NASHVILLE, Tenn.-With its Firestone tire brand still under a cloud, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. (BFS) is pouring millons of marketing dollars into its Bridgestone brand.
In a break with tradition, the U.S. subsidiary of Japan's Bridgestone Corp. is now heavily promoting the smaller Bridgestone name in the U.S. tire aftermarket. It is even bringing Bridgestone tires squarely into the large middle of the market traditionally held by the Firestone brand.
In the first six months of this year, the Nashville-based tire maker spent just under $12 million advertising Bridgestone auto tires in the U.S., compared with less than $400,000 in the same period last year, according to Competitive Media Reporting and Publishers Information Bureau.
By contrast, BFS spent about $1.3 million to advertise Firestone passenger tires here in the first six months of this year, a decline from $8 million in the first half of 2000, the advertising monitoring service reported.
Whether that means consumer sales of Bridgestone tires might someday make up for Firestone's deflated market position is not certain. Publicly, Bridgestone/Firestone management remains adamant about restoring Firestone's image and business. But the company is now clearly eager to give the Bridgestone name a bigger role in the North American market.
This year was the first season of heavy U.S. retail advertising for the Bridgestone brand and it was a strategic shift for BFS. Since it bought Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. in 1988, the Japanese tire maker's efforts in America have focused primarily on pushing the Firestone name.
The Bridgestone brand gambit was part of a 50-percent jump in Bridgestone Corp.'s total advertising spending in the U.S. this year. It included running 40 network national TV spots for the Bridgestone brand, along with 2,500 cable TV placements and a series of 20 magazine ad placements.
The manufacturer is drawing up plans for a second year of Bridgestone-focused advertising of approximately the same size, said Philip Pacsi, Bridgestone/Firestone's marketing director of consumer tires.
The shift from emphasizing Firestone to pouring ad dollars into Bridgestone may look like a market retreat from Firestone's problems. In fact, during the recalls of the past two years, some in the industry have wondered aloud whether BFS might simply phase out the Firestone name.
But company executives dismissed that speculation. Mr. Pacsi said the current campaign was not triggered by Firestone's crisis that began last year, when the company began recalling millions of tires associated with rollovers of Ford Motor Co.'s Explorer sport-utility vehicles. Instead, it is part of a 3-year-old effort to begin fanning aftermarket and original equipment sales for the Bridgestone brand, Mr. Pacsi said.
``In 1999, we developed the philosophy of really trying to establish the Bridgestone name beyond what it has been in this market,'' he said. ``We believe it could be a very viable brand. It could be more of a tire for everybody.''
Mr. Pacsi said the company began educating auto dealers and tire retailers about Bridgestone in 1999 and 2000, in preparation for this year's TV and print campaign. That effort included sending videos, brochures and other product material through the traditional Firestone distribution chain.
In its Japanese home market, the Bridgestone brand commands about a 50-percent share of the total replacement and auto maker market. In the U.S., its replacement market share is about 4 percent.
``We have focused here on being a niche player, a premium import tire, the kind of tire you'd find on high-end European cars, for example,'' he said. ``We want to have a broader appeal now.''
Earlier this year, the company introduced the lower-priced ``Insignia'' line of Bridgestone tires in an effort to capture more of the mass market for replacement tires. Insignia gives consumers what one company spokeswoman called ``an alternative'' to Firestone tires. The line comes in 29 sizes, including versions to fit economy cars.
Last year saw combined Bridgestone and Firestone OE and replacement tire sales fall to $4.9 billion in North America, compared with $5.1 billion in 1999, according to Tire Business estimates.
In recent weeks, the company has re-opened the door to discuss business with Ford again. In May, Bridgestone/Firestone CEO John Lampe informed Ford-the company's biggest U.S. customer-that it would no longer seek OE business with Ford. That break came after a year of rancor between Ford and Firestone over who was responsible for vehicle rollovers that followed tire tread separation on Firestone's ATX and Wilderness AT sport-utility tires.
However, Tokyo-based Bridgestone Corp. CEO Shigeo Watanabe said he is interested in rebuilding the company's relationship with Ford. (See story on page 1.)
Meanwhile, the current Bridgestone TV commercials highlight a different customer: General Motors Corp.
In the spots-as the TV images pan slowly past Bridgestone tires slogging through mud and snow-they often zero in on GM vehicle logos. No other logos are displayed prominently in the ads.
In one ad, the word Chevrolet appears clearly. In another, there is a GMC logo and the Chevrolet ``bowtie.''
And in another, the camera clearly captures the nameplate on a Chevrolet Tahoe sport-utility.
``There were definitely reasons why we chose the vehicles we did and chose to make the connections we did,'' Mr. Pacsi said of the Bridgestone-brand pitches. ``We anticipate a lot of growth in our GM business.''
He said the creative work and budget planning for next year's Bridgestone ad campaign are currently under way. ``We will stay at comparable levels for 2002,'' Mr. Pacsi added.
``We intend to be very aggressive.''