A new model for imagery and brand building

Luke Chesser

Our mission for Unsplash is to make images open and freely usable.

We started the Unsplash library by sharing our own photos, making them available for anyone to use. Shortly after, we were joined by other creators who also wanted to share their images with the same goal.

Since then, the Unsplash library has grown to more than 1.5 million photos, all shared with the same purpose, collectively enabling more than 1 billion creations.

Since the photos are free, for the longest time, a lot of people asked: “How will Unsplash make money?”

And if you search the internet, you’ll find a lot of wild ideas. Most centered around the idea of limiting access and making images less open.

But from our perspective, there’s only ever been one way that truly works for everyone, while staying true to our original goal and values.

Today we’re sharing publicly what we’ve been building towards since beginning Unsplash.

It gives new high-quality content to creators. It enables paid opportunities for contributors that are interested in professional work. It supports Unsplash, ensuring that we can continue to host more images and build new features. And most importantly, it makes images more accessible and open — not less.

An amazing thing happens when you make something open: it gets used. A lot.

Unsplash images are the most viral form of media ever created. They attract tens of millions of creators each month, who use the images to create the media that shapes and influences the rest of the world: articles, presentations, blog posts, graphics, and social media. And as of last year, the Unsplash library became the source for the majority of this media, being used more than the rest of the industry combined, including Getty Images, Shutterstock, and Adobe.

All of this media generates a massive amount of views for each image.

Our contributors know this phenomenon well — a set of images on Unsplash regularly generate more views than the largest events like the Superbowl, the most viral tweets, or the front page of publications like the New York Times.

This is Unsplash’s superpower and it’s the key to building a new model for imagery.

Since the start of Unsplash, our hypothesis has been that this level of reach and impact enables a new model where companies build awareness and relevance at mass scale by running branded campaigns on Unsplash.

Over the past few months, we’ve been working with a selection of companies to do just that. Our first partners include Google, Harley-Davidson, Square, Boxed Water, Le Creuset, and Timberland.

We picked each brand because they were trying to accomplish something incredibly difficult: shifting mainstream perception.

For Harley, they want to expand their notoriety from the classic chopper to their new modern electric motorcycle; for Boxed Water Is Better, they want to bring awareness to plastic alternatives for water bottles; for Google Chromebooks, they’re making their flagship products more appealing to students.

To do this, each company shared branded images on Unsplash that capture their brand goals. The images then appear promoted in Unsplash feeds and under relevant searches, where they’re downloaded and used by creators reaching an audience of more than 300 million people each month.

This gives the brands the opportunity to become the focus for topics that matter to them by being featured natively in articles, presentations, posts, and all of the media that we see each day across the internet.

The ubiquity of this content allows them to influence how people feel about their brand at a scale and efficiency not possible through traditional TV or digital platforms.

This can be used to bring awareness, change positioning, and reinforce brand messaging without creating the negative experience and fatigue that comes with traditional advertising.

“As a brand disrupting the packaged water industry, we are thrilled to be one of the first partners on Unsplash’s new ad platform. We all know the importance of visuals in today’s digital environment. Through commissioning some of our favorite photographers, we’re setting a new norm of sustainability, allowing creatives everywhere to have access to images free from plastic bottles harming our planet.” CMO, Rob Koenen at Boxed Water is Better

And unlike other forms of advertising, Unsplash for Brands doesn’t require massive amounts of personal data and creepy hyper-targeting to end up in the right place — their utility and message put them in front of the right audience.

After all of the bad forms of advertising that exist, we think there’s a way to make advertisements that don’t feel like a punishment to every viewer.

Advertising that is beautiful and valuable.

Each of these campaigns not only pay to distribute their images on Unsplash, but they also hire Unsplash contributors to create the authentic, high-quality imagery needed for their campaigns.

For contributors that want the opportunity to make money, a single campaign can generate more money per photographer than a decade’s worth of stock licensing payments.

Brands get impact, contributors get paid opportunities, and creators get more images to create openly with. It’s a win-win-win.

Rather than doing what everyone else has done before because it’s safe, we think it’s possible to create entirely new markets with vastly more opportunity for everyone.

Unsplash for Brands is the first of these opportunities, but we’ll also be introducing others connected to it soon.

For more on how we’re working with brands, check out the write-ups in Campaign and Techcrunch, or send us an email at