LAS VEGAS—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 participated in the latest round of industry price increases.
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 the concrete proposals 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 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 to avoid a misleading impression that 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.
BFS already is distributing "Inflate. Rotate. Evaluate." tire safety brochures through 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—built around the theme, "Working hard to earn your trust every day"— will evoke memories of a series of ads the company ran in the 1970s that featured actor Jimmy Stewart.
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, Messrs. 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.