2005: Bridgestone seeks traction in U.S. market

Bridgestone Golf executives are debuting their Japanese brand in the United States, promoting its rollout during a self-titled “Coming to America” tour.

But it really should be dubbed “Coming to America, Part II” – and for Bridgestone’s sake, the sequel better be more successful.

Nearly two years ago, with U.S. sales of its more popular Precept brand sagging, Bridgestone launched a two-tier strategy to reverse its fortunes:

Reposition Precept as an affordable brand for the masses, and;

Command top dollar by introducing a new ultra-premium line, TourStage, which was a hot-seller in its native country.

But instead of rebounding, Bridgestone’s overall U.S. presence has diminished significantly in recent years.

Unable to produce worthy successors for its Precept Lady ball – one of the most unexpected industry sales phenomenons of the past decade – Bridgestone recorded marketshare of 7.1 percent at pro shops and off-course retailers in November, according to research firm Golf Datatech LLC. By comparison, when soaring behind the success of the Lady in 2001, Bridgestone’s marketshare reached as high as 12 percent.

And TourStage, which received minimal marketing support, never took root with consumers, let alone retailers.

“It’s entered in our system, which means we likely ordered it, but we have no record of ever receiving it,” says Al Whalen, co-owner of Fiddler’s Green, a major retailer in Eugene, Ore.

Bridgestone officials, however, say blaming the dual-brand approach for the company’s recent setbacks is misdirected. In their words, the gameplan is perfectly sound; it’s the execution that needs improvement.

Bridgestone officials concede they released TourStage as little more than “a trial” – without the commitment of corporate headquarters to develop it into a stand-alone brand. That decision also was made prematurely while the parent company, a multinational conglomerate based in Tokyo, was undergoing a major reassessment of how it should market all of its varied businesses.

“Out of that came a new corporate strategy to make the Bridgestone name the premium brand in all of its businesses, from tires to golf equipment,” says Shigeru Nakayama, Bridgestone Golf’s vice president of marketing.

This time, he says, failure is not an option because Bridgestone’s entire corporate identity is on the line, not just the image of one of its brands. A poor performance by Bridgestone Golf would tarnish the Bridgestone name in other industries, Nakayama says.

As a result, executives say, the Bridgestone Golf launch will be done right.

From the outset, Bridgestone is unveiling a comprehensive collection of product, including drivers, irons, wedges, utility clubs and balls. And they’ll be endorsed by perennial fan favorite Fred Couples. He will be joined on the Bridgestone tour staff by Stuart Appleby and Nick Price, who previously supported Precept equipment.

Bridgestone also is prepared to refute a common criticism that Japanese equipment companies don’t aggressively advertise their products in the United States. Working on a premise that 2005 ad spending levels of the industry’s top equipment companies remain unchanged from 2004, Bridgestone’s media buy will place it among “the top 5” advertisers this year, according to Dan Murphy, Bridgestone Golf’s director of marketing.

More important, he says, the Japanese parent company has committed to a “three-year investment strategy” to build its golf brand in the United States, minimizing annual budget battles with corporate that could stall progress.

During the first half of the year, Bridgestone also will launch its largest U.S. trial program in company history for its new Tour B330 ball: Give away 500,000 free samples of 2-ball sleeves at grass-roots marketing events.

Building a brand from scratch is never an easy task, which explains why some retailers are skeptical about Bridgestone’s plan. Selling big ticket items such as clubs, they say, will be particularly difficult. But they’re encouraged by the support they’ve already seen behind the brand, and say it’s off to a much better start than TourStage.

“We’ve already had inquiries about the Tour B330,” says Whalen of Fiddler’s Green. “The golf fanatics were paying attention when Couples won the Skins Game with it.”

Whalen and other retailers also agree that the company is better off pursuing elite golfers with Bridgestone rather than Precept.

“Precept is a victim of its own success,” Whalen says. “Once you’re branded as a product for the masses, the better players don’t want anything to do with you.”

Adds Kerry Kabase, senior buyer for Edwin Watts Golf Shops: “I think Precept missed a window of opportunity to expand upon its success. . . . I’ve always wondered why they didn’t lead off with the Bridgestone moniker in the first place. It’s a great brand that’s recognized around the world. Even if you’re not a golfer you understand it stands for quality.”





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