Firestone got the Firestone 500, the 1978 recall of 14.5 million tires over a defect that the company was shown to have hidden from regulators and the public. At least 41 people died as a result of tread separation on that steel-belted radial, yet even a scandal of that magnitude was insufficient to destroy so venerable a brand.
The same manufacturer, now under Japanese ownership, has just recalled 14.5 million Wilderness AT tires, and faces demands that it recall 10 million more tires. The latest deadly fiasco-170 deaths attributed to poorly designed, underinflated, faultily manufactured Firestones on Ford Explorer SUVs-could well do the brand in forever.
True, in this case Firestone may turn out to have been less complicit than Ford Motor Co. in creating this ongoing tragedy, but product liability and deja vu do not a promising future make.
Firestone's losses last year amounted to $500 million. Owner Bridgestone says the deficit will be a mere $200 million in 2001, leading to regained profitability in 2002-but forgive us if we're skeptical. You know the old saw: "Kill innocents with unraveling tread once, shame on you. Kill innocents with unraveling tread twice, shame on me." Millions of customers will not be back. Ever.
Unless, somehow, someone can pull a Tylenol.
The gold standard of product-recall crisis management, of course, was Johnson & Johnson's handling of 1982's fatal cyanide poisonings at the hands of a product-tampering sociopath. So rapid and responsible was the company's withdrawal of all Tylenol products from store shelves that, after the crisis had passed, the brand actually gained market share. Of course, in that case Johnson & Johnson was itself a victim. And the response was indeed rapid-vs. Ford/Fire-stone's years of delays, dithering and alleged deception.
Still, for Firestone, it's Tylenol or the Ty-D Bowl.
So here comes CEO James Lampe in a series of four commercials from Grey Worldwide, New York, making a case for one more chance. He doesn't say it that way, of course. Everything here is couched in the most positive, forward-looking terms. But let's face it; the man is on his knees.
"When you buy tires, you're not just buying rubber and steel," he says to open the first spot. "You want the confidence that your tires will get you to your destination safely.
"I'm John Lampe, new CEO of Firestone, and I'd like to introduce `Making it Right,' our action plan for the future. It's dedicated to gaining back your trust, and it includes important upgrades in manufacturing and quality control.
"Firestone wants to make it right, because your safety is our primary concern."
OK, John, great. Thanks. Tell you what ... get back to us when the action plan is finished. Until then we'll just check out Michelin.
Lampe's performance is actually quite good, if a bit mechanical. (Compared to Ford President Jacques Nasser, who did his we're-dedicated-to-you spiel months ago, this guy is Fred Astaire.) And the footage is somehow just right: jumpy, sepia-toned cinematography to add texture and dynamism to an ugly old tire factory. All in all, the advertising makes you want to take this guy at his word.
But, come on, why would you?
How many times is anyone prepared to be betrayed by the same brand before dismissing any pledge of trustworthiness completely out of hand? It's simply hard to imagine any consumer opting to give the company one more chance as it makes the manufacturing and quality-control improvements it should have attended to long ere this.
Once again, Lampe is in an unenviable position here. His best chances for success reside not so much in the Tylenol effect as the Chrysler one-that folks will identify with his humbling challenge the way they once identified with the feisty Lee Iacocca's. But that's a long shot. More likely, they will view the campaign with a jaundiced, skeptical eye, and hear only hollow words.
In one spot, Lampe ends by saying, "Because Firestone's commitment to safety doesn't end when you leave the store. It begins."
That sounds accurate. The whole problem is, it should begin long before that.