Avis drops classic ‘We try harder’ tagline – and a clanger with new ad campaign

August 28, 2012

Remember when Sir Richard Branson stole the national flag for his own airline after British Airways said it didn’t want it any more? Well, there’s a similar golden opportunity beckoning for any cheeky entrepreneur working in the car-hire sector.

After 50 years, Avis has decided to discard one of the most famous taglines in advertising: “We Try Harder.”

Apparently, no one thinks they do any more. Avis has slipped down the global batting order from second, behind Hertz, to third, behind Entreprise Holdings, which owns the Alamo, Enterprise and National brands.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. And these measures really are desperate, as will be seen.

It will not have escaped readers’ attention that things have changed a tad in the car-hire business over the past five decades. The main catalyst has been budget airlines, which have successfully turned the holiday hire-car proposition into a commodity. Where once you bought, or thought you were buying, a superior service, you now buy a much stripped-down rental price. Of course, this base price is a bit of illusion, because once you have added on sat-nav, baby-seats, ski-racks and extortionate premium and super-premium insurance cover (so you don’t have to pay a £700 excess on a scraped wing or £200 for a new tyre) – Hey Presto! –  it has doubled. But that’s the way it is today – if you don’t want to pay upfront, you don’t have to. Which means the car-hire companies have had to look elsewhere to fatten their profits.

And where better than expense-accounted businessmen turning a hard morning at the presentation lectern into a pleasant afternoon at the golf club?

That, at least, seems to be the thinking of new broom Avis chief marketing officer Jeannine Haas, who has fired McCann Erickson and brought in Leo Burnett to deliver her new baby.

And what a mewler and a puker it is.

Out this week, the new campaign – called “It’s Your Space” – tries to communicate in a “lighthearted way” how the space inside a rental vehicle can be a productive environment where business travellers can “recharge their batteries”. Health and safety executives might have something to say about the way they do it but, that aside, judge for yourselves the quality of the ads:

What a pity you can’t say they are so bad they make you laugh. But they aren’t: they’re just bland beyond belief. It’s Your Space might be more appropriately titled “A Waste of Space.” Which is all the more unfortunate given the brand’s legacy.

The line “We Try Harder” was introduced by DDB in 1962 after Avis CEO Robert Townsend turned in desperation to the agency after many profitless years. Bill Bernbach himself is supposed to have cracked the problem by asking a number of Avis employees what it was about their service that distinguished it. But it was copywriter Paula Green who actually came up with the line.

There are not many occasions when you can unequivocally point the finger at advertising as the agent of success, but this was one of them. Within a year, Avis had turned a profit for the first time in over a decade.

I can’t, somehow, see similar spectacular results arising from the present campaign.

So, arise Sir Stelios and steal this opportunity while you may.

Strong headwinds will not prevent Sir Stelios from attempting take-off

September 28, 2011

Pride comes before a fall. No sooner had Easyjet smugly congratulated itself on an intoxicatingly funny parody of BA’s latest ad campaign (To Fly. To Savesee post below) than its fractious founder and biggest shareholder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannu, spoiled all the fun with a headline-grabber of his own.

I’ve heard many reasons over the years for launching a new brand, most relating at least tangentially to a perceived gap in the market, or even market in the gap, with the prospect of profit – however evanescent – somewhere in the equation. But never one based entirely on spite and paranoia.

Yet this is what the board of Easyjet would have us believe; it took the initiative in disclosing that Stelios was plotting a rival airline, Fastjet, after fruitlessly engaging in years of guerilla warfare with the company he once set up.

Most commentators take the Easyjet line: that Fastjet is no more than an audacious, if alarming, bluff – a way of continuing Stelios’s war with the Easyjet board by other means, in order to extract extra concessions. And it is true that there seems no more present substance to the threat than a red-washed website and a brand name, not even trademarked.

On the other hand, never underestimate the power of the irrational. Especially when it is deployed by a gifted and demonically driven entrepreneur. Civil aviation may be wracked by recession and rising fuel costs; it may be saturated with low-cost airlines. But that does not necessarily mean Stelios’ bluff  will be called. He probably has the family resources to remain “irrational” long after others have ceased to be solvent. Where most (especially left-brain City analysts) see sector cul-de-sacs, entrepreneurs see opportunity (step forward Philip Green, Richard Branson and a host of others) and are prepared to back a hunch.

Besides, it may not be a new airline he is planning: merely a radical repositioning of an existing operation. As Paul Simons – who knows a thing or two or about airlines; he’s even tried relaunching one – points out, there are still market segments other than the low-cost sector worth targeting, particularly at the upper end of the social scale.

What, however, makes me reasonably confident that Fastjet is not simply an extravagant corporate warfare stratagem is the irreparable loss of face involved if it were revealed to be so. That really would make Stelios look like a spoilt rich kid who has thrown all his toys out of the pram.

For that very reason Easyjet and others should be wary of writing off Fastjet as an empty threat. The project may target a different sector of the market, it may well fail. But one thing we can be sure of: it will cause competitors some unwelcome turbulence if it ever heaves itself off the runway.

Michael O’Leary avoids his Gerald Ratner moment of truth – for now

July 17, 2010

I picked up Thursday’s Guardian with mounting anticipation and turned to page 9, as instructed. There it was, half a page of sheer, undiluted schadenfreude!

A half-page ad in which Michael O’Leary is forced to apologise fulsomely for calling his EasyJet rival Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannu a liar in print. Appearing in the Telegraph, too. And all paid for by Ryanair.

That’s the sadness of the Ryanair brand. For all the gritty enterprise that has made it Europe’s first airline, we don’t very much like it, or its leader. In fact, we can’t wait for him, or it, to get their come-uppance.

Not that O’Leary will be losing much sleep over such sentiment (see my Horlicks post). If anyone thinks this is his Gerald Ratner moment, they are very much mistaken. O’Leary’s arrogance is not yet so overbearing that he has lost touch with his market. Granted that both he and Ratner have the same contempt for the people they have served. But the difference is that O’Leary’s judgement of human nature is much shrewder. Spookily, he seems to know us better than we know ourselves. Just how much more are we prepared to be abused at the check-in counter, treated like cattle as we board and sheep once aboard, before outraged human dignity finally overcomes our greed for lower prices? A lot more, I suggest; even after Ryanair introduces the single paying loo. Ryanair never forgets that, despite our better selves, we don’t really have a choice – and rubs our noses in it.

Still, we can have a few laughs along the way at the great brand’s expense, and this is definitely one of them. The knife between Stelios and O’Leary is an outstanding illustration of mutual corporate and personal loathing. Others examples include Sir Richard Branson and Willie Walsh; and Sir Martin Sorrell and Maurice Lévy. My favourite, however, (for which I am indebted to the BBC News website) is the case of the two Dassler brothers, one of whom (Adi) set up Adidas, and the other (Rudi), Puma. The hostility between the two of them was so visceral that for many years the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach, where both had factories, was in a state of undeclared civil war.

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