Perspective: Something Borrowed

It's not easy getting anyone else excited about renting a car

Headshot of Robert Klara

You almost have to feel bad for car-rental companies. OK, wait—not in the fiscal sense. Enterprise Holdings (parent of the Alamo, Enterprise and National brands) did $2.2 billion in business for Q3 2012 (up 34 percent over last year) and posted profits of $171 million. So let’s rephrase: You almost have to feel bad for car-rental marketers. And why? Check out the 1958 and 2012 National Car Rental ads here. Making allowances for the Sinatra-esque fedora and the fins on that two-tone Fairlane, can you spot anything especially exciting going on here? Anything that makes you want to rush out to the airport and rent a midsized American sedan?

Exactly: Nope. But don’t blame the marketing folks (well, much). As these two ads for National all but prove, sometimes there’s just not much that can be done to sex up a brand or its industry. “You’re not going to drool and brag about car rental, and nobody’s going to talk about his incredible rent-a-car stories,” said Rafe Gomez, principal of VC Inc. Marketing, whose clients have included leading brands in the travel industry. “That both ads have a common approach and an indistinguishable message makes sense because both ads have a similar problem: Car rental is a commodity.”

The truth hurts. If it’s any salve for our friends in the car-rental biz, things have pretty much been this way from the get-go. The first car-rental brand appeared in 1916, when a Nebraska entrepreneur decided to bolt a mileage meter to his Model T and charge others who wanted to drive it. Eventually, a guy named John Hertz got into the game and set up rental stalls at railroad stations. As the Hertz “Driv-Ur-Self System” grew, a group of 24 independent operators banded together to compete, forming National Car Rental. That was 1947, when the rise of air travel created a huge demand for rental cars among traveling businessmen, and the ad pitch has been the same ever since: You want to get off your plane, into your car and drive off. That’s it.

Not that National hasn’t tried to introduce a little variety to spice things up. The brand was first to market with one-way rentals in 1954, it pioneered computer-based reservations in 1966 and then rolled out the “Emerald Aisle” in 1987—a preferred club of members who can simply stroll into a row of cars, pick the one they want and go. Sounds pretty good, right? But even though that’s the hook for the contemporary ad opposite, Gomez said the message still fails to rev its engine loud enough. “If you can really just choose any car in the aisle and go, that’s a huge convenience that differentiates the brand, but it’s buried in the small print,” he said. “They should have run with that.”

Well, maybe they will next year. Or the year after that. After all, it’s not like renting cars is bound to change all that much anyway.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.