Comparative Advertising: Marketing Jujitsu, Part 1

In 1962 Avis was one of a pack of also-rans in a rental car market dominated by Hertz. They used Hertz's strength to leverage themselves from a 11% share to a 35% share in just one year through a Doyle Dane Bernbach campaign that became an advertising classic: "We're number 2. We try harder."The ads didn't mention Hertz by name. but lines like "We're in the rent a car business playing second fiddle to a giant." didn't leave much doubt about who they were competing with.

Funny thing was, it wasn't Hertz that Avis was going after. It was National and the rest of the large group of small companies that competed with Avis for the half of the rent a car market Hertz didn't control.

So why attack Hertz – albeit obliquely? Simple. That bedrock principle of advertising: people tend to think both parties in a comparative ad are equal. So when Avis attacked Hertz, the target audience didn't think Avis was better, They thought Avis and Hertz were about the same. That changed the entire rent a car decision-making process. Instead of "Hertz or one of the little guys?" it became "Hertz or Avis?"
That paradigm shift tripled Avis's market share without taking much of a bite out of Hertz. But it ravaged the share of the smaller companies.

It almost didn't happen. A lot of people at Avis thought positioning themselves as "Number 2" made them seem second rate. And a lot thought they would be crushed if Hertz decided to counterattack.
Actually, positioning themselves as number 2 was a promotion. Because up until them there was Hertz, a solid number 1, and Avis and all the rest nowhere.

The timid executives' fear of a counterattack was misplaced. If Hertz hit back, it would be the best thing that could have happened to Avis. Because no matter which company runs a comparative ad, the target audience tends to perceive both companies as comparable.

So if Hertz counterattacked their massive marketing budget – at the time orders of magnitude bigger than Avis's – would be persuading car renters that Hertz and Avis were the same, lifting Avis still farther out of the "all other" category and positioning them as on parity with Hertz.

One key factor in the success of the Avis ads was that they were extremely well written. And their attacks weren't head-on. They didn't say "Hertz has dirty ashtrays," they said "We just can't afford dirty ashtrays."
The focus was always on the fact that as the underdog Avis – as the campaign said – tried harder.

Eventually – and inexplicably – Avis dropped the "We're number 2." and kept only "We try harder." Fortunately for them, the much more memorable "Number 2" claim had been deeply engraved into the target audience's awareness by then. Because if Avis had originally gone with "We try harder" alone, the slogan would have sunk without a trace as just another piece of self-aggrandizing corporate bombast.

The unprecedented claim of the number 2 position was the key to the campaign's memorability and believability.

Eventually Hertz couldn't restrain the urge to rebuff Avis's challenge and ran an ad saying: "For years Avis has told you they're number 2. We'd like to tell you why." The ad didn't get a lot of media weight. It's easy to imagine that some Hertz executive simply couldn't resist hitting back – even though doing so helped Avis by adding credence to Avis's positioning as an equal competitor.

The discount brokerage segment is now a hotbed of generically-targeted comparative advertising.
For several years now Sam Waterston has compared TD Ameritrade to full-price brokers in a series of TV spots. Charles Schwab also attacks the full-price broker segment generically in a brilliant new animated spot from Euro RSCG. The premise is that the protagonist's broker has gotten more out of the protagonist's investment portfolio than the protagonist himself.

It's interesting that the discount brokers apparently believe that there is one large market for brokerage services, and that the full-price brokers are still the more powerful segment of it.

Their choice to compete against another segment of the overall category rather than for share within the discount niche says that they think the migration from full-service to discount has just begun, and there's more business to be gained by capitalizing on the shift than there would be by competing among each other for the investors who have already made the move.

If the competitor is big and well-known, name-no-names comparative advertising can be effective. But some advertisers who really want to capitalize on the competitor's brand power name their competitors' names.

Next week: Kicking brands and taking names.


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