NEW YORK—For the first time in its 101-year history, Goodyear will use a celebrity spokesman to endorse one of its products and represent the company. Wayne Gretzky, who retired last spring after a star-studded 20-year career in the National Hockey League, has signed a two-year deal to be a spokesman for the Akron-based company and its Ultra Grip line of winter tires.
``I think there are a few brand names that you grew up with as a child that you always remember,'' Mr. Gretzky said, ``and Goodyear is one of them.'' He said Goodyear's reputation is important and he hopes ``to have a strong, long-lasting relationship'' with the tire maker.
Mr. Gretzky talked with reporters by phone Sept. 29 from the same Madison Square Garden locker room he used when he played for the New York Rangers. Later, he appeared on the main arena's ice for a photo opportunity, swinging an outsized hockey stick at a Goodyear tire instead of a puck.
Hiring Mr. Gretzky is part of a concerted effort by Goodyear to significantly boost sales of winter tires—specifically the Ultra Grip Ice tire it introduced last winter.
Mr. Gretzky will be featured in the October and November issues of dozens of top North American magazines and on point-of-sale materials in more than 4,000 Goodyear dealerships throughout the U.S. and Canada, said Marco Molinari, Goodyear vice president for sales and marketing, North American Tires.
Goodyear said it will spend about $5 million on the campaign, which also includes national TV advertising in Canada and spot TV buys in selected U.S. markets.
However, Mr. Gretzky will not appear in TV ads this season because the agreement wasn't finalized until last spring—too late to include him in the spots.
``We're trying to relaunch the winter tire market in North America, which has declined dramatically over the last 20 years, '' Mr. Molinari said. ``And we needed somebody to break through the marketing clutter that's out there.''
Mr. Molinari likened the effort to a public service campaign ``to educate the public about the importance of having not only the right tires on, but (the fact that) in certain parts of the U.S. and Canada that's a winter tire.''
Ironically, Goodyear acknowledged that its own introduction of the Tiempo all-season radial in 1977 led to the dramatic decline in traditional winter tire designs in North America.
The company said the total market share of winter tires was 13.4 percent (19 million tires) for all replacement tires in 1972. It has dropped to 4.5 percent (8 million tires) now.
Goodyear's goal is to double the size of the winter tire market to 10 percent of the total—20 million units—within three years and ``triple our sales within that larger marketplace,'' Mr. Molinari said.
The hockey great also will ``participate in some activities with our customers to create some excitement around winter tires, specifically at our customer conference in Las Vegas in January,'' he added.
Several independent Goodyear dealers contacted by Tire Business applauded the selection of Mr. Gretzky as a spokesman, but were divided on whether Goodyear will be able to meet its goal of increased winter tire sales.
Don Frisby, president of Frisby Tire Co. in Ottawa, called Mr. Gretzky's signing ``a coup. There isn't a better-known hockey player.''
He said winter tire sales are ``recovering'' and now represent 15 to 20 percent of his dealership's total sales. ``We really push the use of four snow tires,'' he said. ``We say that a four-season tire is really a three-season tire.''
``The winter tire business isn't nearly what it used to be,'' said Kevin McDonnough, owner of McDonnough Tire Co. in Montclair, N.J., though Mr. Gretzky's selection will be helpful to this metropolitan-New-York-area dealership.
Mike Gabriel, vice president of Hi-Tech Service Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich., said the proliferation of performance tires has helped the winter tire market rebound.
Between mid-October and mid-January, winter tires account for about 10 percent of sales in Hi-Tech's five-store chain. TheBridgestone Blizzak winter tire is very popular in his area, Mr. Gabriel said. ``Hopefully the Goodyear product can compete.''
Dominic Umek, general manager of Conrad's Total Car Care and Tire Centers in Cleveland, said the firm increased its order of Ultra Grip tires over last year based, in part, on the fairly rough winter northeast Ohio experienced last year. But he called the signing of Mr. Gretzky "an awesome idea."
So, will there be other celebrities endorsing Goodyear and its products in the future?
Mr. Molinari wouldn't rule it out, but said Goodyear is not embarking on a strategy of employing spokespersons on a regular basis. The use of Mr. Gretzky as a spokesman is designed to reach ``a specialty segment that cannot necessarily be reached by our traditional means.''