Avis “We try harder” being towed to tag line junkyard? – Part 1

By Donna Cusano – Guest Blogger

A former Avis marketing executive contemplates Avis US dropping the “We try harder” tagline which has been part of Avis’ communications since 1962, in favor of a new one, “It’s your space,” and what that means for notions of brand equity—and perhaps marketing as a whole.

Your writer spent 13 1/2 years in four advertising and marketing positions at Avis, from 1988 until 2001 when it was acquired fully by the now dead-as-dodo HFS, later Cendant Corporation. It put me in the position of not only knowing about the ‘We try harder’ history, both in the US and internationally, but also living ‘We try harder’. I believe I can speak with some authority as what it meant to the company through many ownership changes, and how “We try harder” (WTH) evolved in the time I was there.

Since I left car rental eight years ago, I’ve paid little attention to the sector. I’m now just a normal occasional renter without any particular loyalties to any brand.  But this change hit two nerves:  the first as a professional marketer with a keen interest in positioning, and the second as a former Avis marketer who has some pride in her and her former colleagues’ marketing work prior to 2001. In fact, in writing comments for Dr. Brian’s discussion topic on LinkedIn’s CMO Network, I delved back into the past and caught up with what the industry dubs rent a car (RAC). So you can look upon the following critique as either pertinent and smart, or the ramblings of someone nostalgic for her past and out of touch with the current frequent car rental user, or perhaps marketing.

As marketers, we should question why a $1.8 billion company, closely associated with Three Little Words, would toss out 50 years of equity and positioning.  To do so, let’s first look at what “We try harder” meant to Avis marketers prior to the merger with Budget, our agencies and the average Avis employee up until, apparently, recently.

* “We try harder” (WTH) was always aspirational in two ways. We promised a benefit to the customer that we would work our tails off for them to have a clean, ready, good car at the minimum and yes, much more than that. It was there for us to live up to operationally and it was 100% customer-focused. Internally, it gave us a standard to achieve thru the organization; I know since I was familiar with customer service and reservations training in many different areas, because marketers were always coordinating with operational areas. It’s also a bar that was constantly being raised. As a marketer, with this kind of positioning, I had to be careful not to overpromise–but I had great consumer, travel agent (remember them?) and employee stories to tell.

One of the key parts of the Avis story is that Bob Townsend, CEO in the early 1960s (and ironically from American Express, as you will see), delayed the introduction of the WTH campaign for months until the company achieved clear operational and customer service goals consistently and at every location to fulfill the meaningful points of the campaign (e.g. clean reliable cars, clean ashtrays, friendly rental agents, locations—the bar was rather low in 1962). He shepherded a massive transformation of the company and the industry.

* WTH was shapeable and reinforced constantly. We could introduce new features and services easily–because we were always trying harder to please the customer.  In the 1970s, Avis was the first with a computerized rental system, the Wizard of Avis. Examples in my time were Roving Rapid Return, Avis Express, Avis Preferred (pre-profiled preferences), Avis Plus (all inclusive rates for Latin Americans traveling to US), Avis Club Red (the first US travel agent frequency program) and many more I can’t recall.

* WTH was timeless, differentiating and STRONG. There is never anything dated about happy customers. It also said what we did and why we were different loud and clear, in three short words.

* WTH translated well internationally. You can look up the pictures of the buttons in 50+ languages.  “We try harder” was often the linchpin of campaigns in countries like Brazil, South Africa, UK and Australia in campaigns far more memorable than ours in the US.

Unlike most tag lines, it uniquely worked within the organization to set a performance standard and externally to set the company’s relationship with and promise to the customer, in an active tone. WTH was never just a tag line or clever campaign like Pepsodent “You wonder where the yellow went” or VW ‘Think Small’ that rightly belong to the past. There was a power to it that proved to be quite adaptable over the years, memorably when Avis became an ESOP in 1987-8 (that lasted for 10 years). “We try harder” became “We’re trying harder than ever” for several years.  Every ad featured employee-owners and pride not only in the new company but also in every aspect of the operation. One of our most winning ads featured the headline ‘For Rent by Owner’. That is an example of adapting a tag line effectively–the ‘shapeable’ mentioned above. Avis and the agency at the time, Backer Spielvogel Bates (later Bates), were awarded an American Marketing Association Gold EFFIE for that, for which we had to prove significant improvement in business.

So why would any sane company—Avis is our example here—leave this behind?

* Operational decline not fulfilling the tag line promise. In my day we were #1 in J.D. Power (2001) quality rankings and before then, a finalist for the Malcolm Baldrige national quality award. Flip to today:  2011 J.D. Power ranking was a dismal #5, 2012 Zagat #3. The problem with promises is that a service provider must ‘do’. From the original campaign to at least the early 2000s, Avis was able to tell stories of getting it done. Now, it looks like it is not happening, and customers—business and leisure–are telling survey organizations loud and clear about their dissatisfaction.

