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Bridgestone waxes as Firestone wanes

Raising Bridgestone's image
During the past several months, Bridgestone/Firestone has given more attention to expanding its Bridgestone brand in the U.S. consumer market. The campaign included:

  • Introducing the new lower-priced "Insignia" product line

  • A 50 percent hike in the company's total ad budget

  • Spending $12 million on advertising Bridgestone auto tires

  • Network and cable TV placement of Bridgestone brand commercials (incorporating GM vehicles)

  • A Bridgestone brand magazine advertising campaign

  • NASHVILLE, Tenn. - With its Firestone tire brand still under a cloud, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. is pouring marketing dollars into its Bridgestone brand.

    In a break with tradition, the U.S. subsidiary of Japan's Bridgestone Corp. is promoting the Bridgestone name heavily in the U.S. tire aftermarket. It is even bringing Bridgestone tires into the large middle market traditionally held by Firestone.

    In the first six months of this year, the Nashville-based corporation spent just under $12 million advertising Bridgestone tires in the United States, compared with less than $400,000 in the year-ago period, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

    Bridgestone spent about $1.3 million to advertise Firestone tires in the United States in the first six months of this year, a decline from $8 million in the first half of 2000, according to the advertising monitoring service.

    Whether that means consumer sales of Bridgestone tires someday might make up for Firestone's deflated market position is uncertain. Publicly, Bridgestone/Firestone management remains adamant about restoring Firestone's image and business. But the company is eager to give the Bridgestone name a bigger role in the North American market.

    Strategic shift

    This year was the first season of heavy U.S. retail advertising for the Bridgestone brand, and it was a strategic shift for Bridgestone/Firestone. Since it bought Firestone in 1988, the Japanese tiremaker's efforts in America have focused primarily on pushing the Firestone name.

    The Bridgestone-brand gambit was part of a 50 percent jump in Bridgestone Corp.'s total advertising spending in the United States this year. It included running 40 network national TV spots for the Bridgestone brand, along with 2,500 cable TV placements and a series of 20 magazine ad placements.

    The manufacturer is drawing up its plans for a second year of Bridgestone-focused advertising of approximately the same size, said Philip Pacsi, Bridgestone/Firestone's marketing director of consumer tires.

    The shift from emphasizing Firestone to pouring ad dollars into Bridgestone may look like a market retreat from Firestone's problems. In fact, during the recalls of the past two years, some in the industry have wondered whether Bridgestone/Firestone might phase out the Firestone name.

    But company executives dismissed that speculation. Pacsi says the current campaign was not triggered by Firestone's crisis that began last year, when the company started recalling millions of tires associated with rollovers of Ford Motor Co. sport-utilities. Instead, it is part of a 3-year-old effort to begin fanning aftermarket and automaker sales for the Bridgestone brand, Pacsi said.

    "In 1999, we developed the philosophy of really trying to establish the Bridgestone name beyond what it has been in this market," he said. "We believe it could be a very viable brand. It could be more of a tire for everybody."

    What's a Bridgestone?

    Pacsi said the company began educating dealers and tire retailers about Bridgestone in 1999 and 2000, in preparation for this year's TV and print campaign. That effort included sending videos, brochures and other product material through the traditional Firestone distribution chain.

    In its Japanese home market, the Bridgestone brand commands about a 50 percent share of the total replacement and automaker market. In the United States, its replacement market share is about 4 percent.

    "We have focused here on being a niche player, a premium import tire, the kind of tire you'd find on high-end European cars, for example," Pasci said. "We want broader appeal now."

    Earlier this year, the company introduced the lower priced Insignia line of Bridgestone tires in an effort to capture more of the mass market for replacement tires. Insignia gives consumers what one company spokeswoman called "an alternative" to Firestone tires. The line comes in 29 sizes, including versions to fit economy cars.

    Last year saw combined Bridgestone and Firestone automaker and replacement tire sales fall to $4.9 billion in North America compared with $5.1 billion in 1999, according to Tire Business, a sister publication to Automotive News.

    Recently, the company has opened the door to discuss business with Ford again. In May, Bridgestone/Firestone CEO John Lampe informed Ford - the company's biggest U.S. customer - that it would no longer seek original-equipment business with Ford. That break came after a year of rancor between Ford and Firestone over which was responsible for vehicle rollovers that followed tire tread separation on Firestone's ATX and Wilderness sport-utility tires.

    This month, Bridgestone Corp. CEO Shigeo Watanabe told Automotive News in Tokyo that he is interested in rebuilding the company's relationship with Ford.

    Cozy with GM

    Meanwhile, Bridgestone TV commercials highlight a different customer: General Motors.

    In the spots, as the images pan slowly past Bridgestone tires slogging through mud and snow, they often zero in on GM vehicle logos. No other logos are displayed prominently in the ads.

    In one ad, the word "Chevrolet" appears clearly. In another, there is a GMC logo and the Chevrolet bow tie. And in another, the camera captures the nameplate on a Chevrolet Tahoe.

    "There were definitely reasons why we chose the vehicles we did and chose to make the connections we did," Pacsi said of the Bridgestone-brand pitches. "We anticipate a lot of growth in our GM business."

    Pacsi said the creative work and budget planning for next year's Bridgestone ad campaign are under way. "We will stay at comparable levels for 2002," he said. "We intend to be very aggressive."

    You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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