A Picture is Worth a Million Bucks: Improving Photography in Financial Marketing

By Hillary Kelbick

We see them every day. Photos of people appear in print advertisements, websites, brochures, billboards and on TV commercials. Marketers and advertising experts are regularly tasked with the job of selecting the images that they believe will interest their—or their clients’—target audiences. Part and parcel of that objective is effectively using imagery to create a feeling of inclusiveness and authenticity.

For bank marketers, the challenge of selecting photos is perhaps more complicated as bank products are obviously less visual. You can’t show a picture of a person with a savings account the same way you can show a person on a bicycle, if your product is bicycles.

Imagery associated with intangible products is more about positioning and emotions. Images must evoke a feeling that your brand wishes to imbue. More often than not, the goal is for the audience to observe the image and identify with it. Resonance can be either present-tense or aspirational.

For more than 30 years I’ve honed an expertise in financial marketing, and here are some of the lessons I’ve learned about how to utilize effective imagery.

Budget permitting, always consider using original photography. There is no substitute for creating a custom image that you and a professional photographer art direct from start to finish. Original photography affords a marketer the unique opportunity to create a look and feel that is purely consistent with your brand, no compromising necessary.

Be prepared to retouch. When using stock photography, be prepared to make digital alterations as needed. Consider retouching subjects’ clothing to match your primary or accent brand colors or integrating components like icons, shapes or lines from your graphic palette.

Create a photo library. Build a library of photos that exemplify your brand. Sometimes your brand’s attributes are well-defined and lend themselves to an obvious set of images or a particular style; other times, it’s the very act of building the library that fleshes out the kind of imagery that best articulates the brand. Either way, as you collect and use images, measure your results—quantitatively, if possible, or qualitatively, if necessary—and refine your library. The exercise of creating your photo library should be a dynamic, longitudinal and incremental one whereby you’re constantly learning and improving the visual language that defines your brand.

Consider the style and setting of the photos that really define your brand. Is it “slice-of-life”? Portrait? Urban? Suburban? Rural? “Moment in time” snapshot? Eye-to-eye? Silhouetted? Landscape? Commercial? A thread of continuity should tie your library into a cohesive aesthetic.

Remember your market. You may think it goes without saying, but this point can be among the hairiest: The imagery that appears in conjunction with your brand should physically represent the audience you are targeting. Your photography should mirror the demographic realities of your customer and prospect bases, and their values. Financial products and services are especially correlated with stage-of-life milestones. Use a data-driven approach to assess the audience. What age is it? What does it look like? What is the average household income? What does their average home or neighborhood look like? Use photography to depict your target personas.

Keep a close eye on quality and usage. Select images that reproduce well based on where they are being utilized. Image files for use on the web have vastly different specifications from those that will be printed in magazines or in large format collateral. Review along every step of the retouching process. Check image continuity—are arms, fingers and other body parts intact and do they appear natural?

What about the area around subjects’ heads? Does their hair fade awkwardly into the background or abruptly disappear? Seemingly conspicuous blunders in continuity escape reviewers’ eyes as often as small lapses in detail.

Consider “rights-managed” versus royalty-free images when using stock images—particularly if your campaign will be used across various media and markets. There is nothing worse than hitting it big with a blockbuster of an ad, only to find that the image you used is closely associated with another company’s brand—say, toothpaste or toilet paper. Oops!

Photography is a key component to creating powerful messages and campaigns. An iconic photo can make a product or brand a household name, while a forgettable one will fizzle into obscurity. Financial marketers would do well to keep these best practices in mind when choosing imagery to associate with their products and services. The right photography can go a long way toward building customer loyalty and improving the perception of your brand.

Hillary Kelbick is president and CEO of MKP communications, a New York-based agency specializing in financial services marketing and merger communications.