Universities and Branding: How Visuals Ultimately Communicate Values

For the third part of this analysis, it is important to re-introduce the research question posed at the end of the second section. While the analysis of specific artifacts that are a part of RIT’s “Catch the Spirit” campaign have already been introduced and analyzed, it is further important to note that this section will draw relevant conclusion regarding the analysis by answering the proposed research question: “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?” It has already been discussed that that as universities attempt to communicate a broader message to potential students using the principles of branding. Additionally, the point has already been made that there is a potential for visuals used in the branding of universities to assist in creating those messages. As such, it is important to re-visit the artifacts previously discussed to more fully understand the rationale that will lead to conclusions about the research question.
Analysis Findings
The first artifact was identified in the first section of this paper as a banner advertisement from an online Admissions campaign for the Rochester Institute of Technology. The advertisement features the RIT Men’s Ice Hockey team after winning a championship game. A number of spectators in the background are also RIT students or supporters as they are wearing RIT “gear.” It can be interpreted by the joyous expressions on the faces of those in the photo, the fact that the team is holding up the championship cup, and the fact that the bleachers are packed that this photograph is meant to capture the idea that RIT is full of school spirit. The slogan “Catch the Spirit” arguably is inviting future students to join in. As both Wiese (1994) and Judson et. al. (2008) mention in their research, it is advertisements like these that are meant to communicate a deeper message to the students such as that RIT is an exciting place, full of school spirit, and ultimately that potential students should want to enroll because of these factors. The second artifact presented was also an advertisement for RIT and featured a number of supporting images meant to be a part of this “Catch the Spirit Campaign.” The advertisements featured students wearing RIT shirts and exhibited various activities that RIT students are involved in, such as playing intramural soccer, or building a robot for an engineering fair, or simply grabbing a cup of coffee from an on-campus coffee shop. Judson et. al. would argue that the presence of RIT’s logo is intentional as it is meant to create a specific brand that will capture the essence of RIT’s community with one visual.
It is now important to briefly reflect on what more specifically the intended message of the rhetor might be. To revisit Scott, there is academic research that supports the idea that images in advertising do in fact communicate specific and broader meaning than the literal interpretation of what is happening in the image (1994). Specifically, the first artifact as a piece of visual rhetoric may intend to communicate a few different messages. First, the image of victory and of joy on the team’s faces in addition to the image of the cup placed as the dominant focus in the image indicates that the rhetor’s intention may be to communicate first that RIT is a “winner” as a team is depicted victorious. Perhaps the cheering crowd in the background is meant to represent RIT as a supportive and enthusiastic community. Ultimately, however, it is arguable that perhaps the depiction of RIT as victorious could communicate the deeper message that RIT is the “winning” school for potential students and that they, like the hockey team, will be successful, joyous, and a part of a tight-knit community that roots for each other and takes pride in itself. There is this similar feeling of community communicated in the second artifact which features closely interwoven images of RIT students participating in a vast array of events and experiences that arguably are meant to capture that same feeling of “victory” There is a strong sense of camaraderie in each of the images as many students are seen embracing each other or working closely with each other and professors. Perhaps this paired with the abundance of individuals wearing RIT garb is meant to communicate first and foremost that members of the RIT community enjoy being a part of the community. What is arguable and will ultimately be addressed in the contribution section is that it is through depicting such images as these that RIT attempting to gain enrollment. According to Wiese, universities attempt to gain student enrollment by initializing what he calls the “recruitment process” that consists of soliciting to students via advertising, face to face initiatives, and other attempts to communicate to students that their particular college is where they want to be (1994). It is possible, therefore, that the images show students participating in, perhaps, activities that potential students either participate in themselves or want to participate in and because of the inviting nature of the photographs, students may ultimately be influenced to enroll. It is interesting that what is absent in these images is, understandably, students engaging in unsavory behavior and students engaging in behavior that may be viewed as boring. Students, faculty, and staff are presented in what appears to be a positive and engaging light. The question still remains, however, that can the assumed messages conveyed by these images really get through to its target audience, particularly if we take away leading text?
