Avis Stops Trying Harder

In 1962, Avis CEO Robert Townsend was desperate to find a way to make his ailing company profitable. The story goes that he spoke to employees to try and figure out how to “right the ship” and with the help of their ad agency, DDB, they penned the now famous and iconic tagline “We try harder”. At the time, it’s pretty certain that neither Townsend, DDB, nor Paula Green--the copywriter credited with actually crafting the phase--realized they had set the wheels in motion to create one of the most iconic and storied brand positionings in history.

The “We try harder” positioning did a number of things every brand attempts to do: it was built on a true insight about their customers’ desire for better service, it clearly and succinctly communicated what the company promised and how that benefited their customers, and it differentiated Avis from competitors in a market that had been relatively commoditized. And the icing on the cake…Avis began turning a profit for the first time in years. For a marketing person, if you accomplish these things, you’ve reach utopia!

So some 50 years later, after surviving numerous marketing personnel changes, Avis’ new CMO Jeannine Haas and the folks at Leo Burnette decided the brand needed to go in a new direction. Since we’re not privy to the details of the strategic rationale nor the reams of market research that convinced them to do this, we must assume that somehow this major marketing shift has great promise. We must also assume that if you are going to make such a change to a brand as strong as Avis, that the new direction is somehow equally astonishing. So what is the new Avis tagline? “It’s your space.” You read that right.

So what is it exactly that “It’s your space” is trying to tell us? We travel a lot, rent cars fairly frequently, so we thought it might be so obvious that we missed it. Going back and reviewing the television commercials communicating this new position, we were pretty awe-struck. The only conclusion we could draw was that the space inside the car was ours to do what we pleased: sing, prep for the big meeting, contemplate the upcoming round of golf, etc.

Since we do positioning for a living, we couldn’t help but ask ourselves a number of questions. Most importantly, what is the insight this positioning is built on? Do business people that rent cars never feel quite comfortable in the car they rent because it’s not really theirs? Or that they found it difficult to mentally prepare for the meeting because they felt out of place? Great brand positioning requires great insight. Without insight into your customers how can you make the brand relevant to them? I guess we have to assume that somewhere in that pile of research an insight really exists. A second critical factor would be differentiation from your competitors, either something inherent in the product or a service that you can use to distinguish your brand from theirs. How does “It’s your space” do this? Is there something about the space in an Avis rental car that is different from the space inside a Hertz or Enterprise car? Can they create the perception that there is? If you review the television commercials again what is clear is that the person renting the car defines the space, so arguably, they would bring that attitude to any car they get in; unless Avis has somehow transformed their space into something different.

Keep in mind that this isn’t a brand being introduced to the world for the first time. Not that it would make the positioning better, but when you consider that this brand is giving up an iconic positioning they have held for 50 years it makes the change even worse. Several articles suggest that the old “We try harder” positioning had become a commodity itself, that high-level customer service is fully expected these days in the auto rental market. It may be expected, but we can say with great certainty that it is far from a commodity. Maybe we’re the latest in a line of naysayers that will be proven horribly wrong by incomprehensible marketing genius. In some way I hope so, but from where we sit right now I doubt it.