Using photography to expose your brand essence.

A regular regimen of quality photography is one of the most powerful, influential, and simplest things a school can do to invest in the long-term health of its brand. Overstated? I don’t think so.

A couple weeks ago, my colleague Kate Tomlinson wrote about a photo shoot we recently completed for a client and what it can teach one about successful social media strategies. Now we’ll discuss about the value it holds for sustaining, even building, your brand image.

First I should mention I am the “Ed” she mentioned in her post – the photographer. I’m also a brand strategist and a creative director (in that order) before I’m a photographer. But it is what I do with this “third” discipline that frames and gives life to what I do with my first and second disciplines.

A while back I figured out why it was, or how it was, that great street photographers like
Walker Evans or Henri Cartier-Bresson were always able to come away with these fantastic images; capturing moments of life that ordinary people seem to never even see. Modern day master
Jay Maisel says he never goes out to make pictures, yet he always – let me say that again,
always – has a camera with him.

In my younger days, I just considered shooters like these ‘lucky’ to be there at that magic moment. But I later realized that they were true masters of their craft, relentless in their pursuit of excellence and incredible observers of life. And as for luck? Well luck just seems to have a habit of following those who are infinitely diligent about what they are looking for. When you hear the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words,” these are kind the images that phrase is referring to. (By the way, bad pictures will also communicate a thousand words, just not good ones).

For schools, a continuing commitment to quality photography can unlock these same types of moments on your campus. The resulting images act as emotional triggers that take aim at the essence of your brand promise. In addition to impacting your external audiences, they can have tremendous effect on your internal audiences as well. They act as a mirror revealing the very best
of your institution on a daily basis. That’s a joy to see.

But this doesn’t come by casual effort, or choosing a photographer simply because they’re local,
or the least expensive. The best photographers are artists. They look through the camera the same way a painter looks at a canvas or a film director frames a scene. And and every picture they take contributes to the story of your school. So here’s my rules of thumb for hiring your next photographer and getting the most from your photography investment:

  1. Give it respect. This is not simply about taking pictures. This is an investment in your core communication efforts that have use everywhere: website, admissions, advancement, public relations, marketing, internal campaigns, and more. A few years ago, we did a print piece for a college that became one of the most successful yield pieces in the school’s history. It was 100 pages, and went from concept to delivery in just 33 days. Here’s the point – it was only possible because we had built up a tremendous photo library of rich, storytelling images.
  2. Give it its own budget. Photography deserves its own line item in your budget for the reasons above. It is limited when you limit it to the scope of a project. If you shoot for the viewbook, you’ll have images for the viewbook. Of course there are obvious exceptions, but where this typical approach breaks down is when there is no immediate project, no photography gets done. This creates a vacuum, and when a special project does come up, there’s a scramble for images or an urgent need for a photographer. At at that point you get what you get – and the project potentially suffers for it.
  3. Give it the best photographer you can afford. You’re good at what you do so hire someone who’s good at what they do. Fully explain your vision to them, then let them contribute theirs. Support them, give them space, give them access, and give them someone from your staff to remain in contact with them while they’re on campus. In short, be organized and prepared for their arrival. What you’ll get in return will blow your mind.
  4. Give it a student. Most schools have someone on campus who has a photographic eye and who shoots incessantly. Seek this person out and, if possible, use him or her to fill in the gaps. They’ll get to places your hired gun will never get to. Plus, if this person is a fine arts major or minor, working with the photographer can be kind of a pseudo-internship for them.
  5. Give it time. I said it before, this needs to be a continual effort to build a quality library. Because of styles and situations, images have a lifespan of 3-5 years – depending on the image – sometimes more, sometimes less. And one last thing: don’t expect a photographer to come to campus for one day and capture a year’s worth of academic, athletic and lifestyle magic. Be realistic. Use your new line-item budget to schedule multiple, multi-day shoots throughout the year.

I’ve been doing this a long time. If you follow these steps, you will have images that tell rich, authentic stories. And they will be uniquely yours. As a caveat, they actually help you reveal and “prove” the essence of your intrinsic brand value.

Great photography lies in the power of observation. So does great brand articulation.
Great brand articulations deliver high emotional impact. So do great photographs.
The best photographs give us more than a picture. And the best brands always give us more
than a product, they give us a great experience and build a lasting relationship.