Ford, Firestone suffer damage in tire blowout

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The battle between Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone could create enough confusion and mistrust among consumers that they'd avoid both Firestone and the Ford Explorer brands.

But for Firestone, which marketing experts said is on the defensive against Ford's offense, "this is a survival challenge, not a brand fix," said Larry Light, president of brand consultancy Arcature Corp. "Consumers don't like it when companies are poking fingers in each others' eyes," he said. "You can't have a brand without trust."

John Lampe, chairman-CEO of Bridgestone/Firestone, maintains Firestone tires are safe, but there are "significant safety concerns with the Ford Explorer," the nation's best-selling sport utility vehicle. He announced May 21 Firestone was ending its nearly 100-year-old supplier relationship with Ford. He told Congress last week the SUV continues to have tire tread separations and rollovers with competitors' tires. Now, Firestone is evaluating "why a certain segment of Ford Explorers roll over," a spokeswoman said.

Firestone revealed May 21 that the Explorer had five times more tire separation claims than the Ford Ranger with the same Firestone tires, indicating a problem with the Explorer. Jacques Nasser, president-CEO of Ford, called the comparison invalid because they're two different types of vehicles.

Ford has maintained its SUV is safe and that an ongoing problem lies with certain Firestone tires. That's why Ford said May 24 it will replace 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires, which data show have a failure rate of 15 tires per million. Ford started a national newspaper ad campaign last week from WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit, telling consumers about the recall.

As for Firestone, it will stick to the "Making it right" TV ad campaign that broke in early April from Grey Global Group's Grey Worldwide, New York.

Firestone, however, will look like it's not making any changes if it keeps running the same ads, said Larry McNaughton, managing partner of consultancy Corporate Branding. Firestone's score on that firm's Reputation Index has fallen over the past year from the high 60s to about 20. "We've never seen anything like that," said Mr. McNaughton. "The bottom line is who has avoided more loss in the value of the company. Ford clearly has."

Ford said the recent launch campaign for its redone 2002 Explorer will continue as planned. Sales of Explorer in the first four months of 2001 slipped to 117,530 units from 151,195 the same period a year ago, according to Automotive News. But a Ford spokesman predicted the SUV, due to start selling in an eight-cylinder model soon, will remain the nation's top-seller in its class when the year ends.

Firestone has several options, said Mr. Light. The tire marketer could challenge Ford in ads to reveal all the information it has on the Explorer, asking if it has anything to hide. Or it could start a testimonial campaign, showing Firestone owners saying they haven't had problems with its tires.

Meanwhile, Firestone's competitors aren't standing still. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. last week announced it was increasing production to help Ford's recall. And Goodyear, which had tapped Omnicom Group's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, as its agency in April, stated in a May 25 newspaper ad: "Not everybody had to think about their tires this week."

Michelin North America, in the midst of a review for its ad account, kicked off a 30-week tour May 25 that will help educate consumers about tires' role in vehicle performance. Said David Jones, brand manager of Michelin: "The public has rarely been more interested in tires than right now."

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