Unlike beauty, ``affordability'' isn't just in the eyes of the beholder. After reality quickly fills in that gap between desire and actual bucks available, affordability, alas, resides in the wallet.
So how does a company quench that gotta-have craving for a product and market it to a target audience whose wallets may be bordering on underinflation?
Setting its sights on young, trendy but-the keyword here: budget-conscious-consumers, Michelin North America Inc. is giving them an entry-level, low-cost ultra-high performance (UHP) tire developed for the sport-compact vehicle market. The tire maker describes these potential customers as ``setting the trends in the automotive world for both performance and aesthetics'' while also ``buying more UHP tires more often.''
The company's new BFGoodrich g-Force Sport-the latest addition to the brand's g-Force family of performance tires-is aimed at providing ``maximum performance at an affordable price,'' according to BFG officials. They rolled out the new tire last month in Los Angeles during a ride-and-drive event for consumer and trade publication journalists from around North America.
The overall marketing target for BFG tires is a consumer group commonly referred to as ``Gearheads.'' In describing them, Michelin said these tire buyers have a number of things in common.
Who they are:
* 22 percent of all tire consumers;
* Mostly male;
* Age group skews younger; and
* Lower household income yet have more vehicles in their household.
What they want:
* High performance/specialty tires;
* A wide selection to choose from in stock at retail;
* Quality brands;
* Tires that perform in bad weather conditions; and
* Tires that make their vehicle look good.
What they're like:
* Serious about their vehicles;
* Love to drive;
* Enjoy talking about their vehicle; and
* Attend motorsports events/auto shows, etc.
Within that category of Gearheads is yet another sub-group of young, potentially important, albeit dollar-starved, consumers: car customizers. And those 18- to 24-year-old mostly single males-with even lower household incomes than their peer Gearheads-want tire and wheel packages; spend more per UHP tire and buy them more often; want great performance and tires that make their vehicle look good, Michelin said. As customizers, almost half have done wheel/tire customizations because they care about both performance and aesthetics.
According to Michelin, Gearheads learn from each other, from car buff magazines, from the Internet, radio, auto shows and similar events and from motorsports.
The g-Force Sport tire Michelin is targeting at this group features a ``cutting-edge tread design'' in line with the mindset of the younger sport-compact consumer. It will get a limited distribution launch on June 1 in seven states, but was introduced May 1 throughout Canada because of that country's shorter summer selling season.
Greenville, S.C.-based Michelin officials told Tire Business the company plans to make the tire available this year in California, Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina-all states that have strong concentrations of performance tire buyers. It also will be handled nationwide via Internet and mail-order marketers The Tire Rack in South Bend, Ind., and Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Discount Tire Co.'s Discount Tire Direct operation. The tire maker eventually will expand the line's availability throughout the U.S. during the first half of 2005.
The company said the new tire blends its racing-bred BFG technology and performance with an accessible price point and is the brand's first product specifically designed for young UHP fans who want a performance tire but can't afford more costly higher-end products.
The V/Z speed-rated g-Force Sport will be available in 21 dimensions in 16-, 17- and 18-inch sizes, according to Oscar Pereda, BFG technical marketing manager. He said the company will look to add a 19-inch size and some 20 dimensions within the next year. The tire features BFGoodrich's ETEC System (Equal Tension Containment System), designed to provide ``excellent strength, a smooth ride and a consistent footprint'' while maintaining ``maximized tread contact under high-speed conditions,'' BFG executives said.
One good way of describing this new tire's performance, according to Jeff Cummings in BFG's marketing department, is ``there aren't many surprises-especially for our target group of somewhat novice drivers who don't necessarily want to be told how to drive-and to drive safely. So it's a predictable tire in terms of handling.''
Among the tire's features are:
* A rounded shoulder profile that improves progressivity and predictability at limit of adhesion;
* Sidewall inserts that resist deflection and ``generate tremendous cornering force;''
* BFG's patented BlackTech tread compound to maximize traction on dry pavement while resisting heat buildup;
* Two deep, wide circumferential rain channels to help disperse water and aid wet-weather traction; and
* A rim protector for improved wheel damage protection.
