PHOENIX—For those inclined, there was irony aplenty at the debut of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s latest technology showcase, the Potenza S-03 Pole Position and Potenza RE950.
Unveiled to the trade press during a ride-and-drive event in Phoenix Feb. 7, the Bridgestone-branded Potenza S-03 and RE950 are, according to the tire maker, designed to endure and overcome adverse conditions—particularly rain.
Juxtaposed to that image is the storm of controversy BFS and its Japanese parent company, Bridgestone Corp., have endured in the wake of the recall of 6.5 million of P-metric Firestone light truck tires.
The two-part messages: "The distinction is Bridgestone" and "Bridgestone: A Grip on the Future." (Bridgestone said it wants to stand on its own name, distancing itself from the Firestone brand. The manufacturer made clear that it intends to remain a major global player by focusing on its technology and auto racing accomplishments and the most expensive marketing campaign in the company's history.)
The venue: Firebird Raceway in Phoenix. (The city's name conjures up the mythical bird that rose from the ashes.)
These elements are so attractive, a Hollywood screenwriter—or sloppy journalist—might not let the following facts get in the way of the story.
In "overwhelming" numbers, the company's research has shown that the tire-buying public (of which women make up 40 percent, according to BFS) wants tires that handle safely in the rain and last longer doing so. The Potenza S-03 and RE950 are Bridgestone's responses.
About two years ago, the Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker faced a marketing dilemma: The Firestone name had high recognition but relatively few consumers could name specific products. Conversely, the Potenza tire line had good brand awareness—it didn't hurt that the name is plastered on the sidewalls of many high-profile and winning racing cars, including Formula One's Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen. But Bridgestone itself was a relative unknown.
Thus the push to build Bridgestone brand awareness was in the works BR ("Before Recall") and the S-03/RE950 Potenza unveiling was set for 2001.
Each year, BFS alternates major product launches. This year was Bridgestone's turn. And for the past several years, Phoenix, with its nearby race track and mild winter weather, has been the venue of choice.
The new Potenzas incorporate the company's latest UNI-T technology, dubbed AQII for "Advanced Quality." The tread patterns of both owe a lot to that of the Potenza rain tire used in the Formula One race series. Bridgestone claims that, coupled with the new tire compounds, the tires not only will work better in the rain, but their wet-weather performance will last longer, thanks in part to a dual-layer tread.
The RE950, due in March, is an H-rated (130 mph) tire designed for compact and mid-sized vehicles, including the Acura Integra and TL, Pontiac Grand Prix and the Volkswagen Jetta. In addition to the racing-derived tread and sidewalls, the RE950 has a center tread groove to combat hydroplaning.
The Uniform Tire Quality Grading ratings of the RE950 are improved from the RE930 it replaces: 400 AA vs. 300 AA. Fitment covers 19 popular 14- to 17-inch applications, from P195/65R14 88H to 205/40R17 80H.
The 65- and 60-series RE950s will carry a 45,000-mile limited treadwear warranty; those with 55 and lower aspect ratios will be warranted for 40,000 miles. Bridgestone is offering a 30-day test drive on non-OEM applications of the RE950 and S-03.
Bridgestone hopes drivers of high-performance Audis, BMWs, Jaguars, Porsches, Nissans and similar autos will buy the 15- to 20-inch diameter S-03 Pole Position. The S-03 is a W/Y-speed-rated tire (168-mph and 186 mph, respectively). The S-03 will replace the S-02 Pole Position when the lion's share of the 51 planned sizes becomes available in May.
All sizes, which range from 195/50ZR15 82W to 285/30ZR20 95Y, are due by July. A key difference: where the S-02 Pole Position's second tread layer wasn't exposed until the tire was worn, the S-03's second tread compound is exposed when new. As an S-03 wears, gradually more of the wet-tread is exposed from the center outward.
Aerospace-inspired grooves—placed in the S-03's grooves to cut down on water turbulence—are among the tweaks incorporated in the tire's physical design.
The S-03's UTQG rating is 220 AA. Bridgestone's "Platinum Pact" limited warranty basically provides full replacement at no charge for the first three years of ownership or four years from the date of manufacture.
Bridgestone put dealers and journalists in BMW 3-series sedans and Porsche Boxsters to sample the new Potenzas' wet- and dry-handling, braking and acceleration at Firebird Raceway.
"I was very impressed the way the Bridgestones handled the wet surface," said Donnie Chaffin, a general manager of Jackie Electronics based in Oklahoma City. (Despite its name, the three-store, 25-bay tire dealership has been in business about 40 years.)
The improved Potenzas come at the right time for Bridgestone, he adds. "They're probably going the extra mile to get their name out there. They're not accepted very well in Oklahoma right now, especially Firestone."
Firestone was Mr. Chaffin's fastest moving tire, but in the wake of the recall's negative publicity, sales of Bridgestones and Firestones have dropped about 25 percent, while "Michelin and BFGoodrich sales have been way up," he said.
"Personally I think the (Firestone) tire is great. I think it got a bad rap by the press in a lot of areas. But consumers believe what they hear, and they hear right now that it's not a good product."
Mr. Chaffin and other dealers like Bridgestone's ambitious S-03 and RE950 marketing plans, the most expensive in the company's history—due partly to the need to respond to the recall crisis.
In addition to advertising the Bridgestone image and rainy-weather safety on major television shows and sporting events, the company will reach out directly to consumers at "Super Drive and Learn" demonstrations in five major cities in 2001.
"Ninety-percent of our customers will buy the product if you educate them," said Timothy Flynn, of Tire City, a Long Island, N.Y.-area store.
He praised the S-03's predecessor. "The S-02s, with the new technology, are phenomenal. For the price, if you're going for a mainstream brand, they're the best tire by far. I haven't had one customer not like the tire. This tire's the real deal.
"I'm loyal to Bridgestone because of the product. I can honestly tell the customer I think this is the best tire for them. We wouldn't be loyal if it wasn't good."
Philip J. Pacsi, BFS director of consumer tire marketing, said the company also might increase advertising with media geared toward women and minorities as it did last year with the Black Entertainment Network.
Although a company engineer noted that, for now, UNI-T AQ II technology will be limited to flagship products made exclusively in Japan, the Firestone brand will be revved up in April when Driven, a film about the high-energy world of auto racing starring Sylvester Stallone, is scheduled to hit the movie theaters.
"The movie will help get the name out there," agrees Mr. Chaffin, the Oklahoma dealer. "I think the recovery may not be as quick as they think, but it will come back.
"They're emphasizing the Bridgestone name at the moment, but I think it (Firestone) will all come back just fine."