Bridgestone gets a big boost

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With its Firestone tire brand still under a cloud, Bridgestone/Firestone is pouring marketing dollars into its Bridgestone brand.

In a break with tradition, the U.S. subsidiary of Japan's Bridgestone Corp. is promoting the Bridgestone name heavily in the U.S. tire aftermarket. It is even bringing Bridgestone tires into the large middle market traditionally held by Firestone.

In the first six months of this year, the company spent just under $12 million advertising Bridgestone tires in the U.S., compared with less than $400,000 in the year-ago period, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. Bridgestone spent about $1.3 million to advertise Firestone tires in the U.S. in the first six months of this year, a decline from $8 million in the first half of 2000, according to CMR.

Whether that means consumer sales of Bridgestone tires someday might make up for Firestone's deflated market position is uncertain. Publicly, Bridgestone/Firestone management remains adamant about restoring Firestone's image and business. But the company is eager to give the Bridgestone name a bigger role in the North American market. Bridgestone and Firestone brands are both handled by Grey Global Group's Grey Worldwide, New York.

This year was the first season of heavy retail advertising for the Bridgestone brand, and it was a strategic shift for Bridgestone/Firestone. Since it bought Firestone in 1988, its efforts in America have focused on pushing the Firestone name.

The Bridgestone-brand gambit was part of a 50% jump in Bridgestone Corp.'s total U.S. ad spending this year. The manufacturer is drawing up its plans for a second year of Bridgestone-focused advertising of about the same size, said Philip Pacsi, Bridgestone/Firestone's marketing director of consumer tires.

The shift from emphasizing Firestone to pouring ad dollars into Bridgestone may look like a retreat from Firestone's problems. In fact, during the recalls of the past two years, some in the industry have wondered whether Bridgestone/Firestone might phase out the Firestone name.

But company executives dismissed that speculation. Mr. Pacsi said the current campaign was not triggered by the crisis that began last year when Firestone started recalling millions of tires associated with rollovers of Ford Motor Co. sport utility vehicles. Instead, it is part of a three-year-old effort to begin fanning aftermarket and automaker sales for the Bridgestone brand, he said.

In Japan, the Bridgestone brand commands about a 50% share of the total replacement and automaker market. In the U.S., its replacement market share is about 4%. "We have focused here on being a niche player, a premium import tire, the kind of tire you'd find on high-end European cars, for example," Mr. Pacsi said. "We want broader appeal now." Earlier this year, the company introduced the lower-priced Insignia line to capture more of the mass market for replacement tires.

Last year saw combined Bridgestone and Firestone automaker and replacement tire sales fall to $4.9 billion in North America compared with $5.1 billion in 1999, according to Tire Business, a sibling publication of Automotive News and Advertising Age.

Recently, the company has opened the door to discuss business with Ford again. In May, Bridgestone/Firestone CEO John Lampe informed Ford-the company's biggest U.S. customer-that it would no longer seek original-equipment business with Ford. That break came after a year of rancor between Ford and Firestone over which was responsible for vehicle rollovers that followed tire tread separation on Firestone's ATX and Wilderness SUV tires. This month, Bridgestone Corp. CEO Shigeo Watanabe told Automotive News that he is interested in rebuilding the company's relationship with Ford.

Meanwhile, Bridgestone TV commercials highlight a different customer: General Motors Corp. In the spots, as the images pan slowly past Bridgestone tires slogging through mud and snow, they often zero in on GM vehicle logos. "There were definitely reasons why we chose the vehicles we did and chose to make the connections we did," Mr. Pacsi said. "We anticipate a lot of growth in our GM business."

Mr. Chappell is a staff reporter with Automotive News.

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