Universities and Branding: Rationale for a Research Question

In the previous section of this discussion, it was explained that universities often design and project a brand to entice students to attend. Judson (2008) also suggests that these brands help to communicate specific values of both the students and the administration as a means to paint a further picture of what student’s actual experience will be like when they step on campus as a student. While Judson does not actually prove that universities are successful in creating specific perceptions in students, in a study conducted by Wiese (1994), it was concluded that first year college students who enter their first semester do in fact enter university believing that there is definite truth in the values projected by the university during what Wiese defines as the “recruiting process.” This process has been codified as in-person interactions with admissions staff, potential student interaction with websites and promotional materials like the banner ad described in the previous section, and in-person or online interactions with current college students (1994). Wiese also argued that because first year students come prepared with these conceptions, should they encounter a situation that contradicts their beliefs of what university students and faculty actually value, the first year students will engage in behaviors related to cognitive dissonance theory that seek to reduce this conflict in their beliefs with what the reality actually is (1994). This research will discuss the marriage some of these ideas and the principles of visual rhetoric. This research cannot reflect on any potential effects of messages communicated through visual projections of university “brands.” However, a definite link can first be drawn between how visually universities do in fact communicate their brand.

As it has been made clear that universities create a brand, it is first important to revisit this notion of what, exactly, a brand is and second and more importantly, how that brand is communicated to consumers. According to Court et. al. (1999) a brand, essentially, is a simple way of illustrating to consumers the values, cultural community, goods and/ or services offered, and ultimately what to expect when purchasing a product. Though universities are not products, per say, it has also been established that higher education research draws a direct parallel between consumers and potential university students as they “shop” for the right university just as they would the “right” vehicle (Judson et. al. 2008). As such, the brand of a university is therefore entirely designed to communicate values, cultural community and experience as explained above. While it is difficult to examine all methods by which any business communicates its brand in one research study, it is possible to isolate the study to simply looking at the visuals used to communicate said brand. Logos are arguably the most notable visual used to communicate a brand. Court et.al. (1999) explains that a brand’s logo can, in most cases, do two things. First, it can solely or almost entirely rely on visual elements to communicate the values, etc. of a company or product to consumers. Second, it can entice consumers to want to learn more about the brand and the product(s) it represents. It is important to note that Court does not suggest that the visual elements in a logo are able to entirely communicate all of the brand’s values, etc. he is simply stating that the logo at minimum assists in communicating those values (1999).

While RIT’s “Catch the Spirit” campaign does not have a specific logo, an examination of other visual advertisements used for the campaign reveals a definite theme in the composition of those visuals. In a PDF brochure that is accessible to students via the admissions website1, the striking theme is that nearly one hundred percent of the images depicting an RIT student involved in any given activity, at least one student is wearing RIT paraphernalia or the RIT logo is somehow incorporated into the shot. After identifying this phenomenon, this research will first attempt to discover the potential intent of the rhetor or creator, i.e. the admissions department, by reflecting on if principles of visual rhetoric are employed in these advertisements and second how those principles or strategies may or may not formulate a clear message for the intended audience. There are two important points from Scott’s discussion theory visual rhetoric can be summarized in two parts and are particularly pertinent to this research. First, images are artifacts that are meant to represent a deeper, cultural meaning that extends beyond the fact that images are simply designed for aesthetic pleasure; and, second, the study of visual rhetoric therefore places particular emphasis on the intent of the creator of the image as a method for hypothesizing what the message of the visual actually is (1994). Therefore, this research will seek to be able to explain the how values sanctioned by the university are intended to be communicated using the principles of visual rhetoric. As such the research question that will be addressed is as follows: how do the principles of visual rhetoric in university advertisements combined with the marketing principles of branding of universities visually communicate specific potential messages to intended audiences?


  1. Strict copyright infringement laws prohibited the uploading of the PDF to this website. The PDF referenced in the paper can be found by following the link embedded in the text or here.

Works Cited

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

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.

Wiese, Michael, D. (1994). College Choice and Cognitive Dissonance: Managing Student/Institution Fit. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 5(1), 35-47.


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