While it has been previously mentioned that symbols in advertising often work to communicate a broader meaning than their literal meaning to the intended audience, Scott (1994) also makes another significant contribution to this discussion. Scott emphasizes that it is not just the symbols themselves but the delivery, or the manner or method by which the various symbols that make up an image are arranged, that ultimately drive what the actual intended meaning is (1994). Therefore, just as a politician may strategically craft his speech, emphasizing certain points, omitting certain things, etc. Scott argues that the rhetor or creator of an image does the same thing (1994). What can be argued, therefore, as Judson et.al. (2008) has identified that in fact, all universities use some form of advertising and moreover a large portion of that is visual advertising, it can be concluded that in fact, images used for university advertisements do intend to communicate a deeper meaning due in part to the unique and strategic presentation and arrangement within the images themselves. In the previous section, it was discussed that RIT does not feature advertisements with students engaging in unsavory behavior because arguably, the deeper meaning that they desire to convey is that their university is a suitable choice for potential students. This goal is arguably what all university advertisements ultimately seek to achieve. True, there may be nuances and different methods of how this conclusion is reached; however, the point is that though the goal may still be the same for each university, it is their delivery of images that will most likely determine potential student’s interpretation of the deeper meaning behind the image and if the students will realize the broader goal of securing enrollment that the advertisements are seeking to achieve. The reason that this generalization can be made is due to Wiese’s research which again states that all universities engage in some sort of recruitment process (1994). What is most important about this discussion, however, is the argument that a unique message can be communicated to an audience based on first, the content of the image, but more importantly how the image is arranged. In addition to the delivery of the image as important, Scott also focuses her research in the importance of the invention of the visual argument that advertisements make (1994). She explains that the invention is achieved by “capturing the benefit promised to the consumer, the support for the promise, the relationship to competitive alternatives, and the organizing argument or metaphor,” (Scott 1994, p. 265). It is arguable that university advertisements achieve this using strategies similar to the strategies imposed by RIT: feature students engaging in predetermined environments and activities with specific reactions that are meant to first depict “typical” college life for a student and second to convey the idea that the viewer of the message will want to be a part of that experience. As such, the conclusion that this research seeks to make is that by visually branding a university, the university is first able to communicate what kind of experiences and culture potential students will encounter in addition to making a broader statement about “who” the university is. As it has been established that visual advertisements quite often can achieve a broader meaning, i.e. the RIT students embracing each other in the image is meant to communicate something much greater than that they like each other, the argument can be made that advertising images depicting students, faculty, and staff engaging in specific experiences and exhibiting specific behaviors and reactions in those images will ultimately communicate what the university itself believes as a summation of its culture and values. Court et.al. specifically states that brands communicate values to consumers (1994). This discussion can now be drawn full circle in that because universities use branding principles and arguably often do so through visual methods, it can also be concluded that using the principles of branding and the tools of visual rhetoric that these advertising images not only communicate information about a potential experience, they communicate a greater value that the potential students are meant to interpret about the experience.
In other words, the importance of the artifacts used in this study are that they are actual examples of how a university visually communicates specific values. By depicting student’s experiences and illustrating them in a positive manner, the image is communicating what Scott describes as communicating the benefit and the exhibited behavior and reactions of individuals portrayed in the image is further proof that the promise will be upheld. Additionally, while competitive alternatives may not be directly addressed, Judson et. al. emphasizes that branding in and of itself is a competitive strategy that universities engage in to differentiate themselves (2008). Most importantly, it is this idea that the images communicate certain values that is in line with Scott’s claim that images create a metaphor. While it has been determined that this metaphor is communicated by the specific placement or arrangement within the piece in addition to the delivery, future study will need to examine this phenomenon outside of two artifacts from the same university. To truly prove that university’s are able to use visual rhetoric principles and branding techniques to communicate values, more artifacts from many universities will need to be included for study. Additional research must also be conducted on the connection between visual rhetoric, branding, and advertising with a particular focus on universities.

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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