NASHVILLE, Tenn.-Right about now, as that R-word continues to permeate the industry's consciousness, you might presume the folks at Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. who peddle high-performance Firestone-brand tires are holed up in a bunker somewhere swapping K-rations, waiting for the next salvo to come overhead.
While it's true that ``recall'' word has provoked some fear and loathing on the part of consumers, the tire maker's Firestone Firehawk performance tire line-like the rest of its tires bearing the F-name-may be somewhat bloodied but remains unbowed.
``What's actually surprising is the one brand that's probably doing the best, in light of the recall, is our Firehawk-especially the H- and Z-rated offerings with the SZ50 light truck tires,'' Phil Pacsi told Tire Business. He's director of U.S. consumer tires brand/retail marketing for Nashville-based BFS.
Those Firehawks are ``really a very niche product, and the consumers using them are very happy with it ....It continues to be an easy sell.''
Earlier this year BFS said that due to the recall, Firestone-brand sales overall in late 2000/early 2001 were off 40 percent vs. the previous year. While Mr. Pacsi acknowledged a slide, he said there has been no ``dramatic'' plunge in the company's performance tire segment revenue.
``Even before the recall, we took a shift (in strategy),'' he said. ``When we looked at the way the high-performance market is set up-and extend that into the secondary category of tuners-we found we actually have two products better suited to that market: the Bridgestone and Dayton brands.
``So we've focused more on those two, especially Dayton because now we have a Z-rated offering that's very price competitive with some of the import tires. With the Bridgestone brand's recognition in ultra-high-performance, we're looking at types of import vehicles being retrofitted in the aftermarket-and Bridgestone is a natural fit.''
Firestone-brand tires are positioned for domestic vehicles, he continued, and ``there really aren't a lot of domestic high-performance vehicles left anymore.'' However, BFS has been focusing on a niche it has developed with the Corvette-on which the company's SZ50EP run-flat tire has snared some fitments. That has helped prod consumers to ``realize there are alternatives to their OE tires, and they're very happy with our tire's performance.''
With the recent nationwide debut of two TV commercials featuring father-son race drivers Mario and Michael Andretti, BFS has attempted not only to draw public attention away from its recall woes, but toward the Firestone brand's racing-bred performance roots. Mr. Pacsi said it looks like that approach is working. ``We're getting very good feedback from our retail networks, our dealers and customers.
``We now do continued (monthly) consumer research on all our advertising. We've gotten positive feedback from consumers-and how could we not get an increased awareness of the Firestone brand,'' he said with a laugh, alluding to all the publicity from the recalls.
The current BFS ``Making It Right'' ad campaign that features Chairman John Lampe reassuring recall-frenzied consumers has drawn positive responses, Mr. Pacsi said, while the Andretti commercials are meant to focus more on the high-performance market segment. They're scheduled to end in November, but BFS is already working on next year's marketing approach and hopes to use the Andrettis again.
As the U.S. economy continues to languish and some tire buyers postpone purchases, Mr. Pacsi said the performance market is a bright spot. Citing research just released by the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), he noted that Americans-especially youths with disposable income to burn-continue to add custom accessories like expensive performance tires and wheels to their cars and trucks. ``That segment is so unique, though where they get their disposable income from, I don't know,'' he added.
Another market segment the company is focusing on is female drivers.
``We've found, in general, that while women are often tire buyers,'' Mr. Pacsi said, the big shift now has been toward them also being the decision makers in what tires are being put on their vehicles. However, within the performance market ``we're finding more people-not just women-becoming performance equipment buyers because of the OE fitments that come on their cars.''
He called on dealers ``at the point of sale'' to better educate what he called ``the accidental performance customer''-those whose vehicles have OE high-performance or H and above speed-rated tires-about the right tire for the right application. That means addressing areas such as handling, ride and vehicle performance characteristics.
BFS is continuing to evolve its ``Women's Car Care Clinics,'' conducted by race driver Pat Lazzaro, and has added a fresh face: 21-year-old driver Sarah Fisher, who garnered a lot of publicity at this year's Indianapolis 500, although she spun out on lap eight and was forced to exit the race. She has been helping out at BFS women's clinics in markets where she's competed in the Indy Racing League.
While they're not specifically performance-oriented, Mr. Pacsi said the clinics have helped broaden BFS' consumer base.
For instance, the company recently added a new wrinkle-the Girl Scouts are offering tire and auto care merit badges to scouts who attend a clinic. Since most of the program's young participants aren't able to drive yet, ``we're getting a double hit because their parents or troop leader have to come with them to the clinic and we can educate them, too.''
In the light truck performance tire segment, bigger apparently is better, judging from buyer preferences. BFS continues to get calls on a regular basis for 21- and 22-inch tires-``it's insane,'' Mr. Pacsi said-and the Bridgestone Dueler HP ``continues to sell well in that growing, evolving market.''
Overall, the atmosphere around the company's Nashville digs has been ``very, very upbeat and very positive,'' he said. ``It's been a long row to hoe but we need to focus on the future. We're right on target developing plans for next year, just as we always have done.''
Despite that R-word and almost daily barrage of bad news, Mr. Pacsi said BFS is finally ``getting back to business as usual''-which he called a refreshing change of late.