Balancing tires

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Call it choice or necessity, Bridgestone/-Firestone is smart to be boosting the U.S. advertising voice for its premium Bridge-stone brand while Firestone is mired in product-safety-litigation exile. Bridgestone has a "quality" story to tell. As for Firestone, it's too soon to talk "comeback."

Top management at Bridgestone Corp., Bridgestone/Firestone's Japanese parent, is used to looking at the Japanese tire market from the top of the mountain. In Japan, it commands about 50% of the replacement and original-equipment tire market. In the U.S., brand Bridgestone has a modest 4% share of the replacement market-respectable, but leaving it a niche player.

As we reported last week, Bridgestone/Firestone marketing managers in the U.S. are being given bigger ad budgets to hunt what they call "broader appeal" for Bridgestone tires. But if that turns out to mean taking the Bridgestone name too far down market into too many lower price points, the brand's precious "premium" positioning could be eroded.

If these managers are serious about some day resurrecting the Fire-stone name in the U.S., once the nightmare blowup with Ford Motor Co. over tire involvement in Ford Explorer rollovers has blown over, they need to think carefully about how they handle Bridgestone today. As much as they need to replace the mass-market reach of Firestone over the next few years, why water down Bridgestone's potential to rival Michelin as a premium tire that drivers aspire to own?

Firestone, if it has a future as a brand, will have to gradually earn its way back-first by offering value to dollar-conscious buyers. In that marketing precinct, price and good word of mouth will rebuild its standing more than advertising-driven image. That's not Bridgestone's brand territory. Nor need it be. "Broader appeal" is a good objective only if there are careful limits.

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