This is part of a special series about great rivalries: between tech titans, sports franchises, and even dinosaur hunters. Read about the series here.
In 1962, Avis was in search of a new advertising campaign. Since its inception, the car rental company had trailed behind the market leader, Hertz. So the ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach decided to embrace Avis’ second-place status as a sneaky way to tout the brand’s customer service. “When you’re only No. 2, you try harder,” went the new tagline. “Or else.”
The “We Try Harder” ads were an instant hit. Within a year, Avis went from losing $3.2 million to earning $1.2 million—the first time it had been profitable in more than a decade. From 1963 to 1966, as Hertz ignored the Avis campaign, the market-share percentage gap between the two brands shrunk from 61–29 to 49–36. Terrified Hertz executives projected that by 1968 Avis might need a new ad campaign—because it would no longer be No. 2.
The rivalry between Avis and Hertz dates back to the mid-1940s, when Air Force officer Warren Avis, as he traveled around the country and overseas, spotted an unexploited niche in the rental car market. Avis’ killer idea: Put the cars inside airports. At the time, most rental lots—including Hertz’s—were located in downtowns. Avis thought he could cater to the growing ranks of business travelers who wished to fly into cities, drive to a series of meetings, and fly out the same day. “Even as we grew by leaps and bounds, the Hertz people vowed up and down that our approach wouldn’t work,” Avis recalled in his 1986 autobiography, Take a Chance to Be First. That eventually changed. “They jumped in and began to copy everything that we had pioneered. I honestly don’t think that Hertz has come up with an original idea yet in the airport car-rental field.”
Avis’ book is chock full of other truculent jabs at his sworn corporate enemy. Though Avis had sold his namesake firm and exited the rental business 32 years before, his loyalty remained fierce. He accuses Hertz of renting “near-jalopies,” caricatures “the Hertz mentality,” and describes the market-share struggle as “the war with Hertz.” But it was the “We Try Harder” ad campaign, launched well after Mr. Avis had left the scene, that kicked the car rental race into another gear. Avis ads never called out Hertz by name, but the accusations were implicit. “Avis can’t afford not to be nice.” “Avis can’t afford to make you wait.” “Avis can’t afford dirty ashtrays.” The campaign would run for the next 50 years, all over the globe.
Acknowledging any sort of brand weakness used to be anathema to Madison Avenue. Why encourage consumers to wonder why you’re stuck in second place? Better to project unflappable confidence. At the risk of ascribing too much to the dynamics of 1960s gender roles: Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a woman devised the Avis slogan. DDB copywriter Paula Green—a real-life Peggy Olson—came up with the “When you’re only No. 2” construction. It was revolutionary because, as Green said in later interviews, “It went against the notion that you had to brag.” (Green has also acknowledged, in what sounds like a nod to the workplace obstacles she faced, “ ‘We Try Harder’ is somewhat the story of my life.”)
Famed ad man David Ogilvy praised Green’s Avis ads as a feat of “diabolical positioning,” and DDB became known for these judo-style campaigns, in which a foe’s putative strengths are turned against him. When American cars were growing massive and show-offy and comically tail-finned, DDB pitched the Volkswagen Beetle with a now legendary 1961 print ad. “Think Small,” read the copy, with a teensy image of the car floating against an expanse of white space. “It’s ugly but it gets you there,” another VW ad confessed. DDB partner Bill Bernbach had sized up the cultural moment: Americans were weary of earnest, bigger-is-better, 1950s-style consumerism. The audience was receptive to a humble message that tweaked authority.
Even after the ’60s zeitgeist faded, advertisers—particularly those who worked for second-place brands—continued to recognize the genius of the DDB approach. You see it in Pepsi’s long-running tagline, “The choice of a new generation,” which positioned Coke as the choice of establishment fogeys. You saw it in Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl spot, in which a lone, colorful rebel dares to resist a monochromatic horde of IBM users, and in Virgin Airlines’ cheeky campaigns, in which a fun and sexy upstart thumbs its nose at staid and respectable airline brands.
Green’s insight into the power of humility remains influential as well. Consider the Domino’s campaign from a few years back, in which the pizza maker allowed that its crust used to taste like “cardboard.” Or think of ads for the Bing search engine that acknowledged the brand’s perceived inferiority to Google. Both the Domino’s and Bing campaigns came from Crispin Porter + Bogusky; I’ve had my issues with CPB’s work, but there’s no doubt the agency knows how to make ads that win attention for its clients.
How does the Avis and Hertz story end? The “We Try Harder” assault went unanswered for years, as Hertz tried to float above the fray. But in 1966—hemorrhaging market share, its back against the wall—Hertz began to fight back. “For years, Avis has been telling you Hertz is No. 1,” read the copy on the first response ad. “Now we’re going to tell you why.”
Further retorts followed. “No. 2 says he tries harder. Than who?” And “Hertz has a competitor who says he’s only No. 2. That’s hard to argue with.” The ads almost immediately stanched the bleeding. Hertz’s “We’re No. 1” slogan, accompanied by a raised index finger, soon infiltrated the larger culture—even getting co-opted by fans at sporting events. The market-share gap stabilized by 1969, settling in at a steady 48–35.
In ensuing decades, the two firms continued to battle. The last year has seen an acquisitions arms race: Hertz bought Dollar Thrifty, and Avis snapped up Zipcar. But the tone has mellowed. “Back in the day, these companies were run by car rental guys,” says Neil Abrams, an industry consultant. “Today, neither the Hertz or Avis CEOs grew up in the rental business.” The feud isn’t nearly as personal or intense.
It’s been a half-century since the “We Try Harder” campaign debuted, and Avis never did catch up to Hertz. Instead, Enterprise passed them both. Because Hertz and Avis had focused so fiercely on the airport market, they became vulnerable when first 9/11 and then the recession slammed the air travel industry. Fewer folks deplaning meant fewer customers. The car rental business came full circle: Suddenly, Enterprise’s slew of downtown locations—used by people whose cars are in the shop or who don’t own cars at all—offered a less cyclical, more profitable model. Enterprise made smart agreements with insurance companies, funneling in business from folks in need of loaner cars after auto accidents.
Hertz is No. 2 these days, and Avis lags in third place. It was a terrific 20th-century rivalry. But in the end, trying harder for five decades straight must have gotten a little exhausting: Last year, Avis finally dropped the “We Try Harder” tagline from its ads.