Firestone woes create opportunity

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You want to know the latest on the massive recall of Firestone tires, so you visit Yahoo! and type in the keywords "tire recall" to initiate your search. In an instant, you're transported to a page with a list of Web site matches, along with this banner ad across the top.

"Through bad weather," the ad flashes once, "through good weather," it flashes again, "our all-terrain tires get you there safely."

Then, one last flash, when a single word -- "Goodyear" -- appears, complete with the company's winged-foot logo.

It's an example of the subtle approach Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. has taken to the unique marketing opportunity presented by the serious problems of its rival, Bridgestone/Firestone. The latter is recalling 6.5 million tires of the types linked to the death of 88 occupants of Ford Motor Co. vehicles -- most notably its Explorer sport-utility vehicle -- that crashed after the treads on their tires unexpectedly separated.


The delicate marketing challenge to Goodyear and its dealers, as well as to other tiremakers and their retailers, is to find ways to exploit Firestone's troubles without appearing that they're kicking their competitor while it's down.

"This is not a way that anybody wants to get business," said Chuck Sinclair, director of public relations for Goodyear North American Tire. "But, having said that, it's a business we're in," added Mr. Sinclair, who notes that Goodyear has an obligation to consumers and to the retailers who sell its tires.

Many tire dealers themselves are creating advertisements specifically in response to Firestone's big recall. Among them is Mueller Tire & Brake, a 15-store chain based in Cleveland.

Two weeks ago, Mueller began running a radio ad that urges driv-ers who aren't sure if their tires are part of Firestone's recall to drive into its stores for a quick check. The ad notes that Mueller can replace those tires with Goodyear, Michelin or other brands under a Firestone program that gives driv-ers $100 for each recalled Firestone tire they replace with tires of another manufacturer.


A similar informational approach has been taken in a radio ad by Conrad's Total Car Care & Tire Centers, which operates 26 stores in the Cleveland area. Dominic Umek, general manager of Conrad's, said the company saw the recall "as an opportunity to build a relationship with the customer for the long term" while addressing an immediate need for people who were concerned about driving on potentially dangerous tires.

Conrad's recall-related ad has run for a couple of weeks and will remain part of its advertising rotation through at least the end of October.

"We'll play it by ear after that," Mr. Umek said, depending on whether Firestone is forced to recall more tire models or whether pent-up demand remains for tires already under recall.

Goodyear itself has taken a measured yet multifaceted approach toward gaining business amid Firestone's woes. "We believe it's all done in very good taste," Mr. Sinclair said.

Besides buying banner ads connected to keywords such as "tire recall" at Internet search engines that include Ask Jeeves and Yahoo!, Goodyear on its own Web site now features above the company's logo this question: "Are your Firestone tires being recalled?" Click on the question and the visitor is transported to a sympathetic, "Dear consumers" letter from John C. Polhemus, president of Goodyear North American Tire.

"If you are reading this message, you likely have been impacted in some way by the unfortunate chain of events that led to the voluntary recall of several lines of Firestone sport-utility vehicle tires," the letter states. "These, obviously, are difficult times for the tire industry . . . but no one knows that any better than you."

His letter then notes a couple paragraphs later in boldface type that because Firestone has authorized owners of its recalled tires to go directly to Goodyear, Kelly and Dunlop outlets for replacement tires, "you can get your tires through the largest network of retailers in the industry" -- its own.


Goodyear also is tweaking its TV advertising, handled by J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit. For example, Mr. Sinclair said Goodyear recently inserted a few seconds of footage of a sport-utility vehicle rolling along in one of its series of "Serious Freedom" commercials. The spot ends with the taglines, "Serious technology . . . Freedom from worry," drifting across the screen -- an addition made at the start of this year, Mr. Sinclair said.

Yet no matter how discreet or well-meaning they may be, the efforts by Goodyear and tire retailers to gain business from Firestone's woes are not risk-free, according to Robert Falls, president-CEO of Robert Falls & Co., a public relations agency in Cleveland.

"Some might look at it as an opportunity to sell more, but the truth is, any time there is a crisis situation such as this one, it is a problem for an entire industry, not just one company," Mr. Falls said. "When there is a plane crash, it affects public confidence in all airlines, not just the one that had the accident."


In approaching the situation from a marketing perspective, Mr. Falls said, "the dealers and manufacturers should ask themselves: `How can I help the public and build good will?' "

"Companies that answer people's questions and address their concerns, without mongering fear, will build their brand names on a foundation of deserved good will and will be the ones who prosper the most tomorrow because they did the right thing today," Mr. Falls said.

Mr. Dodosh is editor of Crain's Cleveland Business.

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