SBJ/December 19-25, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

Bridgestone's traction plan

Driving 'performance' through athletes, Super Bowl spots

One wouldn’t be surprised to find athletes at work at one of the countless fields within the Home Depot Center sports complex on a sun-draped morning, even at an hour when most of Southern California is still uncaffeinated.

On a football field just south of Los Angeles, there are lights and pylons and field goal stanchions adorned with a familiar logo — but it’s not one of a team. On the field is a guy throwing a football who looks awfully familiar, along with a whippet of a man running with the effortless gait of a pro as footballs whiz by his head.

Between the two, they have five Super Bowl rings.

The “Performance Testing Center” set up at the Home Depot Center complex.
Photo by: RENE MACURA
We’re on a commercial set with Troy Aikman and Deion Sanders, two hall of famers who are wearing Bridgestone jerseys as part of a week’s worth of filming by Bridgestone Tires and The Richards Group that will yield five TV commercials for a new campaign. Two of the commercials will appear in NBC’s broadcast next year of Super Bowl XLVI, advertising’s ultimate showplace.

Actors in Bridgestone lab coats dominate the scene. They are cast as “engineers” at what’s called the Bridgestone Performance Testing Center. After the cameras roll, Ivar Brogger, an
Central to the ads are “performance footballs” and other tire-tread gear.
Photo by: RENE MACURA
experienced TV and film actor, delivers the line Bridgestone hopes will dimensionalize a brand that has seen awareness and share increase since it started buying top-shelf U.S. sports sponsorships in 2006:
“Bringing tire technology to the world of sports.”

With a PGA Tour deal, naming rights at an NHL arena in Nashville, and title sponsorship of both the Super Bowl Halftime Show and the NHL Winter Classic, Bridgestone now is adding athletes in an effort to reposition a brand that is perceived as a bit stodgy relative to its competition. Awareness is one thing, and sports sponsorships have helped increase that, but performance is another matter, and after five years as a major buyer of sports, Bridgestone is turning to talent to add that vital “performance” attribute.

So, as the engineer, wearing the only tie in sight, speaks earnestly to ESPN on-air talent Michelle Beadle about bringing that “tire technology to the world of sports,” Aikman shows he can still throw the football, and Sanders demonstrates beyond any doubt that his speed and agility have not slowed — at least, not noticeably.

“Troy Aikman and Deion Sanders are helping us test it out,” continues Brogger from the script in the next take. But those close to the action can see the footballs they are using are dark black and have tire treads on them. They are, as Beadle discovers, “performance footballs,” able to execute sharp turns in the same way performance tires allow a car to corner with ease. Special effects will show that using this special ball, Aikman and Sanders, teammates on the Cowboys’ 1996 Super Bowl team but who have never appeared in an ad together, can hook up in ways that redefine performance.

Aikman and Sanders are the first in a week’s worth of athletic talent that will be used in the campaign.

“I told Richards Group to show me the campaign I would never produce because it would be too big and expensive,” said Bridgestone CMO Phil Dobbs, under one of many tents erected on the football field for the shoot. “From my 20 years in packaged-goods marketing, I’ve learned you have to ask for that to see an agency’s best work. We had this affiliation with sports, and there’s an opportunity to connect the dots between performance on the field and tire
Bridgestone has built a name in sports through deals in hockey, golf and elsewhere.
performance.”

That “connection” is athletes.

It’s a coming out party of sorts for Dobbs, who started as Bridgestone’s CMO in June. Dobbs is no virgin when it comes to Super Bowl ads, though. While with Kraft, he did one with LeBron James for Bubblicious gum and another for Trident.

“It’s not about a Super Bowl spot. First we had to figure out our campaign,” Dobbs said. “But we’ve done enough testing to be confident. There’s a lot of mediocreadvertising out there now. We’ve got to break through.”

Early work on the campaign began in July. Mike Bales, Richards Group creative director, said they tested five different ad concepts with consumers in September. None of the others registered.

“This takeover of the sports world seemed like something a tire company would never do,” Bales said. “That’s what got consumers excited and us excited about doing it.”

The spot is well-cast, with the 6-foot-3 Nash and the 6-foot-11 Duncan riffing well on each other as basketball’s version of Mutt and Jeff.
Photo by: TERRY LEFTON
The next day, it’s off to the downtown Los Angeles Athletic Club, where there’s a basketball court outfitted as another Bridgestone Performance Testing Center. On the hardwood, the same engineer is telling Beadle how NBA stars Tim Duncan and Steve Nash are helping them test a basketball with the same Serenity technology that makes its Bridgestone Turanza tires so quiet. Even a frenzied and skilled dribbler such as Nash can bounce the ball silently — and the ball, again, looks suspiciously like a tire.

Like the others, the spot is well-cast, with the 6-foot-3 Nash and the 6-foot-11 Duncan riffing well on each other as basketball’s version of Mutt and Jeff.

“This is how you’re bringing tire technologies to the world of sports?” Beadle says quizzically, under a crush of cameras and lights.

At the end of each take, Nash heads down the court for a layup. He doesn’t miss one during a day’s shoot.

Richards Sports & Entertainment, the sports marketing arm for The Richards Group, handled the talent acquisition.

“We were looking for athletes with enough profile to get the performance message across,” said Dave Cagianello, brand management group head at Richards Sports.

“Then it got down to who was available, and in season, you really can’t get any high-profile active NFLers. Chris Paul was slated for the ad, but opted out because of his duties as a NBA player rep. Nash and Duncan were great and everyone really took to the scripts,” Cagianello said.

Actor Ivar Brogger (in white coat) and ESPN’s Michelle Beadle help deliver the message.
Photo by: RENE MACURA
Bridgestone will debut the campaign during the Winter Classic on Jan. 2. The first ad is a spot depicting a press conference, ostensibly at Bridgestone headquarters but actually filmed in an office park south of Los Angeles, in Irvine. There, our earnest chief engineer takes the stage addressing a group of media types, including NBC’s Mike Milbury, ESPN’s Barry Melrose, Dick Vitale and Adam Schefter, TNT’s Kenny Smith, and Alex Flanagan, who does double duty for NFL Network and NBC.

“At Bridgestone, we are highly passionate about tire performance,” Brogger says. “We are taking our passion and technology beyond the road and bringing them to the world of sports.”

With a flourish, other engineers pull back cloths shrouding tire-black balls from every sport — including a hockey puck. The joke is that the press corps, filled in by 40 extras, is entirely apathetic.

Even the loquacious Vitale has nothing to say. “Not too much of a smile,” director Erich Joiner of production company Tool tells Vitale, pointing a camera his way. “You can’t believe what you are seeing, so there’s just nothing to say.”

Vitale pulls it off in only a few takes. Like all the “talent” except for Beadle, he has no lines, which allows Bridgestone’s engineers and products to have a larger role.



Subsequent days see Kelly Kulick, the first woman to win a PBA Tour title, and Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, take their turns as tire technology testers.

Then it’s a rush to post-production, to get the press conference spot ready to show on NBC’s broadcast on Jan. 2. It’s a 60-second ad that will air three times. “Beauty shots” of tires performing must be added for the spot to be ready for the broadcast — and all that must be finished this week.

After that, Bridgestone and Richards will huddle to determine which of the other four spots are Super Bowl-worthy. The hockey spot is humorous and tested well in front of focus groups in September. Aikman and Sanders might fit well in the Super Bowl. But, essentially, this will be about instinct.

“Of course, the client has final say,” said Bales, during the editing process in Los Angeles. “You’re talking about the ultimate gut call. But we’re all feeling pretty good about this whole thing.”
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