Universities and Branding: A Visual Analysis of Advertisements for the Rochester Institute of Technology

In today’s overwhelming world of digital media technologies in which instant gratification is now a click away and consumers are constantly flooded with advertisements designed to entice them to satisfy their every want and need, it is no wonder that colleges and universities are faced with the extreme challenge of “standing out.” Though many college students and potential students may have little idea that their university of choice implements a variety of strategies, particularly in their visual and online communication mediums, to create a specific “brand,” the purpose of this visual analysis will be to reflect on and support the notion that universities do, in fact, create such brands. This is most certainly not a new phenomenon. According to Judson et al., universities create brands and subsequently communicate those brands to a variety of audiences as a means for remaining competitive (2008 p.57). The focus of this analysis will be on a series of images that blend both pictures and text which are featured as a banner images at the header of websites for the Rochester Institute of Technology. The first image that will be analyzed can be found as a banner on the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Freshman Admissions homepage. The website’s copyright prohibits the online publication of this image, thus a link to the website referenced in this study can be found in the “Notes” section.1 The intended outcome of this analysis will be to reflect on how these banner images successfully communicate the brand created by RIT by examining principles of visual rhetoric and following the nine visual communication analysis steps as outlined by Helmers. Images that will be included in this study will be taken from but not limited to the RIT Admissions campaign titled “Catch the Spirit.”

To begin the analysis, it is necessary to first briefly describe the image that will be discussed and to place the image in context, as Helmers recommends. It is important to note that though the physical image discussed in this analysis was originally a photograph of a sporting event, that image has been re-configured as a form of advertisement as it now holds text and contains additional graphic design principles that were not a part of the original photograph. The advertisement features members of the 2010 RIT Men’s Hockey Team holding up a championship cup while spectators cheer them on after their win at the 2010 Atlantic Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament.2 The image has been tinted orange and features the slogan “Catch the Spirit” in addition to a byline which features the Twitter icon and the text “#RIT students.” Though the RIT Admissions website does not specifically reference the graphic designer responsible for creating this advertisement, it can be concluded that due to the fact that this advertisement is featured solely on the Admissions web page that the creator is employed or commissioned by RIT Admissions. The photographic portion of the advertisement was taken on March 20th, 2010 at the championship game for the Atlantic Men’s Hockey Tournament. 3 However, because there is no public information regarding the specific publication date of the advertisement, it can be concluded that the image was created sometime between the original date of the photograph in 2010 and the present, October, 2012, when the website was accessed. In an interview conducted via e-mail with the Assistant Director of RIT Admissions B. Adams (personal communication) stated, the “Catch the Spirit” is a campaign which debuted in the 2011 school year that attempts to capture RIT’s differentiated brand and additionally that all images and advertisements for this campaign that are featured on the webpage were uniquely created for internet marketing. 4 Therefore, it can be concluded that the advertisement was originally published as it is currently displayed on the Admissions page.

It is important to next discuss the intended and initial audience of this image and the campaign. As discovered during the interview with B. Adams (personal communication), the “Catch the Spirit” campaign is, essentially the Admission department’s successful embodiment of RIT’s brand. Judson et. al., explains that ‘‘a brand is a name, an image, a compelling description of an organization that captures the essence of the value that your college provides,” (2008 pp. 57). Therefore, the slogan in combination with the image is intended to communicate a specific value that RIT as an entire institution holds in high regard and additionally uses to define itself to outside communities. As mentioned, this artifact is featured on the homepage of the Admissions website. Because the purpose of an Admissions website is to attract potential students, it is arguable therefore that the intended audience is those potential students and/or parents of the students who intend to find out more information. It is also arguable that the intended and initial audience combined stretched beyond the standard potential students demographic. University websites, particularly those websites which strongly and effectively communicate brand to intended audiences often attract what Abrams classifies as “stakeholders,” i.e. current and potential investors in the university, administrators and potential administrators, and employees and potential employees (2010 pp.8). In other words, an Admissions website and arguably an admissions digital media campaign is not only subject to the discretion of potential students, but a much wider audience of viewers who will take in the projected brand and arguably make resulting decisions according to their interpretation of that brand (Abrams, 2010 pp. 8 & Judson et.al. 2008 pp. 64). To continue with the steps of Helmers’ analysis, as mentioned previously, the medium the image is created from is a combination of photography and a graphic design program which allows placement of superimposed text and creating a tint of color to the original image, which in this case is an orange tint.

