High Performance Tyres: the great white hope …
The global tyre market may be dominated by a handful of large players, with a number of “second row” players, followed by the rest of the world. The gap between the primary three and the fourth and fifth place manufacturers is considerable, and between the fourth and fifth and the rest of the market there is a considerable gap. However, the impact of the rest of the world on the market conditions enjoyed by the top five players is quite considerable. Tyre quality used to be such that there was a clear and distinct difference between the market leading brands of Michelin, Bridgestone, Goodyear, Pirelli and Continental, (and we must include Cooper here) and those of any of the other manufacturers. The reality though has been changing and increasingly brands from smaller manufacturers such as Toyo, Yokohama, Hankook, Kumho and latterly Federal have been increasing their market share by improving the quality of their products and building their brand image – often in the high performance sector.
Today, the market dominance of the key players is under pressure. Profitability is being eroded across tyre ranges by the increasing availability of low cost budget tyre brands. The commodity tyre requires no brand loyalty and sells on price alone. Thus, the high volume market necessarily targeted by the budget tyre manufacturers has largely become their domain. It has in essence been abandoned by the big brands. Yes, if you need a 155/13 from Michelin, or Goodyear you can still get it, but increasingly that tyre is being manufactured in a low labour cost centre in a joint venture with another tyre manufacturer who is also feeding his own budget tyres into the same market at a fraction of the price of the main brand names. If a big player is using a JV, or an offtake agreement in the Far East to fill commodity demands, he has surely all but abandoned that market. Indeed, if there is so little margin left in commodity tyres, if it were not for market shares, corporate egos, overall economies of scale and public relations where is the logic in continuing to offer branded commodity tyres?
The “great white hope” for the leading players, who have lost margins to the budget brands, is to develop a technologically advanced premium sector where quality and premium branding help create an exclusive market offering higher margins to the manufacturer, the wholesaler and the retailer. The high performance market offers just such an opportunity and the leading manufacturers are concentrating their efforts on the UHP sector in spades. Every new tyre launch is about UHP. Summer tyres, SUV tyres, winter tyres, all have an emphasis on the UHP market. Repeatedly the message is that the sector is growing in Western Europe and that it is destined to expand rapidly when Central and Eastern Europe follows the Western trend. However, it is not just a trend in Europe; it also follows in the USA – though perhaps surprisingly performance tyres account for only 13 per cent of the US market, whilst they amount to some 54 per cent of the European market according to Michelin; in Russia as an emerging market and in the Indian sub-continent – long ignored by the main brands as too poor an economy or too competitive a market. Here too the main brands are setting up camp and preparing to take market share from the domestic producers with high performance tyres. Pirelli being one of the first to see the potential and react with an improved sales operation.