Where marketers fear to tread: Firestone's wheel of misfortune

By Published on .

Time for a recall to arms.

It's going to take more than a couple of Tylenols to cure their headaches, but Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone are swallowing plenty of bitter pills these days.

A recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires -- common on Ford trucks such as the Explorer sport utility vehicle -- was initiated after reports of blowouts and vehicle rollovers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week reported more than 700 incidents involving the tires with 62 related fatalities, making it the highest death toll associated with an auto-related recall.

Not surprisingly, safety advocates and attorneys have gone into high gear, with personal injury and class-action lawsuits already coming in.

Firestone has been down this road before. A 1978 recall, in which 41 related fatalities were reported, helped pave the way for the company's acquisition by Bridgestone.

But the current recall has rightly come under fire, in large part because of the way it's being executed. The recall is being phased in gradually, beginning with southern and western states. As a result, many motorists could wait more than a year for the recall to reach them.

Imagine a tainted beef recall in which the meat packer pulls potentially lethal hamburger off store shelves in phases. "An Open Letter From Bovine Bros. Customers in Kansas, Illinois and Utah can rest assured this Labor Day that our burgers are good for grilling. Carnivores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut may want to stick to seafood until further notice."

And rest assured, any further accidents that occur due to recall delays will only strengthen -- and multiply -- plaintiffs' cases.

In an attempt to acknowledge consumers' immediate concerns, Firestone last week announced it would reimburse consumers up to $100 per tire for replacements.

The extent of the Firestone recall has also been questioned, with some concerns that other models may pose a safety hazard as well. And there is some question about how much may have actually been known about possible tire defects before this current situation began to unfold publicly.

Let's face it, bad things happen to good companies -- to paraphrase the subtitle of Joe Marconi's book "Crisis Marketing."

Intel had to wrestle with a buggy Pentium chip. Pepsi-Cola Co. had to combat claims of syringes in soda cans. Perrier had to recall its flagship water after traces of benzene were found in bottles.

But brand crises can be mitigated when the marketer reacts swiftly and effectively.

In 1982, cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules were responsible for seven deaths. Johnson & Johnson's McNeil Consumer Products division repackaged its products and settled with families; Tylenol pulled its ads. Several weeks later, the marketer began rebuilding consumer confidence with "You can trust us" commercials.

In the Firestone case, much has been made of the balance between consumer satisfaction and safety. Nylon coatings, for instance, might keep tires from coming apart; but automakers say they would produce a bumpier ride. Bumpier than flipping over while you're doing 55 miles per hour?

To distinguish between safety and satisfaction is akin to giving children knives to play with because they love shiny objects.

While Firestone is at the center of the controversy, Ford is along for the ride. The automaker is reportedly less than pleased with the tiremaker's handling of the situation. Still, after 90-plus years of doing business together, Ford continues to stand behind Firestone.

Even though lawsuits may force the marketers to continue working together -- as co-defendants -- Ford might be wise to reconsider who it does business with in the future. Loyalties only go so deep when they land you in hot water in both a court of law and the court of public opinion.

And while Ford, Firestone and consumers find themselves on a bumpy road, the controversy could prove profitable for other tire marketers. When consumers flip on their TVs and see a smiling baby snug and safe in a Michelin, they may decide now's a good time to rotate their tires.

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