Marketing to people like you – but smarter

Here’s a banner ad I saw recently from the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC (click it to see full-size):

UNC MBA banner ad: The online MBA you probably can't get into


Now, I get the concept of exclusivity marketing – positioning your product or service as something that isn’t for everyone. When executed well, this strategy can help a brand differentiate itself in a crowded marketplace and feed into the viewer’s beliefs about their self-identity and what they deserve. As an added benefit, exclusivity also often helps justify charging higher prices. It can (and does) work for a wide variety of consumer and business brands.

But there’s a difference between “this isn’t for everyone” and “this isn’t for YOU”.

Putting down your viewer before they even click seems like an… interesting choice. I can think of two ways someone could defend this ad concept:

  1. The curiosity factor: UNC hopes you’ll be so taken aback by the message that you’ll click just to find out more. But a teaser line is supposed to entice through attraction, not repel. I’ve written a lot of teaser lines in my marketing day, and you, sir, are one crappy teaser line.
  2. UNC is trying to fight the lower perception of online MBA’s compared to campus-based MBA’s. This rationale (sort of) makes sense. You create surprise in the viewer’s mind at how high-quality something actually is. But there are so many other ad executions that would’ve accomplished the same thing, without the offense. Two examples off the top of my head:
  • Give a testimonial line from an alumnus who’s done really (surprisingly) well. “I couldn’t have made it without my Kenan-Flagler MBA.  ~Condeleezza Rice, President, GlobalBank”
  • Give a surprising stat. Something like “Our average GMAT scores are 20 points higher than Harvard’s.” (That stat is probably false, but you get the idea.)

To me, the real downside here is that high-level MBA programs succeed on the basis of their reputation. People who are seriously considering top-25 programs (which Kenan-Flagler’s is, or close enough at least) will talk to alumni, school officials and anyone else who can assure them that the school’s reputation is going to help them in their careers.

Does an ad campaign like this feed into that hard-earned reputation? Or – more likely – doesn’t it seem beneath a high-level program? I’m at a loss.


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