On your mark, get set...
The use of auto racing to position tires in the market is as old as racing itself. Goodyear, for example, was for many years the exclusive supplier of tires to the Indianapolis 500, and it is celebrating its 50th year of participation in NASCAR events.
``There are 75 million NASCAR fans,'' said Mike Kitz, Goodyear vice president of marketing-North American tires. ``They are passionate, loyal and very good for the Goodyear brand.''
Not only does supporting NASCAR create Goodyear loyalists among NASCAR fans, but the technology the company creates for racing tires often finds its way into mass production tires, according to Mr. Kitz. A good example of this is the ``race wrap'' stiff-sidewall technology-created for NASCAR to make a tire with superior cornering-that is an integral part of the new Goodyear Eagle GTR.
``People have put stiff sidewalls on tires for years, but this is a new technology we brought to market through our involvement with NASCAR,'' he said.
Goodyear decided some years ago to give up Indy-type open-wheel racing events and concentrate on NASCAR, according to Mr. Kitz. BFS gladly leapt into the breach left by Goodyear, getting Firestone declared the official tire of the Indy 500. Meanwhile, the Bridgestone brand is used widely in Formula One and Champ Car racing, according to Messrs. Pacsi and Fluck.
The benefits BFS gets from racing are identical to those Goodyear receives, according to Mr. Fluck. ``Not only is it fun and a good way to raise brand profiles, but we get to take advantage of the technology,'' he said. ``We apply what we've learned in racing to a lot of our tires.''
Michelin is involved heavily in Formula One, American Le Mans endurance, motorcycle and bicycle racing, as well as in manufacturer-specific events for such auto makers as Porsche A.G. and BMW A.G., according to Ms. Henderson.
Cooper, meanwhile, is escalating its involvement in the racing world. The inaugural event in the Cooper Tire Championship Series, part of the Formula 2000 racing circuit, was held March 19 at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Fla.
Cooper's purchase of Mickey Thompson Performance Tires & Wheels just over a year ago gives the company a high profile and even higher potential in both auto and light truck racing, according to Ms. Brown and Mr. Caris. ``We'll really be able to lead in the light truck market with the Mickey Thompson brand,'' Mr. Caris predicted.
Closely related to the racing scene is the market for ``tuner'' or custom and modified cars, an increasingly important segment of the youth market. Both Cooper and Fuzion tires have been featured on MTV's ``Pimp My Ride,'' a Sunday-night program for tuner car enthusiasts.
And West Coast Customs, an Inglewood, Calif.-based custom car creator, is using Cooper's Zeon line on many of its exotic vehicles, according to Ms. Brown.
``We've gotten a lot of comment-a lot of calls from people who watch `Pimp My Ride' and know about custom cars,'' she said. ``We're positioning the product toward a much broader segment of the market.''
Where do dealers fit in?
Opinions of tire dealers' role in brand positioning seem to vary as to whether the person expressing the opinion is an expert in ``pure'' or ``applied'' brand positioning.
Tires, according to brand positioning consultant Jack Trout, president of the marketing firm Trout & Partners Ltd. in Old Greenwich, Conn., are ``not an easy category'' in which to achieve brand positioning, and in his opinion dealers make it all the harder.
Mr. Trout was a pioneer of the concept of brand positioning and co-authored a 1980 book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, which is considered the standard text on the subject.
``Few of these guys really want to hang on and sell a tire the way the manufacturer wants it to be sold,'' he said. ``A lot of them will say, `You can buy the Michelin, or you can buy this brand that's cheaper.' You can lose control of the sale when you have too many individual dealers trying to offer deals.''
On the other hand, all the tire company executives interviewed said their dealers-both independent and company-owned-were integral parts of their efforts to position their brands and sang the praises of dealers' efforts to help them in that goal. Mr. Kitz of Goodyear was particularly eloquent on this subject.
