There are a lot of tire brands out there to choose from. So how does an unknown brand-such as from a Chinese manufacturer-grab a share of the market?
``Sell it as a typical, Americanized, private brand tire,'' advises Jack Trout, president of Trout & Partners Ltd., a marketing firm in Old Greenwich, Conn. ``Buyers will see it as one of the value brands.''
It would help if the brand had an American-sounding name as opposed to a Chinese name. ``A large number of U.S. tire brands are unknown,'' Mr. Trout noted. ``The key is working with Americanized names.''
The trick for tire dealers, he said, half-jokingly, is to not make a fuss over where the Chinese-brand tire was manufactured. ``Tell the customer: `I've got a terrific tire. Where's it come from? I don't know, but it's a terrific tire.'''
Even if the dealer does reveal the Chinese origins of a tire, it probably won't make much of a difference to the average consumer. ``Most people know (the Chinese) make good products at pretty good prices. China never really suffered from a `cheap' product perception like Japan (did decades ago),'' he said.
``Consumers buy so many Chinese products,'' Mr. Trout added, noting the numerous Chinese products sold at the popular Wal-Mart Stores Inc. retail outlets. ``Most consumers assume products are made everywhere. Their experience is to go to Wal-Mart where everything is made everywhere else,'' he said. ``They are trained that stuff comes from everywhere.''
Al Ehrbar, chairman of Brand-Economics L.L.C. in New York, agreed that consumers don't really care where a product is made. ``There are so many products made elsewhere that consumers are used to that now.''
He gave the example of the growing market shares of electronics and appliance brands LG and Samsung. ``If there were a strong or deep resistance to those (Asian) brands, they wouldn't have made (the gains) they have in the market in a short amount of time.
``There is not a major negative connotation (with Chinese products),'' Mr. Ehrbar added.
Even the claim of an ``American-made'' product, such as an American car, is hollow because many of the parts to the product are made elsewhere, Mr. Trout pointed out.
The trouble with tires, he added, is that there is the unknown safety issue and the technology that is involved. Generally, Chinese products ``don't have a strong negative perception. They've proven they can make good products.''
His suggestion is since there is the perceived safety in tires, dealers should position the Chinese brand as a ``very good value brand but not cheap, cheap, cheap.''
``Tires are a pricey game,'' Mr. Trout added. ``People obviously spend more for a tire they think is better. There is a certain market of people who pay more...and people who want to get it cheap but not get it bad.'' People know there are differences between the popular brands and the unfamiliar brands, he said.
``All stores have value tires. The question is how they introduce it. Where do they put the new Chinese tires-as a value tire over other value brands?'' Mr. Trout asked.
G. Ray Huffman, president of World Tire Imports Inc., agreed that consumers generally are not reluctant to buy Chinese brands. ``Not at all. They want what the best price is.''
His company, based in Coral Springs, Fla., recently began importing and distributing Linglong, an ultra-high performance, Z-rated Chinese tire brand that is positioned at an entry-level price range. ``And it's probably as good quality as Michelin (and other popular brands),'' he said. He added that wholesalers have been attracted to the tire brand because they are given exclusive markets to develop the brand for themselves.
Morris Wholesale Tire Distributors in Troy, N.C., is distributing the Linglong line because it serves as a low-cost brand alternative for high-performance customers. Owner Brian Morris said young customers spend so much money on wheels, they are looking for a low-cost performance tire to go on those high-cost rims.
``There is no issue as far as quality and perception,'' he said. ``What's the difference from selling it than (somewhat unfamiliar brands such as) Kumho and Hankook?''
``If (the Chinese) make a good tire cheaply, you'll see more,'' Mr. Trout predicted. ``They are serious players. If they enter the marketplace with a high-quality value brand, they'll disrupt the value segment of tires.''
Chinese tire brands, at least for now, are destined to be in the value range. If Chinese tire makers want their brands to compete with the more popular brands, ``they'll have to spend money to promote it. They have to build up a reputation,'' Mr. Trout said. ``I don't see the Chinese duking it out (with big name brands).''