A Lesson In Branding

In this week’s Business Surgery, Caroline Harrison comments on the recent news that Avis is shedding its well-known tagline after 50 years

Is there a marketing scholar or professional anywhere who isn’t familiar with the story of Avis’s “We try harder” tagline?

For anyone who isn’t, it’s an interesting little story about how Avis, then the second largest car rental company in the US, turned this position to its advantage (at the expense of its larger competitor, Hertz). What’s more, I think it’s a story that’s worth repeating (my thanks to the Avis Cyprus website for the following potted history):

  • In 1962, after Avis spent thirteen years in the red, newly appointed president Robert C. Townsend recognized that Avis needed to refresh its image and hired the hot and creative advertising agency of Doyle Dane and Bernbach (DDB) to turn business around.
  • Prior to DDB working with Avis, Bill Bernbach, co-founder of DDB, recommended to Avis management that they overhaul their customer service and upgrade their product before drafting a single ad. His reasoning, “It’s always a mistake to make good advertising for a bad product.”
  • To create the initial ads 1963, DDB spent ninety days learning Avis’ business and spent many hours in meetings talking to Avis employees about the company.
  • During those first meetings between DDB and Avis, a simple question was asked by DDB, “Why does anybody ever rent a car from you?” The reply is what made advertising history: “We try harder because we have to.”
  • DDB’s top art director, Helmut Krone, already intended to center the campaign on the phrase: “Avis is only No. 2.” It was copywriter Paula Green who remembered what she learned during those first research meetings with Avis, and added the now-famous phrase: “We try harder.”
  • In an attempt to convince potential customers that Avis simply tried harder than everybody else, the entire ad campaign was focused on frank and truthful statements about Avis’ business philosophy. To communicate this to the field, the entire management team at Avis traveled to every branch location across the country, spoke with every single employee and explained that the success of the campaign and of their business hinged upon providing superior customer service every chance they got.
  • Each Avis employee also received a copy of new Avis ads in his or her pay envelope before each campaign would run.
  • In just one year, the campaign literally changed the fortunes of the Company. Prior to the campaign, Avis had just $34 million in revenue and losses of $3.2 million. One year later, revenues had jumped to $38 million and for the first time in thirteen years, Avis turned a profit of $1.2 million.
  • The biggest short-term success of the campaign was found in Avis’ market share, which grew from 11 percent in 1962 to an amazing 35 percent in 1966.
  • Due to the success of the campaign, Avis’ advertising budget increased from $1.7 million in 1963 to $6.2 million four years later.

This story contains a host of valuable lessons for marketers, and so many of the actions taken 50 years ago should still be central to companies’ marketing today.

And so it was with some surprise – yes, even in an age when taglines and brand positioning typically come and go every few years – to learn this week that after 5 decades, Avis is shedding “we try harder” in favor of a new tagline: “It’s Your Space”. The new tagline, which is being rolled out alongside a new ad campaign, targets busy business travelers (the premise being that an Avis car offers a productive business environment for the businessman on the go, or simply the ideal place to recharge your batteries). The new campaign clearly positions the brand as the choice for corporate, rather than leisure travel.

So why the change? According to Avis CMO Jeannine Haas:

Consumer-centric brands must always evolve in order to keep pace with ever-changing customer needs and preferences…Avis is evolving as a premium brand to better meet those needs.

The new tagline, she said, is:

reflective of [Avis’] ongoing mission to be a customer-led, service-driven company, and presents the brand in terms of the customer experience and the advantages inherent in renting from Avis.

Personally, I think that for a company wishing to be both customer-led and service-driven, there’s probably no better mantra than ‘trying harder’. However, putting sentiments aside for one minute, it’s quite reassuring to note that Haas believes the previous longstanding motto isn’t quite extinct:

“We firmly believe that after nearly five decades, ‘We Try Harder’ is fully embedded in the Avis DNA, and defines the spirit our employees embody to deliver superior customer service.”

Proof, perhaps, should you need it, that a brand is not simply a logo or a tagline. It’s a philosophy that runs deep through the entire company, shapes every employee and their actions, and has a real significance to the organisation’s customers. A valuable lesson indeed.

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