Advertising: Trying Harder

  • Share
  • Read Later

It began with some casual questioning. Robert C. Townsend, the president of Avis, Inc., was talking with his advertising agency about ways to boost Avis rent-a-car business, which trailed far behind Hertz in the car-rental field. Were Avis' cars newer than Hertz's? asked the admen. No. More rental locations? No. Lower rates? Nope. Wasn't there some difference between the two? "Well," said Townsend, thinking for a moment, "we try harder." Lights flashed. Bugles blared. Sirens wailed. Thus was launched one of Madison Avenue's most successful ad campaigns, whose slogans—Avis Is Only No. 2, We Try Harder—rapidly worked their way into U.S. conversation. Since the campaign began, Avis car rentals have jumped 28%, and the company's nine-month revenues for fiscal 1964 reached a record $31.2 million.

Call the President. The Avis ads have caught readers through their underdog appeal, their sly humor and their insouciant explanations of the traumas of being in second place. Tear up the Avis credit card "if Avis goofs," says one ad. Says another: "Our counters all have two sides. And we know which side our bread is buttered on." The campaign has also had an inside effect: Avis is trying harder. Before the first ad ran, executives of Avis and of its ad agency—Manhattan's bright, unorthodox Doyle Dane Bernbach—jointly lectured Avis employees in 300 cities to impress on counter girls and car attendants the need for that hard Avis try. They made employees fill out check lists that guard against empty gas tanks, dirty ashtrays and smudged mirrors, passed out "We try harder" lapel buttons.

Hearty Bob Townsend, 43, who came from American Express 28 months ago, wears his button and a bright red Avis blazer just like any employee. He has breathed new life and spirit into Avis, increased its vehicle fleet from 16,600 to 36,000. He has even let himself be grist for Doyle Dane's productive mill. A recent ad revealed that he has no secretary and answers his own phone, suggested that anyone with a complaint call his number direct (area code 516, CH 8-9150). Townsend has since heard from about 400 people, last week made a San Francisco reservation for one caller and authorized another to get on-the-spot credit without an Avis card or cash deposit.

Watch It, Jack. Avis has actually become No. 1 in such scattered spots as Indianapolis, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Wichita Falls, Texas—and it has turned success into another ad. It views with alarm what it considers the inevitable fruits of being first: a burned-out signal light that went unnoticed at its Poughkeepsie place. "A few more complaints," says the ad, "and we may have to put in someone a little less complacent. So watch it, Jack."

Avis has a lot of miles to go to catch up with Hertz, which has three times as many cars and five times more revenue, but Townsend says his aim is not to become No. 1—he just wants Avis to be the fastest growing with the highest profit margin. In view of the fact that 90 million out of 94 million U.S. drivers have never rented a car, he feels that there is plenty of room for everyone to grow, sees no reason why the number of-U.S. cars available for rental, now 105,000 a year, should not reach 1,000,000 by 1970.