Illustrations vs. Stock Footage: What Works Better In Explainer Videos?

by Eugene Lewis
Illustrations vs. Stock Footage

In an age dominated by visual content, explainer videos have established themselves as a powerful tool to convey complex information concisely and engagingly. As brands scramble to create impactful explainer videos, they are faced with a crucial decision: Should they use custom illustrations or rely on stock footage? Each has its merits, and the choice could be more complex than it might seem. Collaborating with a professional video production studio, like, can offer valuable insights and expertise. In this article, we’ll delve into the strengths and limitations of both mediums, hoping to guide brands in making the most informed decision.

The Allure Of Illustrations

Custom illustrations and hand-drawn graphics tailored to the brand’s identity and the video’s content offer a myriad of benefits:

  • Uniqueness: One of the most significant advantages of custom illustrations is their uniqueness. They are crafted from scratch, ensuring that the visuals are one-of-a-kind and perfectly in sync with the brand’s messaging. This originality ensures that the video stands out in the crowded digital landscape. According to HubSpot, consumers prefer unique content that resonates with them.
  • Flexibility and Creativity: Illustrations offer immense flexibility. The limitations of real-world physics or conventional scenarios do not bind you. Illustrations make it possible, whether it’s a character flying, a product transforming, or an abstract concept being visualized. This freedom can lead to more engaging and memorable videos.
  • Consistency and Control: With illustrations, brands ultimately control the visual style, colors, and characters. This allows for a consistent brand image, essential for brand recall and loyalty.

However, while illustrations offer immense potential, they come with challenges. They can be time-consuming and require a higher budget, mainly if you aim for intricate designs and animations.

The Practicality Of Stock Footage

Stock footage, pre-recorded video clips available for licensing, has been the go-to choice for many due to its practicality. Let’s explore its advantages:

  • Cost-Effective: Stock footage can be a lifesaver for brands operating on a tight budget. Platforms like Shutterstock and Getty Images offer many options at a fraction of the cost of custom illustrations or shoots.
  • Time-Saving: Need a video clip of a bustling city or a serene beach at sunset? Stock footage has you covered. You can avoid the logistical nightmares of organizing shoots, especially in remote or inaccessible locations.
  • Professional Quality: Most stock footage is shot by professionals using high-end equipment, ensuring the quality of the video.

Yet, for all its advantages, stock footage has its drawbacks. The biggest concern is the need for more originality. There’s a chance that the clip you’ve chosen has been used by several others, diluting your brand’s distinctiveness. Furthermore, finding the perfect clip that aligns with your message can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Balancing The Two: A Hybrid Approach

There’s a third option for brands torn between illustrations and stock footage: A hybrid approach. Combining the strengths of both mediums can lead to a captivating video:

  • Storytelling Through Illustrations: Use custom illustrations to convey your brand story, introducing characters and scenarios that resonate with your audience.
  • Realism Through Stock Footage: Integrate stock footage to add a touch of realism. For instance, a clip of different cities worldwide can add authenticity if your video talks about global operations.
  • Consistent Branding: Overlay stock footage with custom graphics, logos, or animations, ensuring the brand identity remains constant throughout the video.

Such an approach offers brands the best of both worlds. Platforms like Vimeo show how brands integrate illustrations and stock footage seamlessly for a cohesive narrative.

Choosing between illustrations and stock footage isn’t a binary decision in the vast realm of explainer videos. It requires introspection into the brand’s identity, the message, the target audience, and the available resources.

Choosing The Right Visual Medium: Factors To Consider

Understanding the brand and its audience is paramount in creating the perfect explainer video. Both illustrations and stock footage offer unique flavors to this storytelling endeavor. Here’s a deeper dive into considerations that can guide this choice:

Audience Engagement and Resonance

  • Understanding Demographics: Younger audiences, accustomed to platforms like TikTok and Instagram, might resonate more with dynamic illustrations and animations. In contrast, an older demographic might find authenticity in real-world footage.
  • Brand Persona: A tech startup explaining an innovative product might lean into animated illustrations to showcase future possibilities. On the other hand, a travel agency would benefit from the real-world allure of stock footage showcasing exotic destinations.

Messaging Nuances

Explainer videos often tackle complex subjects. The visual medium should simplify, not complicate:

  • Tangible vs. Intangible: Products or services grounded in the physical world, like real estate or hospitality, might be better served with stock footage. Abstract concepts, like software or financial services, could benefit from illustrative explanations.
  • Emotional Undertones: Stock footage, rooted in reality, can evoke strong emotions. The joy of a family reunion or the thrill of an adventure sport can be captured authentically. Illustrations, with their ability to mold reality, can tackle a broader spectrum of emotions, from humor to nostalgia.

Budgetary And Time Constraints

While the vision for an explainer video might be grand, practical considerations play a role:

  • Production Costs: Custom illustrations, especially intricate animations, can be expensive. Brands must evaluate if the ROI justifies the expense. On the contrary, while stock footage is generally more affordable, licensing famous or exclusive clips can be costly.
  • Timeline: Stock footage is readily available, allowing for quicker turnaround times. Custom illustrations, depending on complexity, can take longer. Brands need to factor in deadlines and launch dates.

Consistency With Previous Branding

It’s crucial for brands to offer a consistent experience across all touchpoints:

  • Historical Precedence: A sudden switch can jolt the audience if a brand has historically used one medium. However, a strategic pivot, backed by audience research and clear communication, can be beneficial.
  • Integration with Other Marketing Collaterals: Brands should ensure that explainer videos align with other materials like brochures, websites, and advertisements. For instance, a brand using cartoon mascots on its website would benefit from a similar illustrative style in its explainer videos.

Expert Opinions And Trends

Renowned marketing expert Seth Godin emphasizes the value of being remarkable. In explainer videos, this translates to being original and resonating. There’s a growing trend of brands blending both mediums, ensuring they stand out while offering familiarity. Websites like AdWeek frequently showcase successful campaigns, offering insights into current trends and audience preferences.

Case Studies: Learning from the Best

  • Dropbox: When Dropbox was still a fledgling startup, they used a simple explainer video with illustrations to explain their then-novel concept. The video, credited with significantly boosting its user base, used custom illustrations to simplify a tech-heavy concept.
  • Airbnb: showcasing actual hosts and authentic experiences, often leans into stock footage interspersed with custom graphics. This offers authenticity while still integrating brand elements.


In the visual symphony that is an explainer video, both illustrations and stock footage play crucial roles. The choice concerns something other than superior but aligns better with the brand’s story, audience, and resources. As with any marketing decision, it’s a blend of intuition backed by research and data. Brands that listen to their audience, stay true to their identity, and aren’t afraid to innovate will invariably make the right choice, creating explainer videos that inform, engage, and inspire.

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