It is important to note that there is no title or caption that specifically explains the image. In the case of this advertisement a specific explanation of the event depicted is not necessary as this image is not used for a journalistic purpose. In an article that examines the more recent theory of the rhetoric of Visual Communication, L. Scott discusses the idea that visuals that are created as advertisements are not simply a two dimensional reflection of reality that is depicted in a photograph (1994, pp. 252). Additionally, she argues that advertising images inherently project symbolic meaning to viewers who in turn respond with a deeper, metaphoric analysis of the image instead of a literal interpretation (Scott 1994 pp. 253).  Therefore, though a caption is not included to describe the physical subject, the RIT Men’s Hockey Team from 2010, the original purpose of the advertisement in its entirety does not require a caption to fulfill its purpose. The purpose as mentioned was to first create an image that reflects the university brand for the purposes of enticing potential students to click on the banner image and learn more about the Rochester Institute of Technology and how, more specifically, “Catching the Spirit” defines the university. 4

Now that the image has been fully put in to context, it is necessary to discuss step eight as prescribed by Helmers: Research the Image. Though some of the explanation of the image’s greater purpose has already been explained and supported with scholarly research, it is important to begin to fully develop this idea that the image is in fact a method of communicating a brand. As Court et. al. explain, consumer brands “work” because they reduce risk of error in consumer choices, in addition to providing emotional benefits and a sense of community (1999 pp. 101). Judson et.al. takes this notion a step further by relating the term “consumer” to “student” as it applies to “shopping” for the college or university that they will someday attend (2008 pp. 64). It is because of this fact that students who visit university admissions websites can be considered targets of specified advertising campaigns such as “Catch the Spirit” and therefore principles of branding and visual rhetoric as it applies to branding and advertisements can be applied. It is important to point out that there are no scholarly articles that specifically reference the artifact and therefore there will be no reflection on the historical data, background, or original intent of the creator of this image. Thus, the remainder and conclusive thoughts of this first installment of the discussion will draw from texts that reference advertisement and digital media campaigns as visual rhetoric and further reflect on how visual rhetoric theory was utilized to convey this sense of “branding.”

Though branding can occur via a variety of methods, the particular phenomenon chosen for this discussion involves a critical analysis of what Hocks defines as “digital writing environments,” which can be defined as any visual piece of communication that combines visuals and text that is meant for a mass media audience and is uploaded in some form to the internet (2003 pp. 651).  From a theoretical perspective, Scott would further argue that the artifact, as it is an advertisement for the specific purpose of branding, is an artifact created using the principles of visual rhetoric which include the use of a trope (1994 pp. 254). Scott further defines a trope as “an argument presented in a figurative form,” and explains that visual advertising is often not intended to be taken literally but is intended to convey a deeper, broader, sense of meaning (1994 pp. 254). Therefore, though the artifact examined in this discussion includes an image of a real, physical event that took place and can easily be put solely in context of that event, Helmers’ entire step two of placing the image in context supports the idea that the artifact as a whole is meant to convey a much broader meaning: the university’s brand. Though there has not been enough information gathered at this time to conclusively say or define what the Rochester Institute of Technology’s brand is or intends to convey, it is arguable in conclusion, that this particular artifact as part of a larger campaign seeks to bolster if not convey the meaning and value of the brand to the vast audience who encounter it. 


1 The image described and used for analysis in this paper can be found at the following link. http://www.rit.edu/emcs/admissions/ . The image is part of the banner located at the top of the website homepage. I do not own this image nor do I intend any copyright infringement.

2 This information was taken from the following RIT archived website http://www.ritathletics.com/news/2010/3/20/MHOCKEY_0320102451.aspx?path=mhock

3 This information was taken from the following RIT archived website http://www.ritathletics.com/news/2010/3/20/MHOCKEY_0320102451.aspx?path=mhock

4  Information from an interview with the Assistant Director of RIT Admission Bryan Adams

Works Cited

 Abrams, Katie (2010).  Branding the Land Grant University: Stakeholders’ Awareness and Perceptions of the Tripartite Mission.  Journal of extension.   48 (6), 1-11.

Court, D. C., Leiter, M. G., & Loch, M. A. (1999). BRAND LEVERAGE. Mckinsey Quarterly, (2), 100-110.

Hocks, M. E. (2003). Understanding visual rhetoric in digital writing environments. College Composition and Communication, 54(4), 629-656.

Judson, Kimberly M., Aurand, Timothy W., Gorchels, Linda, & Gordon, Geoffrey L. (2008). Building a University Brand from Within: University Administrators’ Perspectives of Internal Branding. Services Marketing Quarterly, 30 (1), 54-68.

Scott, L. M. (1994). Images in Advertising: The Need for a Theory of Visual Rhetoric. Journal Of Consumer Research, 21(2), 252-273.




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