LAS VEGAS (Nov. 17, 2000)—Addressing what he called "the most crucial (dealer) meeting" in Firestone´s 100-year history, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. Chairman John Lampe chose his words judiciously.
"We have a mission," Mr. Lampe told a crowd of more than 4,000 dealers, dealer spouses and employees gathered at Caesars Palace Hotel in Las Vegas, "and that is to regain our position as the best tire company in America.
"Firestone not only will withstand this setback," he said, addressing the question of the company´s future in the wake of the Firestone Wilderness AT/ATX/ ATX II recall, "we will come back, and we will be stronger."
Calling the assembled dealers BFS´ "ambassadors to the public," Mr. Lampe said, "We can´t do it without your help. You have not lost faith in Firestone. You know, more than anyone else, that Firestone stands for quality. It´s not an image; it´s a fact."
The 2000 dealer meeting was the largest gathering of dealers in company history, Mr. Lampe said. Those in attendance represented the lion´s share of the company´s independent dealer base of more than 9,500 points of sale.
In presentations peppered with references to trust, safety and accountability, Mr. Lampe and his colleagues on the dais—Bridgestone Corp. Chairman and CEO Yoichiro Kaizaki, John Gamauf, vice president of consumer tire dealer sales, and Shu Ishibashi, president of U.S. Consumer Tires—
outlined several initiatives the company is preparing to shore up the Firestone brand and develop new equity in the Bridgestone brand.
Among these efforts will be improved warranties on its passenger and light truck tires, 30-day no-obligation trials on tires, and new safety-oriented advertising campaigns. In addition, Bridgestone/Firestone has not announced a price increase on its products, going against a growing industrywide trend to raise prices to offset rising raw materials and energy costs.
Calling on Firestone´s racing heritage, Mr. Lampe told the dealers: "Winning races is easier than winning consumer trust. Trust must grow; it must be nurtured by honesty and accountability. It can´t be earned overnight, but I´d like to think it cannot be lost overnight as well."
Mr. Lampe said BFS will survive and grow because of its strengths: financial, management, dealer network etc.
Among concrete proposals floated at the meeting, BFS executives outlined plans to expand the company´s Gold Pledge warranty program—free tire replacement for failed tires due to manufacturing or materials defects up to three years from date of purchase, or four years from date of manufacture—to all Firestone passenger and light truck tires, and to expand a 30-day risk-free trial period previously reserved for premium lines to all Firestone tires.
Bridgestone tires are covered by a separate, similar Platinum Pledge warranty program.
While the number of tires covered by these programs was nearly doubled, the duration of the warranty was shortened to three years from five, reportedly because the longer warranty gives consumers a misleading impression tires are supposed to last that long.
In both programs, winter tires and temporary spares are excluded.
The company also will distribute a consumer safety message starting Dec. 1, calling attention to the completion of the recall—expected by mid-November—and the company´s efforts to correct the situation and regain consumer trust.
Already the company is distributing "Inflate. Rotate. Evaluate." tire safety brochures through its dealers that explain the dangers of underinflation and show consumers how to check pressures and tire wear.
These safety messages will be complemented by a series of ads touting the company´s original equipment tie-ups with manufacturers other than Ford Motor Co., several of which have issued statements of satisfaction with Firestone.
Then, starting in the first quarter of 2001, BFS will roll out a national image-building television campaign, using a third-party spokesman to highlight the company´s commitment to safety, reliability and trust, said Shu Ishibashi, president of BFS´ U.S. Consumer Tire unit.
The new campaign will evoke memories of a series of safety-oriented public-service-type ads the company ran in the 1970s that featured actor Jimmy Stewart as the Firestone spokesman.
That campaign featured the slogan, "The most important things they make are friends." The new campaign will be built around the idea, "Working hard to earn your trust every day."
BFS has not settled on a spokesman yet, but presented a story-board idea to the crowd featuring a character reminiscent of Paul Newman, who is a co-owner of a CART racing team.
In addition to efforts to shore up the Firestone brand, BFS will invest undisclosed sums in building the Bridgestone brand in North America, along with new programs affecting the company´s associate brands, Mr. Ishibashi said. The company´s new slogan will be: "Bridgestone: Get a grip on the future."
Some of the investments will go to upgrading molds for most company tires to multi-piece molds, Mssrs. Lampe and Ishibashi said. The company will launch a mid-price-range Bridgestone tire, and may lower prices on some selected Bridgestone lines to bring them more in line with Firestone-brand pricing.
The company also will rely heavily on its motorsports activities—the Championship Auto Racing Teams, Indy Racing League and Formula 1 series—to promote the high level of technology behind the Bridgestone and Firestone brands, Mr. Ishibashi said.
Regarding the company´s investigation into the cause, or causes, of the Wilderness/ATX problem, Mr. Lampe told dealers, "If there´s a problem, we´ll correct it. If it´s a vehicle problem, then others will have to be responsible."
Separately, BFS released some details of its independent investigation into the possible causes. (See accompanying story.)
Mr. Lampe left open for now BFS´ relationship with Ford, saying "only time will tell" whether Bridgestone/Firestone will continue to supply Ford with OE tires.
He said there is a "strong business sense to continue doing business," noting his company provides 40 percent of Ford´s North American tire needs, and Ford accounts for 5 percent of Bridgestone/Firestone revenues—roughly $330 million.
Along with releasing some long-awaited plans for rebuilding the Firestone brand, the meeting´s general session Nov. 1 included apologies by all top company officials—including Mr. Kaizaki.
"I apologize for the difficulty this recall has brought to you, your business and your family," Mr. Kaizaki said. "Your presence here motivates me to work even harder to rebuild the Firestone name. The legacy of the Firestone name must be maintained."
Mr. Kaizaki also said the company has sent three investigative teams into the field to assist in the correction of any problems concerning the recalled tires or Bridgestone/Firestone production processes.
In addition to a series of business meetings, dealers attending the BFS gathering viewed a performance of "Firestone: A Legend. A Century. A Celebration," a multimedia show complete with a full orchestra and appearances by a couple dozen of its top Indy car drivers. On Nov. 1, the dealers were treated to ride-and-drive opportunities with the Indy drivers and a performance by the French-Canadian entertainment troupe, Cirque du Soleil.