Avis “We try harder” being towed to tag line junkyard? Part 2

This is part 2 of a great article by Donna Cusano – 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. 

Donna 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.

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To judge from this campaign, Avis is now just like Hertz, National, Dollar Thrifty, and any other RAC. (Enterprise has always had a clear identity as a ‘community’ based RAC, friendly, local, insurance replacement and ‘we deliver’, even when they are on airport, and upsell you relentlessly on rates, cars and coverage!)  Because any other car rental offers you the same “space” and not just car rental—it’s easily applied to other categories.

The other objection I had was executional.  Two of the spots are positively ‘fratty’ – the only renters are young (or acting like such) men. The business world as seen in these spots consists of young men dressed fairly casually, with one or two women briefly seen at the table. There are no women renters, no women in authority and no older executives at those meetings. Even the wife is briefly, distantly seen. As one of those older, female types, I felt excluded from the fun.

Bottom line, “It’s your space” is kind of empty and a low-level consumer benefit. As a campaign, it’s executionally flawed.  How it translates to non-business and international renters is questionable. At least in preliminary judgment, it is not likely to elevate Avis above the fray as “We try harder” did.

And why is “We try harder” gone? Can’t the two work together?

Could it be a vast misread of consumer research that spurred this? We see brands abandoning their USP all over the place in the name of ‘relevance’: Xerox with the lower case logo and the x-banded squeezy ball. Just be another copier, just be another car rental company, because it’s defensible?  A common reaction in this discussion is that brands are drowning in a tide of plain-vanilla positioning and equity abandonment at a time when the whole media landscape is fractioning into a million tiny bits and we have to fight for a tiny bit in the customer’s mind.

Is it a necessary move by a newly minted CMO to make her mark? Or something more?

Let’s look at it from the marketer’s perspective, putting ourselves in the CMO’s shoes in this scenario.

Caveat:  I am no longer in contact with anyone at Avis, so there is no inside line here. This is gleaned from public information and remembering how quick-turn and demanding Avis was, and similar situations I later faced.  It does analyze the business situation and speculates on what a relatively young, and new to RAC CMO might do in response—a situation that most of us, once upon a time, have found ourselves in….

Up until June of 2011, Avis Budget was in a pitched battle with Hertz for months to acquire Dollar Thrifty (DT) for ever-tidier sums. FTC (US Federal Trade Commission) and the DT shareholders held it up forever. Avis then swerved and acquired Avis Europe, which also includes Africa, Middle East and Asia–effectively it was Avis’ largest licensee, at a cost $1 billion—putting right a situation dating back to the 1987 ESOP when this division was sold. This effectively put Avis out of the running for DT; Hertz finally sealed the deal for $2.8 billion in August 2012. [In the US, there are now three holding companies for RAC brands:  Enterprise (Enterprise, Alamo, National), Hertz/DT and Avis Budget. This is based on fleet and locations. Market share is difficult to calculate as it is based on airport reporting alone.)]

The CMO arrived in July 2011 after 11 years of moving up the ranks at American Express, previously at Ford Motor, and settled in to a situation undoubtedly quite different from the time she was interviewing. Advertising and communications had been moribund for a while, and she had to be brought in to change things. In a position like that (and in a heavily operational, ‘get it done’ company like Avis), you must make your mark fast.  Changing agencies is usually the way but McCann-Erickson, which came on board in 1999, still had a few fans because it took a not-unusual seven months, and McCann retained the international business. Leo Burnett Business obviously had the goods, because they won the business in February 2012.

So by summer 2012, there’s a new agency with the old one not gone and a monster threat from Hertz, though not in their communications, yet.  The clock is running on both the business and the CMO. Time to steal a march and have Burnett produce get a bright, shiny new campaign with money spent on big media. RAC seasonality being what it is, it will be a largely business campaign. At the same time, service levels and perceived customer satisfaction have fallen (see J.D. Power and Zagat)–the Avis Budget combo has always been an odd operational merger of two very different in style and brand equity companies. “We try harder” looks less and less credible.  The CMO segments out Avis as a ‘premium brand’ (her statement) for business. For business renters, perhaps the research is telling Avis that there’s a market shift in the mentality of the core renter and a specific weakness in 25-45 renters. This ‘workspace’ / lifestyle nugget may have surfaced and was latched upon.  So they run with it in a Fall 2012 business campaign targeting those 25-45 male renters. And the daring thing–what gets the publicity, and elevating it at least in the industry from ‘ho hum’–is walking away from “We try harder”.

A very cynical way is to put it as Dr. Brian did: ‘newbie CMO has eye on reputation first’. A campaign alone won’t get you ink, personal and otherwise, in Ad Age. Dropping a revered tag line will. If you read the Ad Age article, it was part a nostalgic stroll down Memory Lane (the development of WTH by DDB’s Helmut Krone and Paula Green), then a brief description and video embed of the new campaign. Some of that was to be expected.  If the lifespan of a CMO is 18 months, the clock as of August was at 13-14.  You can imagine also for this young (perhaps 40) CMO the real culture shock going from an orderly, structured Amex to what we called “down and dirty rent-a-car”. Amex people in my time (including a CEO and a SVP marketing) didn’t last; airline, ad agency and direct marketers did.  If the CMO can show real results on the board and to the Board–given that Avis hasn’t really much traditional, broad based advertising against this target in this time period for some years, this campaign could be “winning” based upon the business metrics as set.

