QUINCY, Ill. (Feb. 1, 2006) — A farmer with a pitchfork wearing a camouflage hat and a silky red kimono over his blue flannel shirt looks at his John Deere-green tractor out in the barn.
The image isn't from an unusual heartland calendar—it's all part of a new ad campaign by Titan International Inc.
The ads, which kicked off Jan. 30 on The Weather Channel in the early morning, are about as subtle in their “Buy American” pitch as the kimono-donned farmer would be at a livestock auction in South Dakota. But that's exactly the point Maurice “Morry” Taylor Jr., chairman and CEO of Titan, had in mind.
After talking about the “great” tires and wheels made by Titan in the U.S., Mr. Taylor—who appears in the commercials—highlights Titan's recent $100 million purchase of Goodyear's farm tire business in North America. “So now you can put another great American-made product on your American-made wheels,” he says in one.
Mr. Taylor, with a French and then a Japanese flag behind him, tells viewers that Michelin is made by the French and Firestone by the Japanese. Using these tires on American farms, he says, is like putting a beret on a cowboy and a kimono on a farmer.
Although Bridgestone/Firestone is Japanese-owned, nearly all Firestone farm tires are made in Des Moines, Iowa, a BFS official pointed out.
The ad is set to alternate with another—that talks about getting “shafted” by “cheap” Chinese-made tires—on The Weather Channel every other week through March, a Titan spokeswoman said.
In a third ad Mr. Taylor has subsequently decided not to run, he talks about “cheap” Chinese tires, then mimics a Chinese accent while declaring, “You buy a Chineeese tire, you get a-rippeeed off.”
“We're going to hit the airwaves, and we're going to tell everybody that we are American-made and we are American-owned,” Mr. Taylor told Tire Business. “Firestone is Japanese. Michelin is French.”
The ads will join a print ad in USA Today and radio counterparts plus harder-hitting cable television ads planned later. The three TV ads sent to Tire Business display both Titan's and Goodyear's logo. As part of the sale, Titan is licensed to manufacture Goodyear- and Kelly-brand farm tires. Mr. Taylor said final versions of the ads will not feature the Goodyear logo, including any ads in which he “makes fun of the French or Japanese.”
A Goodyear spokesman declined to comment about the ads.
Mark Carpenter, president of Jerry's Tire & Auto in Lake Odessa, Mich.—a 40-year Goodyear farm tire dealer—hesitated in describing his reaction to the commercials, settling on having “mixed emotions.” He saw the commercials before they ran.
“I think that's going way over the top,” he said of the foreign tire bashing. “There's a better way of getting your point across…. It makes us look like rednecks.”
Still, though, Mr. Carpenter doubts it will hurt business significantly, and he said he wouldn't stop selling the Goodyear brand because of the ads.
“Words are just words,” he said. “We do our talking with our service and the product we represent…. As long as they keep up with the quality control, Titan will do very fine.”
Mr. Carpenter wonders if Mr. Taylor may one day have to eat his words if price competition, especially from China, forces Titan to produce offshore. Otherwise, “it won't be cost effective for us to sell the product,” Mr. Carpenter said.
J.R. Tucker, owner of Dyersburg, Tenn.-based Tucker's Tire Co., said the overall “Buy American” message is usually a successful one. “I like to buy American when I can, too, and I like to sell American,” he said.
He does, however, also sell Chinese-made tires and has never had a major problem with them.
A survey last summer by American Demographics, which is owned by Tire Business' sister publication Advertising Age, found that consumers tend to respect the quality of U.S.-made goods, but many consumers—including young adults and affluent people—aren't inclined to look for products made here.
Of his overall farm tire sales last year, Mr. Tucker sold 20 percent Goodyear, 20 percent Firestone, 10 percent Titan and 50 percent various imports. Asked if Titan's purchase of Goodyear will change those shares in his business, Mr. Tucker said that depends on the most basic factor: “If Firestone's prices are better, then Firestone will get more of the business,” he said.
In his announcement of the completion of the Goodyear deal, Mr. Taylor set his sights clearly on Firestone. “Closing the acquisition has been a long haul, and with this acquisition the Goodyear brand will again become the No. 1 brand in North American farm tires, replacing Firestone, which is Japanese-owned,” he said.
With the buyout, Mr. Taylor said Titan now controls more than 50 percent of the farm tire market with more than $400 million in combined tire sales. “We've already surpassed (Firestone),” he said.
Jeff Wilson, marketing manager of Firestone Agricultural Tire, a division of Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire L.L.C., said in terms of market share, Firestone had been first, followed by Goodyear, then Titan.
“They might overtake some of our share out there” as a combined unit, Mr. Wilson acknowledged.
Firestone would wait to see if any counter campaign to Titan's latest ads would be necessary, he added, but he refuted the implication that Firestone's farm tires aren't made in the U.S. “We make 98 percent of all the tires we make right here in Des Moines,” he said.
Firestone's marketing for 2006 will focus both on product features as well as image-building for the Firestone name, highlighting the company as a technology and performance leader offering farmers more productivity.
“The idea is we're going back to a strong branding message of who is Firestone,” he said.
Michelin North America Inc. declined to comment specifically on Titan's ads. Bill Schafer, vice president of marketing and sales for the North American ag market, said it's too early to tell if Titan's purchase of the Goodyear business will have any impact on Michelin in the market.
“It has not impacted what we have planned as a strategy over the next few years,” he said.
Mr. Taylor—who gained attention outside the business world when he made an unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination in the U.S. presidential election of 1996—also has other advertising plans on deck. He said a second round of ads will take the opposite track of the latest comical ads and end up much more “heavy.”
Those ads, which are still in development, will feature newsreel-like images from World War II, Korean war, Vietnam war and even the Iraq conflict. One image will be scanning across the white crosses marking American soldiers' graves in northern France, he said.
“These men and women died, their blood was spilled for you to have the freedom that you have, and it's your money, you can spend it any way you wish,” he said. “…So when you think about it, you think about those that didn't and those that are back, you think about how to be American and why don't you just try buying American. And (Titan's) the last of the Mohicans, there's no one else.”
In an ad set to run soon in USA Today's sports section, Mr. Taylor asks, “Americans, are you stupid?” He then states: “I don't think we are, but politicians, bureaucrats and the intelligent elite think so.” He also points out his solutions to problems such as low military death benefits, energy costs, Social Security, the Census Bureau, immigration, trade and college tuition. Among his suggestions is a 5-percent “Hero's Tax” on all imports to raise the military death benefit to $250,000 per soldier as well as mandatory military service for 18 months.
As for Titan's business in 2006, Mr. Taylor said he expects to add equipment to the Goodyear plant in Freeport, Ill., plus add some new products.