Avis decides trying harder is just too hard

Avis girl
I know how this actress must feel being in this goddawful commercial.

What the hell happened to Avis? Oh, yeah, they got a new ad agency. And what’s every lumbering, Cretaceous-era ad agency’s mantra? If you get a new client, take everything they’ve ever done and lift your leg on it.

As every sentient being on this small, rocky planet orbiting a third-rate star must be aware, for the past fifty years  Avis’s brand position and slogan has been “We try harder.” One of the classic and most effective brand positions ever. First conceived at Doyle Dane Bernbach back when Kennedy was president, it has stood as a powerful brand message ever since. Timeless. Inspiring. Memorable. Self-sustaining. And brilliant. It stands for perpetual improvement, a hunger to get better, and making the customer first.

Enter the Keebler Elves

Now along comes a new ad agency for Avis, Leo Burnett (of Tony the Tiger, Jolly Green Giant, Keebler Elves, and Pillsbury Doughboy infame), who felt the need to chuck all that and come up with perhaps the dullest, most banal ad campaign so far this year. They’ve also added insult to injury by flushing Avis’s stalwart “We try harder” in favor of some focus-group-generated, lifeless tagline and a derivative concept that seems to come right out of Don Draper’s hackneyed, martini-soaked, Sans-a-Belt slacks.

This campaign, “The Professionals,” is part of a new (and I use that adjective with extreme irony) brand proposition called “It’s your space.” Of course, it’s just a humiliating attempt to imitate National Car Rental’s “Rent like a pro” campaign. Because National has been stealing Avis’s lunch money and dunking their heads in the toilet for years now, some marketing MBA at Burnett probably thought it would be just the ticket to emulate those bullies. That’s how you make yourself unique; remind your customers of the other guys.

The concept is pathetic on the surface. And in execution it’s even worse. Like you’d expect from every other bloated, obsolete ad agency, Burnett’s creative teams had the original idea of paying celebrities (but in this case, third-level celebrities) to shill their client’s product. I’ll bet that was a late-night, white-board session.  So the message is, if you’re a celebrity, Avis treats you like a celebrity.

Everybody in the commercials just looks bored to be there. And the jokes are so limp they would make a minivan full of preschoolers groan. (A Playboy centerfold/volleyball player says she’s going to slip into this “tight black number I brought with me,” but it turns out to be just her yoga leotard. Get it? Get it? Because you thought it was going to be a…oh, never mind.)

They even have the gall to post a “behind the scenes” video on Avis’s website, just in case you were curious to see what it might have been like to stand around all day, pigging out at the craft services table, and shoot this steaming mountain of Triceratops dung. What’s so great about this BTS video is that it’s message is, when you’re a near-celebrity, you really need to retreat to luxury (“your space”) to get away from all those sweaty little people who can be so annoying.

Back when advertising was creative, Avis used to do spots that amused, but, more important, identified with us, the “sweaty little people”. They told us they had to try harder to earn our loyalty. Now, of course, their message (at least from these ads)  is they would prefer not to have to deal with us at all.

Here’s a strong brand. Let’s kill it.

But the unbelievable and heartbreaking thing about what they’ve done is the cavalier dismissal of one of the strongest, tallest, oldest brand positions in the history of the world. Rather than seeing how they could creatively refresh and remind us what trying harder means, they’ve decided to not try at all and apply an advertising formula from 1959…and saw down this Sequoia of a brand.

But that’s what obese, senile ad agencies do: Kill brands.

jeannine-haas
Avis’s new CMO Jeannine Haas

Avis’s new, Gen-X CMO, Jeannine Hass–whose first act was to fire incumbent and longtime AOR McCann Erickson (as every new CMO must do to show everybody who’s boss)–explained her reasoning in dumping the brand position that has worked longer than she’s been alive, “Consumer-centric brands must always evolve in order to keep pace with ever-changing customer needs and preferences. Avis is evolving as a premium brand to better meet those needs.”* Inspiring words; right out of a Douglas Adams satire. One can see where “We try harder” doesn’t cut the butter where “ever-changing customer needs” are concerned. The new customers don’t want a rental car company that tries harder. They want a rental car company that gives them their own space…man.

Haas backtracked a little, though, when she said, “We firmly believe that after nearly five decades, ‘We Try Harder’ is fully embedded in the Avis DNA, and defines the spirit our employees embody to deliver superior customer service.” Yes, so let’s shitcan it. And, yes, she actually used the phrase, “embedded in the Avis DNA.”

Good luck, Avis, with your new marketing officer and your new agency. Don’t stop trying. I’ll still rent cars from you, even if your advertising sucks.

And if a headhunter approaches me about a sweet job at Avis or Burnett, this post never existed.

*From AdAge 27 Aug 1012 article: http://adage.com/article/news/50-years-avis-drops-iconic-harder-tagline/236887/

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