After 50 years, Avis kills 'We Try Harder'

Half a century ago, Avis revolutionized car rental marketing by advertising that they were “Only Number 2” and were trying harder.

Gone but not forgotten

As of last year, Avis was no longer number two by one measure, its fleet (285,000 cars in service) being smaller than Hertz’s (320,000) and Enterprise Holdings’ combined Alamo, Enterprise and National brands (920,681).

And as of this week, they’re no longer trying harder.

Avis announced that it’s officially killing the slogan that saved them from financial disaster in 1962.

The tag line that saved a company

When then-Avis CEO Robert Townsend approached then-upstart advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach for help, the company had just racked up its thirteenth consecutive annual loss, this time of   $3.2 million ($22.8 million in 2010 dollars).

When copywriter Paula Green and art director Helmut Krone studied the company, they learned that there were only two good things they could honestly say about it — that it was only number two (behind Hertz) and that it would try harder (to keep ashtrays empty, cars clean, gas tanks filled, provide friendly service, etc.).

In just one year, their advertising campaign turned around not only the whole car rental industry, but Avis’s financial picture as well, propelling them to a $1.2 million ($8.5 million in 2010 dollars) profit.

The car rental company stuck with that slogan for 50 years. “In a period when taglines and brand positioning typically come and go every few years,” Ad Age writes, “the endurance of the ‘We Try Harder’ motto was unique.”

But no more.

A new broom

Under the management of Jeannine Haas, who became CMO a little over a year ago after having worked for American Express and Ford and who promptly replaced Avis’s advertising agency, the new campaign is zeroing in on business renters — all of whom, to judge from the new television campaign, seem to be men.

The campaign depicts the insides of Avis cars as a kind of sanctuary where the pressured businessman can psych up, unwind and calm down between the challenges of his day on the road. One national spot, called “Rock Out,” shows businessman Dave prepping for his pitch by singing it to rock music playing in his Avis BMW. Another shows a businessman going through a day filled with physical and technological mishaps, except for when he’s in his Avis car. The third shows a trio of businessmen prepping for a meeting in their Avis car, then using it to drive to the gold course afterwards.

All three carry the new slogan, “It’s your space.”

They’ll be airing through November, supported by print ads in the Economist, Sports Illustrated and the Wall Street Journal.

The change, Haas told Ad Age, was because “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.”

Translation: I’m CMO now, and it’s going to be my campaign, dammit!

Or, as Ad Age put it in more genteel language, it’s “a sign of…Haas putting her stamp on the company.”

Having it both ways?

Though Haas killed the “We Try Harder” corporate line, she seems to think it has the supernatural power to work for Avis from beyond the grave.

“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,” she said.