* Rising consumer expectations.  “We try harder” can turn into “so what” or “who cares” especially if the competition is very close to you in fulfilling that promise, and your company is falling down on the job. You have to do, particularly in those shining moments when there’s a problem and the customer looks to you for resolution. Customer disappointment is a beast. To paraphrase an old Lyle Lovett tune, not being very good, but having good intentions is a killer for any brand.

* It’s an albatross.  The tag line holds back the organization from growth, the company’s changed the product, it’s changed or broadened product lines, or it (rarely) becomes associated with something negative. It’s become meaningless to a changed market or truly obsolete (VW “Think Small” or International Business Machines changing to IBM). Nike is no longer running shoes, but a clothing and lifestyle behemoth clearly staking out performance in “Just do it”—and with enough marketing funding and memorable executions to make those Three Little Words indelibly stick.  BMW no longer is “The Ultimate Driving Machine” when most of their cars are big, expensive sedans; they have been trying to express itself ever since (“Sheer driving pleasure” being the latest attempt).

There are also the consequences of “equity loss.”  This isn’t a concept which marketers discuss a great deal, but when companies are sold, logos and company names have monetary value comprised in (US) “goodwill”. So it stands to reason that when you drop a long-standing theme, tag line or logotype used over decades, there will be some kind of equity loss—a quantifiable monetary value. We should reflect that we as marketers for brands also cannot build equity like you once could, as the communications landscape is like shattered glass–it is so fractionated that reaching your target repeatedly and memorably is near-impossible or unrealistically expensive for most companies. (Remember when TV advertisers used to worry about commercial wearout?) “Viral” campaigns are great but unpredictable, have fruitfly lifespans and work best with established brands. Conclusion: any time you walk away from what your brand has built up in decades past–the last 50 years, or even from the 70s-80s on when you could run in mass media and get a mass audience–part of the marketer’s calculation must be the cost of the equity lost in moving the new positioning.

Do you tear down the house, or remodel it?

So let’s look at Avis US and the new tag line/campaign, which tears down the house, but really doesn’t.

“It’s your space” is running on TV and in print advertising (so far), debuting in late August.  The industry announcement was in Advertising Age:http://adage.com/article/news/50-years-avis-drops-iconic-harder-tagline/236887/

Avis also saw fit to issue a press release here announcing the new campaign and the departure from “We try harder”: https://www.avis.com/car-rental/content/display.ac?contentId=press-release-US_en-036051, and has uploaded the three TV spots to YouTube. In Avis’ words, “the campaign aims to redefine and elevate the role of the rental car within corporate travelers’ busy lives and centers on the ways business professionals use the space inside the rental vehicle to be productive and recharge when travelling”. The CMO claims that “We try harder” is in the DNA of the company.

Based on the viewing, the three scenarios are:

1)      A young business team on the way to the presentation having selected their SUV at pickup from the Avis Preferred area.  The key presenter has a case of nerves, the other two joke him out of it, the presentation is smashing and the young men open up the rear door to reveal golf clubs for a little recreational/male bonding time.

2)      Youngish sales rep is hyping himself up in the car, singing along to the radio, banging the steering wheel and generally amping himself up for show time.  He makes the killer presentation, wins the account and mambos out to the BMW quite pleased with himself.

3)      Another 30-40ish sales rep has presentations and a trade show (complete with older, sick prospect sneezing on him), but because he has the wisdom to rent a cool convertible, he can pick up the wife and kids at the airport after the trade show for some beach time—dubbed a “bizcation” (in the biz, a mixed business/leisure rental, and highly desirable in that it lengthens the rental over the weekend.)

All are centered on the proposition that the car that you rent becomes “your space” for a time—a meeting space, a coaching space, a detach-from-a-hard-day-at-work space, a family space, a reward space.  Quite noticeable in the closing frames was “It’s your space”, a new Avis logo (upright in a plain typeface, rather than the forward leading slant of the 1990s on) and the complete absence of “We try harder.”

First impressions are often the truest.  Here are some extracts from that early discussion on the CMO Network, credited:

“What the heck is ‘your space’ anyway? Yes, I get that peace and quiet deal in the car, or that the car is a meeting space. But in a rental, where I’m concerned about getting from point A to point B on time, on unfamiliar roads and late for a meeting (or a date with a beach)? It’s a campaign theme, one of many Avis has had over the years. And I can rent ‘my space’ from another RAC.” Your space”=”My Space”, a failed online website.

