For sports fans, spotting the Bridgestone activation can be a sport in itself. Turn on an NFL game and you’re likely to see a plug for the league’s official tire. Ditto any NHL game or anything involving the PGA Tour, Golf Channel and numerous other golf events. If you were one of the 100 million or so people who watched the New York Giants upset the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII in February, you couldn’t miss Bridgestone, which sponsored the halftime show.
“Among tire brands they’ve certainly raised exclusivity and given a large and vital dealer network a reason to showcase their product,” said Terry Lefton, editor-at-large for SportsBusiness Journal. “They’ve definitely raised, and are raising, their profile.”
Bridgestone’s long history in sports was mainly confined to golf and auto racing. But in October 2007, under the auspices of Phil Pacsi, vp-North American consumer tire marketing at BFNT, the brand signed a three-year deal to become the first official tire of the NFL. The deal included title sponsorship of the halftime show at Super Bowl XLII and the halftime show at Super Bowl XLIII next February. Since mid-2007, Bridgestone also has become the first official tire of the NHL, the PGA Tour, the World Golf Championships and the Golf Channel.
The result has been a bounce in sales. In fiscal 2007, BFNT claimed $13.2 billion of the $34 billion in tire revenues in North America, up 13% from the previous year. The company’s first half 2008 financial report, although showing a 2% decline in sales versus the year-ago period to $6.7 billion, was far better than the results posted by such competitors as Goodyear (down 8.1%) and Cooper Tire (down 17.8%). BFNT said its descent was “mainly due to increasing raw material costs and sales expenses.”
Bridgestone’s ability to hold firm and even thrive during a recession is due in part to Pacsi, 48, who has spent half his life with the company, much of it in engineering. It wasn’t until 1994 when Pacsi’s bosses moved him from the “heavy-duty materials development” department, where he was a senior engineer, and anointed him with the title “marketing specialist.”
“I don’t know exactly why, but I believe it was because I was able to take some of the difficult terminology involved with tire production and make [it] consumer friendly and make our products more accessible to people,” he said. That approach worked well for Pacsi, who landed Bridgestone’s top marketing job in 2006.
Bridgestone’s auto racing history dates to 1908 and its ties with golf go back to 1935, when Bridgestone began to produce golf balls, so alliances with both sports are expected. Branching out into football and hockey was more of a stretch.
“The first question most people ask is, ‘Why are you affiliated with the NFL and the NHL?'” said Pacsi. “The simplest answer is, when we looked for something that was different and unique for the Bridgestone brand, and also looked at our core customers, most of them were sports enthusiasts of the NFL, the NHL and golf.”
Pacsi said doing so not only increased awareness but let the brand reach a consumer database that it couldn’t tap on its own. “It’s too early to tell the full impact we have had [with the NFL and NHL deals]. But we have had tremendous response with redemption programs we did with the NFL and we did see an uptick in sales after we sent e-mails to NFL fans. I would say that the gauge has moved favorably for us and for our partners.”
Winning the Super Bowl
The biggest triumph to come out of the new focus was Super Bowl XLII. The brand ran two spots during the game from The Richards Group, Dallas, that were among the most-recalled in postgame surveys. One showed a car driving on a road through the woods, the reaction of fear among numerous animals as they see the auto approaching and then their subsequent relief when they realize the driver has Bridgestone tires. Another spot mirrored that theme, but with Alice Cooper and Richard Simmons instead of animals. Bridgestone was also title sponsor of the halftime show starring Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers during a game viewed by a Super Bowl record 97.5 million people in the U.S., per Nielsen Media Research. (Although it has not been confirmed by the NFL, the leading contender to headline the Bridgestone halftime show at Super Bowl XLIII is Bruce Springsteen.)
“We knew going in [to the Super Bowl XLII halftime show] it would attract a huge audience, but we couldn’t have planned it better,” said Pacsi. “The New York Giants and New England Patriots really made it something special, above and beyond what Super Bowls have become. That added to the national interest and audience.”
Although league partners are mavens for ratings, “it’s not just about numbers. It’s also about building a partnership that will have long-term growth and we have that with Bridgestone,” said Peter Murray, svp-corporate marketing and sponsorship sales at the NFL. “Phil and his team, and Kern Egan and The Richards Sports & Entertainment Group, came in with a lot of creative ideas and were willing to listen to our ideas and how the partnership could prove beneficial among our mutual target demo. When you have a relationship like that, you have a solid platform to prime the pump.”
Likewise, the NHL has seen its first-year relationship with Bridgestone bear fruit across several platforms. The tire company’s official status includes activation at the All-Star Game, the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, and the annual Winter Classic, which this past New Year’s Day attracted NBC’s best regular-season NHL rating in more than a decade. Activation for the Winter Classic this coming New Year’s Day in Chicago is currently being prepared.
“Because we have been building the NHL’s presence to reach fans year-round and not just during hockey season, we need partners that can promote and support that agenda,” said Keith Wachtel, svp-corporate sales & marketing at the NHL, New York. “Bridgestone has a strong male, tech-savvy consumer base, which also is key to our league. This coming season, the synergy will be even stronger, with more integrated campaigns.”
Proponents of Inflation
Sports alliances and Super Bowl commercials not withstanding, BFNT is dealing with the challenges of the current economy. Analysts say fewer new car sales means people are holding onto their cars longer. And, by necessity, replacing their tires. The brand has initiated several programs among its family of dealers to address issues including fuel efficiency, recycling and green marketing. In addition, www.Tiresafety.com offers green/money-saving tips. “Now is an integral time to get our message out there when people are looking for ways to save on gas and extend the life of their cars,” said Pacsi. “People are paying attention.” (Indeed, maintaining proper tire pressure became part of the presidential debate this year.)
Pacsi’s mission is to take his bevy of sponsorships to the next level. And, of course, sell more tires. “We want to activate the fan base and tie the Bridgestone brand to their favorite sport. Get the awareness, get the sales and put more tires on the road.”
All of that can be a lot of pressure, professionally and personally. Said Pacsi: “[Since signing the NFL deal,] the biggest change in my life is that everybody wants Super Bowl tickets.”
Photo by Ed Rode