Ever wonder what happened to Avis’s “We’re No. 2” campaign?

I always assumed Avis foolishly dropped it out of boredom. Some brand manager wanted to put his “mark” on things and foolishly killed the goose that was laying golden eggs. But that’s not nearly as interesting as what really happened…

See, a few years after Avis and Doyle Dane Bernbach launched their legendary campaign, Hertz (aka No. 1) got nervous about how quickly Avis was gobbling up their market share.  So Hertz got  wise and hired the other legendary creative agency of the day: Ally & Gargano.

And here’s the counter-campaign that Carl Ally created for Hertz:


Hertz basically took that “No. 2” position and rammed it right up Avis’s arse, detailing point by point what customers give up when they rent cars from the smaller company: locations, car selection, guaranteed performance, customer support infrastructure, etc.  And you gotta love that ending line: “No. 2 says he tries harder.  Than who?”

That counter-campaign went for the throat.  And the results show that it worked:

2011-11-03_2028 To the right you’ll see a snapshot from a leaf of a new book on Ally & Gargano.  You can find a digital version of the entire page here. But the important points to note are:

1) “After only 90 days from the start [of the campaign], Avis abandoned their extremely successful campaign and quickly created advertising with no references to Hertz, Trying Harder, or being Number 2.”

2) From the launch of the campaign at the tail-end of 1966, Avis’s market share flat-lined and Hertz maintained their position as the leader in the industry (which wouldn’t have happened had the earlier trends continued on for another 2 years).

And that’s what happened to the famed “We’re Number 2” advertising campaign.

So what are the lessons to take away from this?

First, I think Avis wimped out on this one. If they were vulnerable on their branding, it was because they weren’t factually living up to their “We Try Harder” claim. But even then, they could have re-vamped their customer experience and fought back rather than voluntarily surrendering the one campaign that was actually working for them.

Before the Avis campaign was launched in 1963, Bill Bernbach insisted that Avis revamp their fleet and actually improve the customer experience so that he had a “better reality” to advertise. If Avis was really serious about keeping the campaign — and they should have been — why didn’t they make another revamp and show exactly how they “tried harder” than Hertz

Second, you simply can’t afford to ignore great advertising. If a competitor has launched an immensely successful ad campaign that resonates with the public and that’s driving increased market share, you must respond. And the only way to do that is with great advertising of your own.

Third, counter branding works both ways. Ries and Trout famously advised challenger brands to “find the weakness in your competitor’s strength” and that’s exactly what Avis did with their “No. 2” campaign. But “Marketing is often a battle for legitimacy.  The first brand that captures that concept is often able to portray it’s competitors as illegitimate pretenders.”* And that’s how Hertz countered Avis’s counter branding — by recasting Avis as an illegitimate pretenders to the “customer service” throne.

At least, those are my takeaways.  I’d be thrilled to read yours in the comments…

* Quote taken from The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing


  1. Linda Mattacks on 11.09.2011

    I guess this is one where the truth is stranger than fiction 😉

    There was another advertising campaign from the ’60s worth a mention here I believe. It wasn’t between competitors but nevertheless shows the power of advertising. It majored on TV in the UK and it was to promote a cigarette. As I recall (this may not be 100% accurate but close enough for our purposes) it featured a guy walking along the street (he may have been crossing a bridge) on his own, smoking a cigarette, on a grey murky night. Black and white TV in those days. Very atmospheric. The tag line was: You’re never alone with a Strand.

    Now, the ad was very memorable but sales of the cigarette were diabolically low. The ad was pulled and so was the brand. A few months later a new one came on the market: Embassy cigarettes were advertised on TV and showed a good looking guy at a party. He was smoking an Embassy cigarette and was popular with the ladies and other guy, too. Sales of the cigarette rocketed.

    It was the same cigarette of course, just positioned completely differently.

    I think you’re spot on regarding the moral of your tale, Jeff. If Avis had truly had the courage of their convictions and were delivering on their claims they could have produced a counter attack of David v Goliath proportions and got the American public behind them… 🙂

  2. Grimey on 11.09.2011

    JS …

    If the ad campaign tanked in 90 day why are we still talking about it almost 50 years later?


  3. Jeff on 11.09.2011


    I think you misunderstand. The ad campaign didn’t tank in 90 days. Here’s a bit of clarification:

    There are 2 campaigns under discussion:

    The first campaign is Avis’s famous “We’re No. 2 — We Try Harder” campaign created by DDBO for Avis back in 1963. This campaign was a huge success and, as you can see if you look back at the chart, steadily gained Avis 7 points of market share from ’63 to ’66, while sliding Hertz’s market share down by 11 points. This was a huge remarkable success, which is why we are talking about it still today. In fact, it was so successful, that had it continued to run unopposed, Hertz had every reason to believe that Avis would stop being #2 by 1968.

    2) The second campaign was Hertz’s counter-branding campaign created by Ally & Gargano in November of 1966 (practically 1967 for all intents and purposes). This campaign so utterly demolished the persuasive power of “We’re number 2; we try harder” that, within 90 days of Hertz launching the campaign, Avis pulled their existing “we try harder” advertising. So within 3 months of launching the counter campaign, Hertz was effectively able to “force” Avis to kill their legendary campaign.

    My point is simply that while most everyone in the Advertising or Copywriting world knows about the famous Avis campaign, almost no one knows about the Ally & Gargano counter-campaign. It’s “the rest of the story” that needs to be told, and that should be studied by any serious student of advertising and marketing.

    – Jeff

  4. Jeff on 11.09.2011

    Thanks for the comments, Linda. Interesting stuff about Strand and Embassy cigs. Same thing here in America: before Marlbaro became THE manly, man’s cigarette of choice, it was initially marketed to women, as most filtered cigarette’s where back in those days. Take the same cig and repackage it in a brand new box and advertise it with “The Marlboro Man” and you get huge, record smashing success. Leo Burnett was a genius.

    But yeah, as for Avis, they really should have stuck with a winner. The problem was that they didn’t keep up the efforts to ensure the reality matched the advertising promise.

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