Inclusive Marketing: Creating Authentic Brand Imagery

| By Keith Hutchens

As designers, we’re always challenged to select imagery that effectively connects a brand with its audience. As part of fostering meaningful relationships with that audience, it’s important to remember that brand trust and authenticity go hand-in-hand. And a big part of this conversation today surrounds inclusivity.

While not everyone defines inclusive marketing the same way, our team likes this interpretation from Salesforce: “We define inclusive marketing as creating content that truly reflects the diverse communities that our companies serve.”

Inclusive content can refer to a number of different things. But for the sake of this article, I’m focusing on imagery – photos, illustrations and other graphics — that represent the wide range of people who make up a brand’s community. Representing that community’s diverse ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, religion, and more is an even more important part of my design process, whether I’m sourcing stock images, coordinating custom photography, or lining up illustration.


The Rise of Stock Photography

I have been lucky enough to work in graphic design for over three decades. My generation of designers grew up on drawing boards when there were no readily available stock image libraries to browse. So, we either had to shoot the photos we needed for each project or design custom illustrations. At the time, clients weren’t asking us to create diverse or inclusive imagery. But through the years, we saw changes on both those fronts.

While the concept of stock photography dates back to the 1920s, they weren’t widely accessible until the digital era. Photographers found that selling generic images at affordable royalty-free prices was lucrative, and the result was thousands of picture-perfect smiling faces. As you probably experienced first-hand, these highly staged photoshoots eventually lost their appeal. Today, stock libraries like Getty Images and iStock realize the importance of diversity and have expanded their offerings to accommodate.

In an age of increasing accountability by the public, clients began to steer away from stock photography due to its generic nature and bias tendencies. To avoid being ‘called out’ for a lack of diversity, some brands began to include only illustrations or photography that didn’t show actual people. This felt like the safest option. On the other end of the spectrum, many businesses hoped to incur favor with wider audiences by jam-packing diversity into every image possible. This can also feel forced and lead to viewers questioning brand values and motivations.


Choosing the Right Image

As designers, we want each image in a design to feel natural and right for the piece. We’ve found that the best way to source stock photography is to remove ourselves from the situation and focus on the audience.

We typically start with finding photos for the right situation and age group—are we looking for a happy family, a businessperson, or perhaps an active senior couple? Evaluate the brand’s top demographics like age, socioeconomic status, education, marital status and children.

Then, we consider where the audience is. It’s important not to discount the importance of making sure an image fits within the geography of the campaign. For example, we may find a photo of a woman working remotely from an urban café, but there are euros on the table instead of American dollars.

At this stage, we’re not excluding any photos based on the subject matter’s appearance, race, or ability, but lack of availability of diverse imagery can still cause the image candidate pool to be limited. For our personal style, what matters most is finding that “slice of life” image that feels natural.


Ultimately, our best advice for brands is to be true to themselves, their values and their audiences. Don’t shy away from who you are, but fully embrace the different ways that who you are can be reflected through the imagery you choose. We understand that imagery is only one aspect of addressing inclusivity in marketing. To create a truly inclusive community, brands should not only incorporate diversity in their campaigns but also through their actions.


Need help connecting with key audiences to target for your next campaign? Struggling to source imagery that feels authentic? Contact our team today to learn how we can help you handcraft customized marketing solutions today.


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