How Stock Photography Became Healthcare’s Bad Habit

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By Jeff Cohn

Healthcare providers have an addiction: stock photography.

A smiling doctor with model looks laughs as she holds a patient’s hand, and a stethoscope gleams on a new white table. You get the idea.

Unoriginal images like this one might seem pleasant and harmless enough, but they actually do little to tell a healthcare provider’s story or relay the important message behind a product. At my agency, in fact, the creative team’s No. 1 complaint about the healthcare industry is its use of stock photography in marketing materials.

But it’s no surprise that hospitals have succumbed to this particular bug. Caught between market-driving forces, federal and state regulations, and evolving insurance policies, healthcare providers certainly feel the pressure — and award-winning marketing is far from their top priority. Additionally, providers have to adhere to strict HIPAA regulations that protect patient privacy, meaning the use of any original photography is a slippery slope. Thus, the path of least resistance is using stock images.

At the same time, healthcare has shifted immensely over the last decade. The industry is far more consumer-driven, and visual marketing is essential to its engagement. After all, nearly one-third of marketers consider images to be the most critical type of content. So how can healthcare providers tell a story for their patients without resorting to their unoriginal vice?

How healthcare brands can overcome their stock photo habit

Each stock image represents a missed opportunity to differentiate your brand — and using canned visuals can gradually affect your organization’s overall health as well. Bland, anonymous, identity-vacant photos are mere placeholders. And while you likely won’t notice the effect of stock photography on your bottom line right away, investing in these images over ones that resonate means favoring an inferior approach to growing your brand.

At worst, poorly chosen stock photography can also damage your credibility. Imagine choosing a stock photo of a doctor to market specialty software to the oncology field. The model in the shot is probably wearing a stethoscope or reading an X-ray when oncologists don’t typically do either. These tiny details can make customers lose trust.

It’s not just the problematic qualities of stock photography — such as inauthenticity, lack of creative control, or the risk of mimicking competitors — that could hurt your healthcare brand. You also miss out on the potential revenue and loyalty that come from personalization. When healthcare brands choose innovative marketing strategies over stock photos, they elevate the impression patients and practitioners have of them.

One striking example comes from Kaiser Permanente. For its “Thrive” campaign, the healthcare company chooses emotional imagery that cuts through clinical staples and leaves a lasting impression on its audience. In Kaiser Permanente’s one-minute ad, “Still I Smile,” we witness a young boy walking through his neighborhood as he narrates his experience with depression in poem form. The ad closes with a somber statement: “Depression is hard to put into words.” The video is simple, the story is clear, and the impact is an emotional one — no lab coats or blue-gloved nurses in sight.

Another example is the “Please Listen to My Heart” campaign from Edwards Lifesciences. The campaign uses close-up photographs of unadulterated human faces to evoke, very literally, an up-close-and-personal understanding of people affected by heart conditions.

With the pressure to market far, wide, and often, healthcare brands need easy ways to add visuals to their messages. Using stock photos isn’t a terrible thing in and of itself; many stock images do illustrate real human experiences. But the key is choosing wisely: If patients can’t see themselves in the images you use, they’ll go elsewhere for their care. Choose to be intentional and distinct. Details clearly matter.

Jeff Cohn is the president and CEO of COHN Marketing, an agency that develops strong brands that maximize business success. Prior to launching COHN, Jeff spent most of his career in retail real estate, developing marketing programs for shopping centers across the country.

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