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:
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