The smoke, sights, smells and sounds of ``Gasoline Alley'' on any given race day, no matter the venue, hold a certain allure, leading many tire makers to realize that ``where there's smoke, there's sales.''
Not to be outdone by some of its larger tire-making competitors that ``race on Sunday, sell on Monday,'' as the saying goes, Toyo Tire (U.S.A.) Corp. has been revving up the connection between those aforementioned sensory enticements and its tires. And so far, according to Travis Roffler, senior director of marketing, the Cypress-based company is making progress. Steady, methodical gains.
Based on entries in its Internet dealer directory, the company claims about 2,500 points of sale. ``Then distributors supply more, so I'd estimate our dealer network is about double that nationwide,'' Mr. Roffler told Tire Business earlier this summer. That dealer network, he is quick to point out, is ``all independent tire dealers-both distributors and retailers, but all independent. No mass merchandisers, no clubs.''
Toyo has ``most of the country covered pretty well'' with retailers and what he called ``solid distributors'' that make deliveries either daily or multiple times per week. He noted that the firm's dealer program has continued to grow over the last couple years due, in no small part, to Toyo's embracing the ``philosophy of the independent tire dealer''-and its continued involvement in motorsports and related endeavors.
After working for eight and a half years for Michelin North America Inc., Mr. Roffler wanted to see the landscape from the other side of the fence. So he joined Greenwood, Colo.-based Great American Tire & Auto Service Centers as the dealership's brand manager of tire operations. But, he admitted, ``I got into the retail business and found it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. I decided I like this (manufacturer) side of it so much-and it's a breath of fresh air to come to a company that's very reactive and willing to make decisions quickly.''
During an interview, Mr. Roffler addressed, among a number of subjects, Toyo Tire's steady growth, its marketing and advertising approaches, its continuing focus on motorsports, and how it's cultivating dealers. The following is an edited version of that discussion.
Have you seen motorsports tie-ins helping dealers market Toyo tires, and has the brand started to catch on more?
``Yes. We've obviously been committed to (various) events and motorsports for quite some time-motorsports being the newer of the two. We've been in Hot Import Nights (HIN) and events like that for a long time. But we've also been in NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) drag racing for about five years now, so that's been a success for us. It's just to get the name recognition out there.
``The challenge is always to involve the independent dealers that we have in a particular market. So yes, I think from a brand identity standpoint, we're advertising the fact that we're involved in these different venues and we promote our products within them. That has created success for us as far as brand equity and brand awareness. I still think it's a challenge to find ways to get our dealers involved with us as we expand.
``We're going to 127 events this year of which, on 35 weekends we have overlapping events. We've recently added our third tractor trailer to our fleet of event support rigs and added two more staff members, so I've got six staffers out there working these events now. I think the question is: `Has this affected our success?' Absolutely.
``Now motorsports is the newest evolution, with off-road the most recent. We just entered SCORE (Southern California Off Road Racing) racing; we've got CORR (Championship Off Road Racing) this year. And I think if you look at the two segments of the market-being ultra-high performance and light truck-that are growing, they're perfect tie-ins to motorsports. Things like Speed World Challenge have been phenomenal. If you look at the growth we've had over the six years we've been with the Challenge, we've grown the RE-1 business-our R-compound tire business alone 500 percent. It's skyrocketed.
``I think it's the coattails effect of the motorsports programs we participate in, whether it's road racing; World Challenge, SCCA, club racing with Spec Miata and American Iron and NASA (National Auto Sport Association). Those put your name out there, get you recognized. And the people who are decision makers,...if they're happy with a product, they'll tell eight to 10 people about it.''
What audiences are you targeting? With HIN, for example, it seems like a much younger crowd.
``With NHRA it's both sides. Drifting is a new sport and is youth oriented. We're very involved in it but are taking a bit of a watch-and-see mentality to drifting to see if it's viable longterm. HIN draws 18- to 34-year-olds. But with NHRA, we've taken title sponsor to the Powerade event in Maple Grove (Pa.)-the big domestic event for NHRA. That's more domestic-oriented and draws an older crowd between 34 and 54. We've started to advertise in books like Hot Rod and Car Craft that go after that crowd.
``But I think Toyo's Proxes T-1R and ST tires are geared towards that crowd because the wide variety of sizes available are good for street rods, hot rods. They look for the same tread design front and rear. So they want a 295 or something for the rear but want a 205, 215, 225 for the front. We've got the good fitments for the classic street rods that I don't think anyone else is going after.
``With the evolution of that, we're looking toward advertising in those books and communicating with that core group of domestic older customers, as well.''
What kind of ad/marketing budget do you have this year?
``I can't give a specific number but we're going to spend 30 percent more on ad marketing this year than last year.''
How does it compare with some of your competitors? Is it still pretty minimal?
``Compared to the Big 3 tire makers-absolutely. But that brings up a good point: We're more grassroots.... I think we have to do it a different way.
``Goodyear stated they'd spend $50 million in a four-month campaign on their new Assurance brand. I can assure you that we will not be spending $50 million in a four-month period for a long time, so we have to find better ways, more grassroots-, more guerilla-marketing ways of attacking the marketplace and finding ways to aggressively go after consumers.
``I think the combination of events and motorsports do that very effectively, and we do it on a decent budget.''
What kind of dealer events do you have coming up? Are you trying to tie in some ride-and-drive events to get them out to the track more?
``We did some ride-and-drives last year and I guess we didn't find success with them. So it's not that we're not going after that. But we spend a lot of money on our events, so it's more of a case, to me, to show the dealers that we're out there and involved in things that we're already doing.
``We try to put together packages, promotions. It could be an awards-type thing for a dealer salesperson who sells the most Toyos over a particular period gets his or her and their family to a suite at an NHRA event. And then we can also set up consumer promotions where we can go to a particular sanctioning body like a World Challenge and buy a certain amount of tickets for those, then run a promotion in the town where the event's at. For every four sets of tires they buy from a Toyo dealer, for example, they get four tickets to the Speed Challenge or CORR event.
``I think those types of tie-ins are more successful in getting the dealers involved in our business than necessarily taking them out and putting them on our tires for a particular ride-and-drive event.''
Are you doing some TV advertising this year?
``We do some spot TV. Our sponsorship with Speed World Challenge includes a large media buy on Speed and then we also do things on 4-Wheeler TV and Hot Rod TV-we're the official tire on both of those. And then we're also the official tire of Superlifts Off-Road Adventure. Those all take place on the Outdoor Channel.
``So again, we're grass-rooting it. We're out there with the enthusiasts. It's basically where we've been based and we're going to stay out there and support them.
``...Our budget for TV has increased substantially-probably another 30 to 40 percent increase there, as well. We're increasing our budgets across the board. We're definitely trying to broadcast our message out to more and more people each and every year as we continue to grow the brand.''