The real story behind Yokohama’s return to off-road racing


Perhaps the fact that 2019 was Yokohama’s 50th year of doing business in the United States (and 2017 was the company’s 100th anniversary) makes it just a bit easier to share a corporate tale that is refreshingly honest — especially because parts of that story are tinged with a bitter taste of defeat.

Or, maybe the “group think” within Yokohama’s California headquarters is that the time is ripe to share a timely optimism that’s been very long in arriving.

Whatever the reason, we sat down with a decidedly enthusiastic team of Yokohama marketing and motorsports executives about their newly announced 2020 off-road racing program that includes the addition of three-time Mint 400 winner Trophy-Truck racer Justin Lofton and Ultra4 star Levi Shirley (pictured above). The conversation quickly evolved from the standard PR small talk into a rarified glimpse at how complex such efforts can be to justify and execute from a corporate perspective.

A quick backstory is in order here.

Taking advantage of the sport’s corporate heyday in the mid-1980s to early 1990s, Yokohama’s original debut into both desert and short-course racing represented an all-out assault. Thanks to such innovative products as the Super Digger III and the support top professional and grassroots teams, the Japanese company’s reputation quickly elevated to surpass lesser efforts by other tire brands with the possible exception of rival BFGoodrich. Back then all of the major tire manufacturers had jumped into the sport, thanks in large measure to factory-level participation of many OEM truck manufacturers like Toyota, Ford, Chevrolet, Nissan, GMC, Mazda, Mitsubishi and even Isuzu.

In time, these massive tire wars receded in size and scope. Yet, a longstanding die had been cast that proved success in the sport also translated into expanded sales, authentic brand reinforcement and expedited product development. While there is always an ebb and flow of budgets, management philosophy and overall interest, Yokohama stayed connected to off-road culture at various levels, but without the product or corporate support to take on others for overall race victories.

“The first place to start is that Yokohama has been grounded in the off-road space in North America for decades now,” said Yokohama VP of Marketing Andrew Briggs. “In the recent past we have participating in both the desert and short-course worlds and, frankly, we failed. We didn’t do it right.”

You read that right. A highly respected automotive executive comfortable in clearly communicating failure without being cloaked in excuses or marketing doublespeak? Rather refreshing isn’t it?

For years the company worked to regain its top-level foothold in the sport, including the well-publicized support of the highly influential husband and wife team of Cameron and Heidi Steele. Those efforts to build a competitive product for the insanely challenging Trophy-Truck division went largely for naught as Cameron’s ability to run at the front of an increasing competitive arena was choked off by having to change a few too many Yokohama project tires. Steele eventually moved to the BFGoodrich brand in a difficult, but strikingly amiable, decision for both sides.

Yokohama’s new commitment to the off-road market represents a highly strategic plan that also required patience. It was based on three key ingredients; making sure it’s consumer light truck product line was upgraded, getting the right resources to build an all-new 39-inch competition tire and then leveraging an expanded Team Yokohama concept to communicate an authentic message to both the industry and the greater public at large.

“The biggest change from five years ago until now when we started this new initiative is that our replacement tire line-up has been injected with a slew of new products,” shared Senior Director of Product Marketing and Planning Fardad Niknam. “It’s a completely updated line-up that revolved around introducing seven new tires in that time period. We now have the newest and most robust line-ups of light truck tires in the industry.”

Once that was done, the group re-examined the off-road competition space and saw that it still held a viable and key opportunity to communicate that product evolution to the public and the Yokohama dealer network.

“Off-road racing has a really strong and vibrant base that really extends deep into a grass roots level that exists regardless of the economy or whatever,” added Senior Product Marketing Specialist Paul Algarin. “It will always have the Wild West attitude without the corporate blandness that keeps it authentic and dynamic.”

For Yokohama, the biggest piece of the overall puzzle in jumping back into top-level Trophy-Truck and Ultra4 competition demanded something missing from the recent efforts — a solid buy-in from the parent company in Japan.

“In our previous foray into the Trophy-Trucks we had a revolving door of engineers that batted the project around between the product planning side to the motorsports division and then back and forth,” admitted Briggs. It wasn’t a fully executed or planned platform, but now we have had a single engineer, leading a team dedicated to the project, who has come over from Japan for testing and racing for the past three years. There is now a dedication on their side, and a dedication on ours. That’s the backstory of how we got here today. We now have a competitive tire and competitive teams that are capable of winning at the highest level.”

With two tiers of Yokohama’s masterplan in place, the start of the 2020 off-road racing season finally brought with it this week’s announcement that Lofton and Shirley would take the project forward, along with extending their relationship with Wayne and Kristin Matlock’s winning Polaris-backed UTV program. Given the company’s year-old partnership with Crandon International Raceway, it is a good bet they will add at least one more major Midwest short-course racer for the upstart Championship Off Road (COR) series as well.

None of these decisions were made lightly but represented an important philosophy and selective process that went far beyond a winning record.

“Part of our 2020 story too is how selective we have been in the strategy of going to market and how we have taken the same stance in the racers that we have chosen,” shared Team Yokohama Manager of Events and Sponsorships Melissa Eickhoff. “It was an internal decision that we would not go out and try to buy everybody. We wanted the right people, the right spokespersons, the ones that really represent our brand but can, most importantly, bring authenticity and winning to Team Yokohama. What we get from a Travis Pastrana we feel we will get the same from a Justin Lofton, Levi Shirley and the Matlocks. They are going to be crucial in leading us back into the off-road community. We want those leaders first, before we open things up to the greater community. It’s a very slow and strategic plan, we are taking our time.”

“How they are as people is priority number one,” added Eickhoff. “If they don’t fit our brand or each other, it’s not going to work. There are drivers with bigger social media followers and budgets but that doesn’t translate into our strategy.”

“You know, Melissa hit the nail on the head and it’s something that many people don’t always understand,” Briggs added. “We could have thrown a lot of money at a lot of people and maintained a presence out there with logos on trucks. That’s not what we wanted to do. We want to compete and win, but with a new Yokohama style. All these things had to work in concert with each other. The plan isn’t to be the biggest, but the best.”

After years of work, resources and dedication, all that effort is now on the table in 2020. Certainly the upcoming King of the Hammers event represents a huge coming-out party for Yokohama, but a massive initial boost came from Lofton, who piloted his newly-shod No. 41 Jimco Trophy-Truck to third place (out of 34 total unlimited vehicles) qualifying performance for this weekend’s Best In The Desert Blue Water 425 desert kick-off race in Parker, Arizona.

“I have been here for 15 years, and it really feels like we are finally on the brink of a great future. There are a lot of people who think they know what transpired in that time, but they really don’t. There are maybe five of us in total,” confided Algarin.

“Now we have made a commitment to coming back, identifying the space as an important one to us in terms of being tied directly to the needs of our overall business,” Briggs concluded. “Those needs are selling light truck tires, because they represent the ideal customer to Yokohama. They are willing to pay for performance. That’s where we feel we have a competitive advantage. Off-road racing is an avenue to put that brand on a pedestal and show what it can do at the highest level.’

‘We are not as small as people think we are, but we are the right size to be nimble enough to pull off programs like this one without being weighed down by a big burdensome corporate overlord. We like where we are and what we represent.”

 



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