What happens in the music world does not stay in the music world. In fact, it has always been a precursor and a very good indicator of upcoming trends in other digital media evolution. While last week’s partnership between Apple and the band U2 was mostly covered for its massive release of a free music album, it is important to view it as it might impact the photo tech market.

Apple and U2 partnered on the free release of a full music album
Apple and U2 partnered on the free release of a full music album

When done properly, an image – or a series of images – can become inseparable from the brand messaging and carry it far beyond its competition ( think Marlboro Man, for example). Now that photography is everywhere, used and produced by everyone, it has become even more important. With the positioning of social media right into the center of people’s lives – and we know how much social media thrives on exchange of photos – it is  suicidal for a brand not to have a strong photography strategy.

The iconic photo of the Marlboro Man
The iconic photo of the Marlboro Man

Like with music, brands are a very important consumer of photography, licensing it from companies or individuals, against a fee. But that it changing. More and more, some brands have realized that they need to shift from renting photographs to producing and owning  them. Why ? Because if they own the images, they can extend their messaging far beyond the limitation of a paid campaign and reach deep inside social media. They can switch from showing a photograph associated to their brand to giving it away for mass consumption. Rings a bell ? Yes, it’s the Apple/U2 model.

The song remains the same

Thing is, with photography it is much easier to include a brand mention than with music. While with a song, you would need to include lyrics mentioning a product or service , which would quickly turnridiculous. Sure, you can work with an artist’s influence and associate it with the brand so that, after a while, hearing the music makes you consciously or unconsciously makes you think of a product – certainly what Apple is going for – but it is an extremely complex approach. It has more chances of being a flop than succeeding. While we think it will succeed and people will associate the songs to Apple every time they hear it, thejury is still out on the Apple/U2 experiment. With photography, it is much less trickier. A series of pictures can always carry a visual brand association within. With photography, a well place logo or product placement can do the trick.

Earned media vs no media

So when will we see an Apple/U2 experiment with photography? Brands like Red Bull have experimented with free photography for a while now. As a very potent extension of their extreme sport marketing, Red Bull offers free photography to any legitimate publication. Want to write about an event sponsored by Red Bull ? Go to their Content Pool and help yourself with free high quality images. Of course, each of them contain Red Bull logos but that is a small price to pay in exchange for free. It is very successful: earned media for their Stratos campaign is estimated in the ten of millions of dollars. Each photograph is theirs: Created, edited, stored and distributed by Red Bull.

The Stratos campaign : Jumping into millions of earned media
The Stratos campaign : Jumping into millions of earned media

But no need to go to the edge of the stratosphere for brands to benefit from photography. Very soon, we will start seeing brands producing high-end photography content for free distribution. Some are already doing it via their Instagram accounts but none have gone all the way. After all, most have a photography department – if only to produce product photography – so it is not a far cry to expand it.

Beyond the product

Why not, for example, create a free image database ? A brand like Ikea, for example, could use existing and specially created photography to create a large image database where anyone could download a high res image. All images, of course, would contained Ikea products, offering the Swedish brand unmatched exposure. GM could do the same, with hundreds of thousand of car/location images. Airline companies with travel, Uber with cityscapes,  fashion brands with lifestyle and so on.  Look at what free photos has done to the NASA brand. Apple is allegedly spending $100 million on its U2 campaign. 10% of that amount would build a very substantial photo collection with years of return.

The Red Bull Content Pool : where media partners can get free branded pictures.
The Red Bull Content Pool : where media partners can get free branded pictures.

Everyone needs and uses pictures today, not just corporate users or publishers. From personal websites to blogs, Tumblrs, Facebook banners, Pinterest boards, we all can all use professionally taken pictures in our daily lives. Sure, we can pick a few Creative Commons off Flickr but just imagine if we could also go to our favorite brand’s website and use those ?  The market is there. It is now just a question of time and organisation for brands to start filling it in and reaping the benefits.

Photo by cuellar

Author: Paul Melcher

Paul Melcher is a highly influential and visionary leader in visual tech, with 20+ years of experience in licensing, tech innovation, and entrepreneurship. He is the Managing Director of MelcherSystem and has held executive roles at Corbis, Stipple, and more. Melcher received a Digital Media Licensing Association Award and is a board member of Plus Coalition, Clippn, and Anthology, and has been named among the “100 most influential individuals in American photography”


  1. Brand sponsored photography has been around for quite some time. Most brands, music bands, dance companies, event organisers don’t have such a complex and professional Media Pool sites like Red Bull does, but usually have some sort of imagery they provide for the media either upon request or they don’t even ask just send them with their media infos and statements.
    Many companies wilfully limit media access to force media using their handout images while others rather than paying photographers to create the brand imagery try to get photos from photographers willing to shoot for free. The most common practice in the music industry is to get all photographers sign a contract the band gets photo usage rights for free unless you cannot photograph a concert…

    1. Author

      Correct. But up until now the type of photography produced and offer by brands was limited to illustrated articles written about the brand. What I talk about in this entry is brands breaking out of this limited offering and distributing images that can be used anywhere, by anyone, for any purpose. like Getty Images or Shutterstock’s offering, but produced by a brand and distributed for free.

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