Iconic Ads: Avis – We Try Harder

David Ogilvy praised Avis ads as a feat of “diabolical positioning,” in which a foe’s strengths are turned against them

It was 1962. Hertz was the leader in car rentals. Avis was failing, it had only an 11% market share and had not made a profit in 13 years.

Robert Townsend, a maverick, was named CEO and given the responsibility of turning the firm around. One of the first things Townsend did was to contact Doyle Dane Bernbach’s Bill Bernbach. “How can we achieve five dollars’ worth of effect for every dollar we spend?” he wondered. (Hertz spent five times what Avis did on advertising)

Bernbach responded by demanding that they be given 90 days to learn about the company.

Bernbach had more demands for Avis as well. “Every creative in my shop will want to work on your account if you commit to run everything we recommend,” Bernbach told Townsend.

Townsend responded positively and he even penned a memo, which was framed and displayed in all Avis and DDB offices. Townsend stated, “Avis will never know as much about advertising as DDB, and DDB will never know as much about the rent-a-car industry as Avis.” He also said that Avis would not approve, disapprove, or attempt to modify commercials and that DDB should only submit ones that it endorsed. “They are not going to ‘see what Avis thinks about that one.’”

The Memo

Helmut Krone, the art director, and Paula Green, the writer, both learned a lot in those 90 days. Surprisingly, it was Townsend who came up with the idea for the ad campaign.

Townsend was quizzed about the business by the DDB team.
DDB – “Are Avis’s cars newer than Hertz’s?”
Townsend said “No.”
DDB – “Does Avis have more rental locations?”
“No”
“DDB – Lower rates?”
“Nope.”
DDB – “Isn’t there some difference between the two?”
“Well,” said Townsend, thinking for a moment. “We try harder.”

It was Paula Green who caught it and expanded on that. (She has also stated that “‘We Try Harder’ is the narrative of my life,” which appears to be a reference to the challenges she experienced at work)

The Avis personnel had the general idea of being number 2 and as a result, they worked harder to provide a better experience to their consumers. This resulted in the core idea!

“Avis is only No.2 in rent a car. So we try harder.”

It was unique and instantly identifiable. At the time, it was “We Try Harder” that revealed a distinctively American attitude: Avis will never give up, never surrender

It was bold and startling. No company had ever called itself an “also-ran” before.

“We Try Harder” worked across all media platforms; into employee pay envelopes, and even “We Try Harder” buttons to take the message and intention across.

The idea’s honesty, as well as the language, were both compelling. And it made sense: to attract consumers, Avis had to work harder Hertz in every way. This didn’t feel like a sales or advertising pitch, but rather a straightforward statement from a firm to its customers. And it also managed to portray the big, powerful market leader as complacent and careless at the same time.

Krone (famous for the Volkswagen Think Small campaign) created an impactful look with huge headlines, small copy and small pictures. Even without a logo, it looked like Avis. Their strong branding stemmed from the fact that the advertisements were entirely focused on Avis. There was no-nonsense, no faff, just excellent communication.

A powerful, truthful advertising thought, self-effacing & clever tone, and simple & bold art, were the highlights of this campaign.

Avis was profitable within a year of the campaign’s launch. By 1966, Avis had a market share of 35%, more than three times what it had been before. A $3.2 million loss became a $1.2 million profit in a year.

For more reading

  1. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,939058,00.html
  2. https://slate.com/business/2013/08/hertz-vs-avis-advertising-wars-how-an-ad-firm-made-a-virtue-out-of-second-place.html
  3. https://tommccallum.com/2019/10/01/how-choosing-to-trust-helped-make-avis-a-giant/
  4. https://1callgroup.com/avis-rent-a-car-we-are-number-2-blog.html

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