Michelin is pitting the g-Force Sport against lower-cost UHP products including the Dunlop FM 901 and Toyo Proxes FZ4, among others.
BFG execs claimed their new tire-which made it from concept to drawing board to reality in about two years-will outperform other tires in its category.
When repeatedly pressed for a ballpark figure for the tire's retail price, a company exec finally said it likely will range between $80 and $120, though he was quick to point out that Michelin dealers, not the tire maker, set retail prices in the marketplace.
To that end, John Hampson, ultra-high performance marketing manager for BFGoodrich Tires, predicted the g-Force Sport ``will satisfy the sport compact consumers' desire for performance and aesthetics at a ``competitive price.'' In terms of special approaches to target this segment, the Scottsman said BFG ``uses ride and drives to directly expose these target consumers to the products.''
Mr. Hampson told Tire Business the company has launched a seven-city tour, from May through September, to provide targeted consumers-males 18 to 30 who typically drive modified import vehicles-an opportunity to test the Sport and other BFG tires through head-to-head comparisons with competing products. The tour, called ``BFG Sport Compact Nights,'' is using a variety of vehicles to promote the sport-compact theme, including the Subaru WRX STi, Nismo-tuned Nissan 350Z and Acura RSX Type S.
The company also is using strategic national public relations, dedicated point-of-sale materials in dealerships and advertising to support the tour, he said.
As part of the ``2004 BFG Challenge,'' the new Sport tire will be introduced to sport compact consumers through regional ride and drives linked with sport compact events. The first took place April 2-4 in conjunction with the International Auto Salon in Los Angeles.
Brand positioning has a lot to do with how successfully a tire is marketed. Because BFG has ``proven performance credentials and aesthetics,'' Mr. Hampson said, ``for Gearheads, BFGoodrich is the brand of tires that shows they are serious about their vehicle's driving performance.
``We make tires for people who want to upgrade to a proven performance brand, enhance the statement their vehicle makes and set themselves apart from the rest of the competition,'' he continued.
In marketing Michelin's various brands-including Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal-the company said it tries to provide dealers with guidance about how to position those brands. Each targets different consumer segments in the marketplace, Mr. Hampson explained. ``The dealers learn through various training modules as well as brand information who these consumers are, their tire shopping behavior and the typical vehicles that they drive.
``With this information, the dealers are armed to recognize these different consumers, to understand their tire purchase needs and to offer the most appropriate tire for them.''
Asked whether the tire maker offers any advice to dealers about how to attract that younger target audience to which the g-Force Sport might appeal, he said: ``Young, UHP consumers rely on word-of-mouth recommendations and focus interest largely on the Internet. More and more dealers are recognizing that the ability to project and portray your business on the Internet has an impact on this group of consumers.''
Mr. Cummings said BFG is ``trying to plan events that are both fun and we want to make sure they learn something.'' Six dealer ride-and-drive events are being planned. Most will mirror consumer-type activities, such as at car shows. ``One of the focuses I'm going to try with our (dealer) customers is to compare the tires within the BFG family, give them an in-depth understanding of how BFG products compare with each other in the various tiers,'' rather than against our competitors, he told Tire Business.
``In the past we did programs that positioned our tires within their tier group of competitors. And...a dealer might have said, `Help me get my sales guys to sell our tire vs. the competition.' Why? Just because one tire is the lowest price within its group.''
The long-term winners, Mr. Cummings continued, ``are the dealers who get customers to come back. You sell them the right tire the first time instead of turning them into shoppers-that's what separates a dealer from the crowd.''
While the company has told its dealers, especially those in its Alliance program, ``that it's great to support BFG on the national level,'' he said, ``we want to support (dealers) and the brand on a local level.''
Michaela Yasin, BFG brand director in Canada, said although no formal dealer events are planned this year around the launch of the g-Force Sport in that country, the tire maker still might decide to add some.
Unlike in the U.S., Ms. Yasin said BFG is not limiting distribution of the new tire in Canada. ``Our dealers who have access to all our products will also get this tire, though it's a specialty product, so not all dealers will want it.''
She said the performance market is growing in Canada. ``We're also seeing the same explosion in size proliferation as in the U.S. market as well as the continued growth of the Z-rated tire market and the same impact of original equipment makers switching to performance products.''