The average UK consumer has probably not heard of Firestone. However, for an admittedly diminishing few, the name conjures images of an all-American automotive heyday and motor sport history.
The tyre brand, founded by tycoon Harvey Firestone at the very start of the 20th century, made its big break by signing the biggest tyre deal in history with a certain Henry Ford.
Firestone became little short of a national icon, fuelled by successes in the early days of the Indianapolis 500 race, and grew in global prominence through its partnership with Formula One in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet decline and near ruin followed, and what was left of Firestone by the 1980s was snapped up by the similarly-named Japanese titan Bridgestone.
Although Firestone products have remained on sale throughout, with some marketing in the US, in Europe the brand was effectively allowed to mothball. But the resilience of sales, in the face of almost wilful neglect from its owner, has convinced Bridgestone that it might be worth giving Firestone some much-needed TLC.
The company believes Firestone can make a huge impact in Europe’s mid-market segment, below premium brands such as Continental and Michelin, but above the cheap Chinese imports so beloved of price-conscious British drivers.
In this segment, claims Bert Vanneste, senior manager brand communications at Bridgestone Europe, buyers may be ultimately uninterested in their choice of tyre, but can be swayed with the advice of a dealer and some brand awareness.
A tyre brand may never be a ‘love brand’, but you can be the most loved brand in that mid sector.
Vanneste said: "When we did an end-user study, we found that Firestone is still vivid in people’s minds. So, even though we didn’t invest in the brand, sales stayed the same,
"What we want to do is reinvest in the brand and support it in the mid-range segment, where there is no big differentiation between the competitors. Firestone is the only brand with a bit of an emotional connotation in that segment. It can be an important part of our multi-brand strategy."
To help this revival, a new range of Firestone tyres is being released, including the Destination HP, a 4x4 tyre targeting the rise of affordable SUVs such as the Dacia Duster and Kia Sportage.
A new brand website is in development and will roll out by the end of 2014, along with a concerted dealership education programme. Tentative plans to introduce the Firestone brand to social media sites are also being made.
Young at heart
Marketing will feature consumers under the age of 30, although Vanneste insists Firestone will be aimed at everyone "young at heart", rather than purely those buying their first car. The brand will also switch its focus away from its traditional male-dominated approach, in an attempt to attract younger, female drivers.
If consumers respond positively to the move, then further investment is likely to follow.
"It is a start-up. The budget we will allocate is not yet the level of Bridgestone," admits Vanneste. "By the end of the year we will have a new brand website which gives product information, and we will then start to use online marketing.
"We need to be clear what Firestone stands for, because we want the customer to have an affiliation with the brand. If we get the brand well positioned, we want the brand to be aspired to, more connected such as ‘love brands’ like Apple.
"A tyre brand may never be a ‘love brand’, but you can be the most-loved brand in that mid sector."