental elements of a brand’s visual identity, we typically think logo, typography, and color palette. But an equally important and yet often overlooked fourth pillar is photography. The imagery used in your marketing efforts is a critical component of how your brand is perceived and plays just as important of a role in the look and feel of your marketing assets as your logo and color palette. In this blog post, we’ll address the differences between stock and custom photography, and why we always recommend investing in the latter.

Let’s start with the basics of stock photography. Stock photography refers to any image purchased from one of the stock imagery houses, such as Getty or Shutterstock. You’re paying a set fee to use this image in your marketing materials, and that fee varies depending on the type of image, size, and where and how often it will be used.

Stock photography is the fast food of marketing images—it’s quick, it’s cheap, but there isn’t a lot of variety. And because there isn’t a lot of variety, it doesn’t allow for brand-wide visual cohesion.

Visual what? I’ll explain. All photographers have a particular style that is inherent to them. If many stock images from many different photographers are used within one format, say, a website, the brand can feel disjointed, unrefined, and lack distinction.

When a designer is searching for stock photography, a lot of variables will factor into the selection process: What is the style of the photograph? Does it align with the existing visual tone? Does it clearly depict the product or service the brand provides? It’s not always easy to find abundant options that fit. Further complicating this process is the fact that many brands operate within a certain niche and don’t necessarily have stock image options that accurately reflect their product or process.

Another big drawback to stock options is the finite number of stock photo models, and they start to become very familiar faces on stock house sites. You don’t want your banker to show up as a waiter in someone else’s brand (awkward, and it does happen). Aside from repetitive models, inauthenticity is another big issue with stock imagery. Customers are smart and they can often tell when they are seeing real customers versus stock. In fact, according to MarketingExperts.com, when testing a real client photo against a top-performing stock photo, visitors who saw the real customer were 35% more likely to sign up.

Now let’s talk custom. When we refer to custom imagery, we are referring to photography that is shot specifically for your brand, product, or campaign. You choose the photographer, the models (and sometimes those models are actual employees or customers), and location. While more expensive and time-consuming than simply going stock, the end result is a library of imagery that is distinctly reflective of your brand. Your design team will have a richer and more dynamic set of visual assets to work with, and you’ll have more visual cohesion across the board. So, while the upfront investment is greater, the benefits accrue over time, as you can pull from and add to this library of memorable brand-specific imagery, differentiating your company from its competitors.

The case for custom-over-stock is even more concrete in the world of B2B marketing, because B2B marketing has a longer, more complex sales cycle. A single, targeted potential buyer will likely have more exposure to your imagery along the many touchpoints of their purchasing journey. Therefore, it can be an important tool in creating familiarity and resonance with a potential buyer over the course of that sales cycle. As an added bonus, custom photography may even help boost your search engine traffic.

Remember, it’s not just about first impressions in the B2B world, it’s also about the subsequent series of impressions that must reinforce the brand’s messaging. Your brand’s visual assets are an important tool in creating marketing that sinks in a bit deeper than the competition’s, and that just might be what tips the deal in your favor.

Jason James is Associate Creative Director at Spire Agency. To stay up to date on Spire news, awards, and blog posts, subscribe to our newsletter.