Avis now joins the roster of companies who have joined in the tyranny of low expectations in moving to a narrow and seemingly weak campaign masquerading as a company tag line. In addition, they are walking away from 50 years of hard-won, precious brand equity for the worst possible reason—because operationally they aren’t living up to it anymore. It should be a disappointment to marketers, because it is further evidence that most CEOs and Boards feel we are there to ‘put lipstick on a pig’; more properly, solve, skirt or spin problems beyond marketing’s rightful capabilities to fix, whether operational or economic. Moreover, it points out the cumulative cost of not refreshing a brand promise publicly with meaning, internal performance and external content. Avis, which was always guilty of underfunding its communications versus competition, simply became more so in the last 10 years as they concentrated on online media and partnerships, spending little in traditional, wide-audience advertising.

Of course, we will see whether the departure from ‘We try harder’ is a permanent one.  The betting among those in the discussion was a return in six to twelve months.  Perhaps not a New Coke-ish drama with renters and employees pouring off Routes 46 and 80, storming the Parsippany NJ office demanding The Return of We Try Harder, but a return nonetheless. It could be that the campaign is there to buy time for an operational tune-up to get the company back to where it once was.

My brother Paul, a psychiatrist by profession and a student of human behavior in a different realm, quipped: “Avis should change their slogan to ‘We Gave Up’.”  He may well be right.  As a former Avis Marketeer, and who had great pride in the company now 11 years in my rear view mirror, I hope not.

-30-

About the author:  Donna Cusano is a New York-based designer of strategic, integrated marketing programs and communications.  After an early career starting on the ad agency side, coming up through account management rather non-traditionally at Scali McCabe Sloves and LHS&B Advertising, she had three memorable years of being ad manager for post-deregulation airline New York Air and a year watching the demise of Eastern Airlines (and more happily, the introduction of the OnePass frequent flyer program) as an account supervisor at Campbell-Ewald Advertising.  Shortly before EA augered in, she joined a former VP of hers at Avis for what turned into a 13½ year stint through four positions at Avis Rent A Car, concluding her last five years as Director of International Marketing and Partnerships. Since 2001 she has variously been a marketing consultant and VP Marketing, transitioning into healthcare services and technology in 2006 as VP Marketing for early-stage developer Living Independently Group for three years. Donna has also been Editor, North America of Telecare Aware (www.telecareaware.com), an international news and commentary website, since September 2009; this experience has happily broadened her horizons to become a healthcare services and technology thought leader.  She is available for both full time and consultant marketing opportunities. More at http://www.linkedin.com/in/dcusano.

Some extras:

The Google ‘Re-Brief’ on reimagining Avis for digital engagement. http://www.projectrebrief.com/avis/

Hat tip to Barrett Rossie of Spokane, Washington. Great video with the original writer, Paula Green, with recap of the original 1962 campaign (they got most of the ads!) anchors how a Google team worked with Green to translate WTH into digital by using customer testimonials and even the negative comments to automatically create short videos that appear as a sidebar on the website. Do see the video–the first try is a bit of a misfire, but the regrouping is really sharp and the process of how they do it just blows this marketer away. Yes, the new CMO appears….cautiously.

Avis South Africa springboarding off and evolving “We try harder” quite memorably:

On YouTube, a new spot deals with a very SA problem, which are the long distances between petrol stations, and how Avis will help you when the needle points to ‘E’, the car stops dead and you’re in the middle of nowhere on your way to an event. A memorable and persuasive reason why to choose Avis.http://youtu.be/O4AkkWy4fhQ

The corporate video springboards WTH into what it means in action.

Corporate video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_hXDn0zHzI&feature=share&list=UUOsW6QhbrhKJmJf2d7aad9w

A conversation between Ken Taub of New York City and the author on a new car rental model:

Ken: It seems the auto rental business is in a mess generally, with too much competition, overall mediocre service, and one’s quoted rental price somehow always going up 20 – 40% once you arrive at their counter…So there is opportunity for a smart businessperson (think Warren Buffet & his mgmt. team and GEICO or Michael Dell with PCs and laptops in the 1990s) to take over a chunk of this sagging business, and create an efficient giant that streamlines, ups the level of service, has good pricing, and keeps its promises. Chaos is trouble… and opportunity.

Donna: I think you are proposing a simplified pricing/simplified fleet model that would be a variant on the Zipcar/Hertz On Demand car sharing model. Let’s take a look at this:

**Zipcar isn’t cutting it, despite their onerous $60/year + $25 membership fee, and high rates. Too many models and locations. Only so many cities and college towns. A la Facebook, they IPO’d at $28 and are trading at $8.

**Hertz On Demand: no membership fees, just join. Hertz conjoined this to an existing Hertz Local operation and can amortize it across a fleet. Was called Hertz Connect and rebranded to a better name. ?? if profitable

**Avis took a stab at this last year and reportedly pulled back. They never had the local operation to pull this off.

If you really want to disrupt car rental a la Clayton Christensen, bring back the low end rental. Remember Rent A Wreck? Not quite, but a variant. Simplified all inclusive pricing (like car sharing). Simplified fleet–as few car types/makes-models as possible, and older cars–you get a 50K+ mile car that would give you reliable point A to B transport. Simplified rental process–you’d have the swipe card pickup/return like Hertz and Zipcar have. The locations might be on the fringes of town, but the money saved would be worth it. And maybe you rent to 18-24 year olds, which no other RACs do except on high end corporate rates (not sure on car sharing). Many more details here — and isn’t this an opportunity?

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),

http://www.telecareaware.com/index.php/about-donna-cusano.html

www.linkedin.com/in/dcusano.

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5 thoughts on “Avis “We try harder” being towed to tag line junkyard? Part 2

  1. Car renting can be sketchy if you don’t know exactly whats expected of you, otherwise just like a movie or a phone bill you can get messed over by them demanding their fine print money. Can never be too safe!

    -David Enabulele

    • No one expects anyone to promise the world – and then deliver Certainly you should manage customer expectations and make it clear what the limitations are. Then, when you can, cexceed what you have promised.

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