#015: How Avis Made $37 Million In A Year By Trying Harder
In 1962, Avis was in trouble.
Even though Avis was the second largest car rental company in the US, it had been bleeding millions in losses for 13 years straight. And it seemed there was no end in sight.
But in 1963, it took only one advertising campaign to completely turn that around.
Warren Edward Davis
Warren is a rare exception in this series. There isn’t much information available about his early life so I could only uncover 5 things:
- He was born on August 4th, 1915 in Bay City, Michigan.
- He graduated from high school in 1933.
- His first job was in the Michigan Department of Investigations where he investigated auto dealerships. No record on what investigations he made.
- His second job was selling pills for a drug company. No record on what company it was or the pills he sold.
- He joined the U.S. Air Force and served as a bomber pilot in World War II.
In 1946, after the war, Warren invested $10,000 (approx. $134,000 today) in a Ford dealership and wanted to rent cars at airports.
Car rental wasn’t a new concept at the time. There were many car rental businesses in the US, but almost all of them were located in downtown areas or business districts. Nobody considered setting up anywhere else.
Warren spent a lot of time at airport terminals and felt this was something he would personally use. With the airline industry booming after the war, he also believed that lots of people would need to rent a car from the airport as well.
Warren started at Willow Run Airport in Detroit with just three cars. His employees would park cars outside airport terminals and tell travelers they’d immediately get their car after getting off the plane. It took some getting used to but customers eventually saw how convenient this was and business picked up.
By 1953, just 7 years after it was founded, Avis became the second largest rental car company in the US. And in 1954, Warren decided he was done with Avis and sold it for $8MM ($78MM today).
Why did he sell? Well…
Avis Was In Trouble
Avis had not turned a profit since 1950.
After Warren sold it in 1954, the company kept getting sold and bought like a game of hot potato. Many thought they could turn the business around. None of them managed. So it was bought and sold again and again.
In 1962, Avis was owned by a man named Lazard Freres. Avis was struggling and in desperate need of help. One of Lazard’s business partners recommended they get a new CEO. A man by the name of Robert Townsend.
Robert was the Senior Vice President of Investment and International Banking at American Express. Thanks to Lazard’s business partner, Robert was convinced to join Avis as its new CEO and to try turn it around.
One of the mandates when Robert came onboard was to increase Avis’ advertising budget and to hire the legendary Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) agency to run their advertising.
In a memo he wrote to DDB, he said that he would have complete confidence in DDB and gave them full creative control of Avis’ advertising. If you’ve read the story of how Ogilvy built a national brand overnight with just $1.50, you already know just how powerful this can be.
As part of the process, Bill Bernbach himself (one of the founders of DDB) had an interview with the managers at Avis. This interview was then given to a copywriter named Paula Green, who was assigned the Avis account.
Sidenote: If you’re interested in learning more about Paula Green, please visit this appreciation article as well as see some of her best work. There are also other female copywriters featured in these stories such as Shirley Polykoff and the two-part story of Lillian Eichler here and here.
One of the interview questions that Bernbach asked was why anyone ever rents a car from Avis. Paula took their answer and summed it up into a tagline that Avis kept for over 50 years.
The campaign that followed is one of the best examples of “redefinition” where a perceived weakness is made into a strength.
On January 28th, 1963, this was the first ad published in this campaign, written by Paula Green.
“We Try Harder” Campaign
A Full Ad
The picture is of a hand holding up two fingers, because of the number 2 theme.
The angle of the photo is unusual. It’s from the reader’s point of view, as if they were looking at their own hand rather than someone else holding up two fingers.
I can only assume this was a decision based on results from previous ads from DDB.
Avis is only No. 2 in rent a cars. So why go with us?
This is a comparative headline, where the company says something about how they rank against others. This was a very bold move to make in the 1960’s because nobody wanted to compare their own business with a competitor. Especially if that comparison meant saying, “Hey, we’re NOT number 1.”
Robert had already given the DDB agency full creative control and permission to run any ads they wanted. But in DDB itself, Paula got a lot of pushback for this headline. Too many of her peers thought being number 2 was a put-down.
Paula asked the research department at DDB to print this headline on index cards and go to airports. At the airports, the research staff would ask people to read the ad and ask what they thought “being Number 2” meant. After gathering results, the researchers went back to DDB and shared their findings with Paula and Bernbach.
Half of the people thought being number 2 meant “not as good as.” Bernbach asked about the other half. The other half understood being number 2 meant that Avis would probably try harder. This is all that Bernbach needed to hear and he greenlit the headline.
The headline admits a supposed reason to NOT use Avis (being “only” number 2 in the industry) and then gets the reader curious with a simple question: So why go with us?
By doing this, the headline does its most important job. It gets the reader interested enough to read the next line.
First Two Lines
We try harder.
(When you’re not the biggest, you have to.)
The magic three words: we try harder.
This hits so hard because people love an underdog story. Many of us can relate to being an underdog because it’s happened to us many times in our own lives. In those three words, you have such a strong emotional hook that the reader is in.
It also explains a bit more about why they have to try harder.
About The Cars…
We just can’t afford dirty ashtrays. Or half-empty gas tanks. Or worn wipers. Or unwashed cars. Or low tires. Or anything less than seat-adjusters that adjust. Heaters that heat. Defrosters that defrost.
At this point, I imagine that Paula just had a list of things that people who rent cars complain about.
Notice that she chose to list out specific problems and not just say something generic like, “We just can’t afford to have our cars in less than perfect condition.” She quickly lists NINE specific issues.
And she says that Avis can’t afford these things, setting up the expectation that people will find them in other car rental companies but not Avis. It turns this attention to detail & service into a strength and selling point that is “unique” to Avis.
Notice that Paula also follows the “rule of three” when she says “anything less than …”:
- Seat-adjusters that adjust.
- Heaters that heat.
- Defrosters that defrost.
This just gives a good, polished feel to the writing.
About The Service…
Obviously, the thing we try hardest for is just to be nice. To start you out right with a new car, like a lively, super-torque Ford, and a pleasant smile. To know, say, where you get a good pastrami sandwich in Duluth.
While the car is a big part of the customer experience, it’s not the only thing. Paula works to set Avis apart by saying the thing they try hardest is good service.
But again, just as she was specific with the problems people WON’T find in Avis cars, she is specific about the things people WILL get with Avis’ customer service:
- To be nice
- A new car, one that is fun to drive and American-made
- A pleasant smile
- Local, insider knowledge of, for example, where to get a certain food in a popular Midwest tourist destination
Because we can’t afford to take you for granted.
Once Paula talks about Avis’ cars and Avis’ service, it’s time to remind you WHY they will do these things. Human beings are wired to more likely believe/agree with something if you explain why.
Go with us next time.
The line at our counter is shorter.
She then ends the ad with a very simple call to action and sneaks in one last, very strong benefit.
The other ads in the “We Try Harder” campaign are just mini versions of the first ad.
The campaign ran mostly in magazines targeting business travelers.
In May 1963, Avis CEO Robert said this:
“Our first ad appeared on January 28. Since then our normal revenue growth rate has doubled. There is no doubt in my mind about the connection between these two facts.”
By the end of 1963, Avis had gone from losing $3.2MM ($27MM today) the previous year to making a profit of $1.2MM ($10.3MM today). A turnaround of almost $38MM in today’s terms. The first time Avis turned a profit since 1950.
Beyond the financial results, Lester Blumenthal, Account Executive at DDB for the Avis account, mentioned that the ‘We Try Harder’ slogan has made everyone at Avis do just that.