The Importance of Homepage Image Diversity


3, Feb 2021. 20:57pm

Image is everything, literally and figuratively.

For brands, the visual image speaks to a number of interconnected ideas: how an organization perceives itself; how it perceives the world and the potential users in it; and finally (and maybe most importantly), how users perceive that brand and whether they can see themselves engaging with it. 

The photos a brand chooses to represent its user base and products plays a huge role in what each of those perceptions—its overall image—looks like. These images are particularly significant on websites, which are often a customer’s first contact with an organization. Specifically, homepage images can speak volumes about a company’s opinions, allegiances, customer base and more. 

Today, in an era when numerous social justice movements are fighting for positive change, those allegiances mean a lot. About two-thirds of consumers say it’s important for brands to take public stands on political and social issues, according to research from social media management company Sprout Social (and many other studies in recent years). 

Homepage images are one way companies can show their advocacy for greater diversity, inclusion, and equality. If done correctly, images can reflect the diversity within society and show a brand’s commitment to making the world a more inclusive place. Yet images on many company websites still fail to accurately portray the demographic reality. While about 50% of the U.S. population is white, the portrayal of marginalized groups is often missing altogether, tokenizes diverse individuals, or depicts biases and stereotypes. Individuals from these groups can feel alienated as a result. Morally, this practice is unacceptable. From a business standpoint, the exclusion limits a brand’s potential customer base, particularly with the sought-after 18 to 35 crowd. 

Health and wellness brands in particular can do better, and they can start by being more deliberate and inclusive in image selection, both for the benefit of society and themselves. 

Why it’s important for brands to step up their imagery

“There’s no doubt that advertising and marketing visualizes much of what we believe to be true in the world, and it has tremendous power to further influence and shape our beliefs. To that end, the visuals in campaigns representing people, society, and culture require thoughtful consideration,” said Mike McCabe, Shutterstock’s VP of creative services, in a blog post

Branding visuals require consideration because, without it, the effects can be destructive for consumers. 

“There’s this body of research and a term known as ‘symbolic annihilation,’ which is the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant,” said Dr. Nicole Martins, associate professor in the Media School at Indiana University, to Huffington Post.

First studied in 1976, symbolic annihilation posits that social inequality is maintained for certain groups based on qualities like their race, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status via mis-representations or under-representations of them in the media. 

“When you don’t see people like yourself, the message is: You’re invisible. The message is: You don’t count. And the message is: ‘There’s something wrong with me,’” as Michael Morgan, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of dozens of reports on media effects, told Huffington Post. “Over and over and over, week after week, month after month, year after year, it sends a very clear message, not only to members of those groups, but to members of other groups, as well.”

In the corporate world, this symbolic annihilation is often less deliberate—many brands simply may not be aware that they can do better—but damage is done nonetheless. 

There is a growing consensus to change this narrative. In October 2018, research company Censuswide surveyed over 2,500 marketers in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Germany, and the U.K around their thoughts on the state of diversity in marketing materials. Around 90% of Generation Xers and Millennial marketers believe they should use more diverse representation in their materials because there’s still more work to be done in this area, and doing so would also improve a brand’s reputation. In the last 12 months, 71% of U.S. marketers said they featured more imagery of racially diverse models in their campaigns to represent modern society.

Custom versus stock photos

When brands feature more diverse subjects in their homepage materials, they’re showing their overall support for underrepresented communities and widening their audiences. For many companies, the first step on the road to image-based inclusivity starts with a key decision: to use custom or stock photography.

Stock images are generally the more economical choice for most businesses. With a few clicks, brands can access millions of high-quality, relatively inexpensive photos and can update their site in minutes. However, these images are not perfect. Some images on stock photo repositories are so bad, they become memes. Some are stereotyped. Many collections primarily feature images of able-bodied, very young, beautiful, cis-gendered white people, which is only a small portion of the more than 400 million people that live in the U.S. Also, popular stock images can be reused by many companies, and the more nuanced a brand wants their image to be, the harder it can be to find.

Facilitating a photo shoot requires more time, effort, and money, but the payoff can be significant. Custom photography gives brands complete control over the story their images tell rather than relying on someone else’s vision through stock photography. Commissioned photos can make branded materials feel more authentic and can give page visitors something to remember. If a company has a unique product or customer base, custom photography can highlight those elements in a way that perfectly aligns with a brand’s messaging. Brands also have full control over the subjects in the shoot, putting them in the driver’s seat of enabling greater inclusivity in their images. 

Stock imagery can work well for brands that have tight budgets and deadlines. But whenever possible, brands should consider using custom photography. One good photoshoot can generate enough images to last a brand for years. 

Getting better at picking and choosing 

Internal, often subconscious biases contribute to the ongoing idea that smiling, heteronormative white people are what’s “normal” in our society. And as a result, those are the types of images that often get chosen for branding, which means they also appear first in search results for many terms on stock photo banks. 

When choosing images, brands can ask themselves questions like these: Do the images feature too many or too few people from one group? Is there a good mix of races, ages, genders, abilities and body types in the photo? Do individuals from marginalized groups appear tokenized or of lesser value to other groups in the image? Are there any stereotypes being perpetuated in the image?

While the home page itself probably can’t represent everyone in just one or two shots, as the viewer explores further, you can add others across the site and across media to improve the balance. You can also rotate through a range of images, which has the added benefit of making the home page more lively. Just don’t overdo it. 

When searching for diversity-driven stock imagery, professionals shouldn’t be afraid to search something specific like “Indian woman with phone,” or set a filter to exclude a category like “white men” to get more impactful results. Subscribing to multiple photo repositories can also improve the odds of finding good photos. When commissioning a photo shoot, brands can seek out a photographer from a marginalized group, or one well-versed in how to shoot for diversity and who can aid in ensuring maximum inclusivity.

Marketers can also get second, third or eighth opinions from others in the company (preferably people from different backgrounds) about whether they feel an image is inclusive enough. Not every photo will be perfect but taking just a few extra steps in assessing images before updating the homepage can go a long way. 

Additionally, brands can highlight the diversity of their user base by asking them directly for content. Getting user-generated imagery of product usage or customers in their element is a great way to drive engagement and secure diverse and realistic photos for a homepage. 

The work isn’t hard to do 

Brands can play a big role in fighting symbolic annihilation, reversing negative stereotypes in media, and championing inclusivity simply by changing a few images on their homepage. In doing so, they can open their reach to customers of all demographics and further position themselves on the right side of history. 

To help you out in this effort, here is list of stock photo libraries that highlight subjects with a wide range of diverse characteristics: 

  • CreateHer Stock (“Authentic stock images features melanated women.”)
  • #ShowUs (“Photographs devoted to shattering beauty stereotypes by showing female-identifying and non-binary individuals as they are, not as others believe they should be.”)
  • Jopwell Collection (“Stock photos featuring Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American leaders at work.”) 
  • Nappy (“Beautiful photos of Black and Brown people, for free.”)
  • TONL (“Culturally diverse stock photos that represent the true world we live in.”)
  • Broadly Gender Photos by Vice (“A stock photo library featuring images of trans and non-binary models that go beyond the clichés.”)
  • RawPixel (“Rawpixel is smashing stereotypes to create design resources that reflect today’s society as it really is.”)
  • Stocksy (“An art-forward, royalty-free stock photo + video agency that makes discovering unique, beautifully authentic imagery effortless.”)
  • The Disability Collection (“A growing collection of stock images that break stereotypes and authentically portray people with disabilities in everyday life.”)