How to beat your competitors without winning

Since day one of its humble beginnings in 1946, the Avis rental car company has had a singular mission: To catch market leader Hertz.

Despite their nemesis’ 30-year head start, Avis managed to gain a 29% market share in its first 15 years of operation — but Hertz still had twice as much.

Then, in 1962, they came up with a slogan that would shrink that gap significantly, and all it took was three honest words: “We try harder.”

If you think this ad feels refreshing in 2020 (it does), imagine living in 1962. The only ads people knew were sexist, racist, and offensive.

Cigarettes were sold as “get-em’-into-bed” sticks for both genders. Skincare and hygiene were “be-pretty-for-him” industries. And cooking? Don’t get me started on cooking.

Amidst all the superlatives and non-superlative shaming, I can imagine many taking a deep breath of relief upon seeing Avis’ ads. Instead of hiding their weaknesses, they acknowledged them — and then they turned them into arguments that convinced millions of customers.

“Avis can’t afford not to be nice. Avis can’t afford to make you wait. Avis can’t afford dirty ashtrays.” The message was simple: We know what matters to you, and we promise to take care of it. It was a pure, hardcore commitment to being of service, and it worked.

The year after the “We try harder” campaign started, Avis made its first profit in a decade: $1.2 million against a $3.2 million loss the year before. Confident and complacent, Hertz ignored their efforts — and promptly lost 12% market share over the next three years while Avis gained 7%.

Finally, Hertz fought back, and, to their credit, they piggybacked well off Avis’ strategy. They embraced the “No.1” branding Avis had pummeled them with and said: “You know what? Avis is right. We are #1.” Not a bad move.

Hertz’ counter-campaign stabilized the market share gap between the two rivals, but the cat was out of the bag. Avis’ ads ran for a whopping 50 years, teaching advertisers a lesson they’d never forget:

Every strength comes with weakness, and every weakness comes with a strength — if you pick your words wisely, you can leverage them both.

If you’re number one, you’ll suffer from either paranoia or complacency. You’ll constantly look over your shoulder, and if you don’t, you’ll one day wake up and find yourself in second place. Victory is nothing but a series of brief moments of relief, followed by more hard work.

If you’re number two, you’ll have to work harder and everyone knows it. You can wear your silver medal on your sleeve or drift into oblivion — both require short-term pain, only one can lead to long-term success.

Doyle Dane Bernbach, Avis’ agency, wasn’t the first to turn a competitor’s word against them, but they did so with such authenticity that it sent a shockwave through the world of advertising which caused a lasting change.

Volkswagen, Apple, KFC, Pepsi, Domino’s, Fortnite — to this day, every now and then, brands successfully lean into their weaknesses with honesty and flip their competitors’ strengths on their heads.

Honesty isn’t a perfect strategy. It won’t protect you from screw-ups — but it’s a hell of a start in clawing your way back into consumers’ hearts.

“Avis needs you. You don’t need Avis. Avis never forgets this.” Ads like this show you care enough to give us the truth. We’re all imperfect humans and we know it — which is exactly why it’s nice that I can call Avis’ president when I think he messed up. It’s nice to hear, “We don’t want your sympathy.”

Ultimately, Avis never overtook Hertz, but they didn’t have to: In May 2020, Hertz filed for bankruptcy. Avis too struggles amid plummeting rental car demand, but once again, their resourcefulness prevails. They outlasted their arch-rival — number two was always enough.

This anticlimactic ending to an epic, decade-long business feud holds an even bigger lesson than the yin-and-yang nature of strengths and weaknesses:

At the end of the day, business isn’t about who vs. who, about who has the bigger stick or the cleverer tactics — it’s about delighting your customers in order to grow and survive.

Maybe that’s why, first quietly and then suddenly, Enterprise flew by both Avis and Hertz. In 2017, they had a 44% market share compared to Hertz’ and Avis’ 14% and 10% respectively.

Still, Avis vs. Hertz belongs into history books and every marketer’s “Reminders to Self” folder. Naming Avis’ ads as one of his three all-time favorites in 2017, marketing legend David Angelo hit the nail on the head:

“If brands just had the courage to be authentic and own up to who they are and show their shortcomings, I think people would be a lot more forgiving.”

This article originally appeared on Medium.