Authenticity is essential for your brand. Don’t believe it? A recent study by the New York Times found that authenticity is more important to consumers than brand recognition

authentic chart

Perceived authenticity can not only affect your brand perception, but also your bottom line. A study from Cornell University showed that when menu items had geographically or culturally influenced names (ie: Grandma’s Chili instead of Chili) patrons ordered them more and even said they tasted better.

In today’s digital world where 1.8 billion photos are uploaded and shared on Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram daily, imagery has become a major method for brands to express authenticity.

girls on beach

So what makes an authentic photo?

  • Technical execution
  • Tell a human story
  • Relatable

Technical execution

Choosing images that are of a high quality is a vital first step in creating and finding authentic photography. The main components of technical composition include:

  • Exposure: The amount of light that enters the camera through the lens (ie: too dark or too light).
  • Focus: The sharpness or blurriness of the subject you’re photographing.
  • Composition: Where in the frame you place your subject.

Tell a human story

While technical execution is important, just because a photo nails technical components doesn’t necessarily mean it’s effective. For example, take a look at the two photos below:


The photo on the left is technically sound, but instinctually, you’re drawn to the photo on the right. The photo on the right, however, is technically imperfect. His face is overexposed, the focus is a bit soft and the composition is a bit off. Emotionally though, it feels authentic, like looking over at a friend sitting in a coffee shop.

Be relevant

Above all, no matter how authentic your photos may be, they must be relevant and relatable to your audience. Put yourself in your audience’s world. Where do they live? What is around them? What products are familiar to them? What is the weather like there? Playing a modified game of whodunit is the best way to learn the nuances of your customers’ media consumption habits so that you can fit right in.

Let’s say you’re targeting millennials. The photo below would fail for several reasons:

man in cab

  1. The photo doesn’t feature your audience: When targeting a certain audience, it’s important to feature them and people they can relate to in your imagery. In this example, the man is 30+ years older that your target audience.
  2. Millennials don’t ride in taxis: Millennials aren’t riding in taxis. They’re calling Uber and Lyft on their smartphones.
  3. Background is ambiguous: If you’re trying to target people in a certain area, be sure to feature scenery that is unique to their area or with landmarks they can recognize.
  4. It’s clearly staged: Nobody rides in a car, waving with their head outside the window. Period.

Using real-world photos in marketing is the best way for brands to relate to their audiences. One way to find these types of images is to licensed user-generated content from real-world photographers. My favorite resource for this is Twenty20, which provides the largest collection of rights-cleared user-generated photographs. Their curated collections are amazing for inspiration and their photos are so extremely well done and unique. If you can’t afford licensing, take photos of employees and activities around your office. I guarantee showing your surroundings will come off far more authentic to your audience than any stock photo.


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