``What equity Goodyear has in its brands is built on three points: the promise in the advertising, what they're told in Goodyear dealerships and-most important-the experience they have over the life of the tire,'' he said. ``If people have a great experience, that defines brand equity.''
Goodyear spends a lot of time educating its dealers about the product, according to Mr. Kitz.
``In addition to advertising, the key thing is what happens in the store,'' he said. ``You will see advertising images in the store, but the people behind the counter take them through the three points and try to make sure the right tire goes on the vehicle. They are the face of Goodyear.''
Dealers also are vital in presenting special promotions to the public, noted Ms. Henderson of MAST. For example, Michelin dealers across the U.S. will offer the ``Lost Friend'' collectible bobblehead doll featuring the Michelin Man and his pet dog. From the sale of each ``Lost Friend'' figure, $5 will go to benefit the American Humane Society's Red Star Emergency Services program, which rescues animals in times of disaster, up to a total of $200,000.
``We're trying to invigorate our whole program while getting dealers involved and doing something to benefit the larger community,'' she said.
For at least some independent tire dealers, brand positioning is something of a moot point, according to Darrell Schelp, sales and marketing director for Dobbs Tire & Auto Centers Inc. Based in High Ridge, Mo., a St. Louis suburb, the 39-store Dobbs Tire chain carries Cooper, Goodyear, Michelin, Dunlop, Pirelli, Cordovan and Fulda tires. Ms. Brown mentioned it as one of Cooper's most important dealers.
``We don't think about the manufacturers' brands-we market the Dobbs brand,'' Mr. Schelp said. ``We market everything we sell as the Dobbs lineup of quality products. And how we position the different manufacturers in that lineup is something we wouldn't share.''
Barry Levin, president of Highland, Ind.-based Levin Tire Centers Inc., said he believes independent tire dealers are the most effective agents tire makers have for brand positioning. ``We're the storefronts that serve to offer medium- to premium-priced products to consumers,'' Mr. Levin said. ``It takes the extra effort by salespeople to justify why someone should spend $500 to $600 on a set of tires, rather than $200 to $300.''
John Marshall, president of Grismer Tire Co. in Dayton, Ohio, said, ``There's a symbiotic relationship between dealers and manufacturers. For example, Bridgestone/Firestone (Grismer Tire's major brand) positions its tires in the market through racing and advertising; a dealer does it through advertising, local promotions, but mostly through advising customers on what kind of tires they should buy.''
Levin Tire, with seven outlets in Indiana and two in Illinois, sells mostly Goodyear-owned brands-Goodyear, Kelly-Springfield, Dunlop and Republic-with some business in Toyo, Dayton and Nokian tires. Mr. Levin said his personnel constantly receive materials, software and training from Goodyear and the other companies, most recently an eight-hour training session on the Goodyear Assurance tire line. ``We also have a two- or three-hour sales meeting once a month to review information with our salespeople,'' he said.
Grismer Tire, with 25 outlets, all in Ohio, is a longtime Bridgestone, Firestone and Dayton dealer that also carries Michelin, BFGoodrich and Nokian tires, as well as running a commercial tire retreading operation using Bandag Inc.'s technology. Grismer's salespeople receive training and materials from all its suppliers, Mr. Marshall said.
``Just about all of our sales associates have had the opportunity to ride on our suppliers' tires, particularly the high-performance tires,'' he said. Nokian Tyres Ltd. even took them to Sweden and Finland to visit the Nokian factory and do test drives, he added.
Like Dobbs Tire, Les Schwab Tire Centers Inc.-the Prineville, Ore.-based commercial and retail tire giant, with 377 outlets throughout the Pacific Northwest-sells the dealership, rather than any individual brands.
``We don't advertise any brands,'' said Dick Borgman, Les Schwab executive vice president, noting that, in passenger tires, Toyo, Multi-Mile and Federal are its biggest brands.
``We sell essentially the Les Schwab brand, as far as our customers are concerned,'' Mr. Borgman said, ``and that's what we plan to continue to do.''