“The thrust seems to be that the target customer may be traveling for business but when they’re in their rental car, it’s their own time. Interesting. We’ve all been there — had that feeling of freedom. It’s obviously a pre-emptive claim.” (Nancy Salz, New York—who in my time at Avis met with the marketing staff and gave a memorable training session on developing “advertising that works” through sound positioning and strategic development)

“God, another technocrat marketer decides that empowering the consumer is the way to get them to engage with the brand. Vacuous, bland, empty and flaccid. It’s truly remarkable how brain dead some marketing people are and how motivated they are by the need to ‘bring the brand into a more contemporary landscape’.” (David O’Sullivan, San Francisco)

“It’s what I’d expect from IKEA” (Jeff Fleishman, New York)

Part 2 of this article will appear in a few days.

Donna Cusano is a marketer and consultant who assists companies in healthcare services and connected health with strategy, positioning and communications that increase brand awareness and business. She is based in New York City.  Donna is available for speaking and moderating engagements, and advisory services in marketing and communications.

Telecare Aware (www.telecareaware.com),




10 thoughts on “Avis “We try harder” being towed to tag line junkyard? – Part 1

  1. While your back story on the “We try harder” slogan is not directly in conflict with the account by Robert Schoenberg in his 1985 biography “Geneen,” that book describes the role of ITT’s CEO in detail. According to Schoenberg, in January 1972, Geneen was incensed by a proposed campaign and wrote 13 pages of ad copy including WTH. Six months later, an anti-trust ruling mandated that ITT divest itself of Avis. Although Schoenbgerg doesn’t go into detail on the launch timing of the WTH campaign or Bates’ AMA award, this is just one more example of Geneen’s genius, even though the man has been largely forgotten.

      • @ John–Here’s the timeline. The WTH tag/campaign was developed in 1962 when Townsend was CEO and Lazard Freres owned Avis. ITT purchased it in 1965. Geneen obviously got heavily involved in the advertising if he’d actually sit down and write (what he thought was) ad copy in 1972. What’s equally obvious is that he was a big believer in We Try Harder. ITT sold Avis to Norton Simon in 1977. It went through Esmark, Beatrice and Wesray before the ESOP in 1987. The AMA Gold EFFIE was 1988; EFFIES are awarded to the advertiser first then their agency, in this case Backer Spielvogel Bates.

  2. Donna, I stand corrected. I reread the Schoenberg chapter and a few other things. I had noticed and responded to the thread on LinkedIn because I have been on a bit of a Geneen kick lately. Avis was the first highly visible consumer brand ITT acquired when he was building the conglomerate. Everything about Geneen and what he did was complicated.

    The 1972 incident occurred at the time Avis was launching the ADVANCE reservation system (later called the Wizard of Avis) which was Geneen’s brainchild and the first one that connected every office with a PARS system. The ad guys had recommended trashing the “We’re #2,. We try harder.” Geneen never wanted to be #2 in anything so he suggested strengthening the “We try harder.” as a stand alone slogan. Schoenberg’s sources were interviews and documents provided by Winston V. Morrow, Avis’ CEO at the time.

    According to Schoenberg/Morrow, Townsend, who opposed the sale to ITT (he also despised his pre-ITT Lazard appointed board chair) wrote to Geneen during the ITT/Avis merger about changes to the company’s compensation plan which had featured low salaries and high incentives: “Why should we try harder anymore?” Geneen followed his recommendation,.

    With regard to ITT’s court-ordered divestiture in 1972, 48% of the company’s shares were sold to the public and the rest held in trust by a court official until Norton Simon acquired the company in 1977.

    Since I’ve spent all this time with this minutia (something that is really not me at all), I should pipe in about the current branding issue.

    Two examples come to mind of iconic tag lines that were abandoned for no other apparent reason than that they had been around too long. “We bring good things to life.” GE “Have it your way.” Burger King In the first, “Imagination at work” does hold its own, even though it’s is no way near as strong. No harm done, I guess. Burger King couldn’t come close to replacing “Have it your way” and ultimately brought it back.

    How long should Avis have continued to “try harder” ? Definitely, until they had something equal or better to replace it with. “it’s your space” is not it.

    • John–thank you for these clarifications. The Avis/ITT time is long before mine at Avis thus a bit of a blank space, but it is fascinating to me that Geneen valued WTH that much and detached it from #2 (which many of the original ’62 executions did, but I don’t know the history in between). If you want to see a great take on how Google worked with Paula Green, the writing half of the DDB team, to digitally engage with WTH, check this out: http://www.projectrebrief.com/avis/

      I’d agree with you about GE–they should have kept ‘Life’. ‘Imagination at work’ is OK, but their graphics are terminally weak. Immelt is not Welch (and ‘Life’ was Welch all the way). GE is also a mess–the company’s global business practices and politics (internal and external) leave much to be desired as does their profitability (disclosure: the early-stage company I headed marketing during ’06-09 was purchased by GE Healthcare in a process that was questionable at best, then dumped into a JV with Intel. And I used to work for Frank Lorenzo, so understand my scale of judgment!). Burger King to me is a prime example of ‘operational decline not fulfilling promise’–they can bring back ‘have it your way’ all they want but their corporate/franchise chaos kills them every time.

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