Michelin's approach to marketing: Then and now
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The brothers Michelin
When brothers Edouard and Andre Michelin took over their grandfather’s family business in the 1880s, it was in the hopes of reviving a failing company. Michelin et Cie. mainly made vulcanized rubber products for agriculture, small tools, and other farm equipment. But in 1889, a cyclist came sniffing around their rubber factory, hoping to repair his flat tire.
At the time, wheel repair was a time-consuming affair involving gluing the tire to the bike’s rim and drying it overnight. Andre developed the world’s first removable pneumonic tire, which you could easily attach and detach to the wheel, making repairs a breeze.
From there, they were off to the races—literally!—and their little family biz was now cranking out prototype after prototype of high performance, road-ready tires for bicycles and, not too much later, automobiles.
As the moneyed class started to buy cars, the brothers began printing a little guidebook to help new car owners find gas, mechanics, and restrooms. The rest, as they say, is marketing history.
Michelin brand history
1886: The first automobile was patented
1889: Michelin is incorporated
1891: The first pneumatic removable bicycle tire debuts in the Paris-Brest cycle event
1894: Introduced Bibendum, the Michelin Man, at the Lyon Exhibition
1896: 300 Paris taxis run on Michelin pneumatic tires
The Michelin guide was born
1900: First Michelin guide published
1903: The first Tour de France
1904 - 1911: New editions are published in English and French for Belgium, Algeria, Europe, and northern Africa.
1912: Tires went from white to black due to the addition of carbon to strengthen and preserve the rubber
1922: They begin to charge money for the guide, with Andre Michelin citing “Man only truly respects what he pays for” as a reason
1926: The Michelin Guide finalizes its star rating system
1934: Michelin acquires Citroen and saves it from bankruptcy
1945: Invented the Radial tire
1989: Michelin acquires B.F Goodrich Company and Uniroyal, Inc. in the United States
2005: Michelin publishes its first American guide for New York
Nunc est Bibendum
The Michelin Man is one of the greatest and most recognizable mascots of our time. The tubby and huggable figure has been part of Michelin history since 1894, though he’s had a few makeovers.
The image for the iconic mascot was inspired by the sight of a stack of bicycle tires at the Colonial Exposition in Lyon. Edouard had the idea to give the pile some arms and legs, and four years later, with the help of a cartoonist, bam: Bibendum was born.
Back then, France’s advertising was dominated by newspaper ads and, increasingly, poster advertisements. These posters were not just effective advertising, especially in tighter urban cities like Paris; they were also a burgeoning art form that had strong ties with French culture and identity. The best-known examples of poster art from this era include Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s work for Le Moulin Rouge and vintage absinthe ads that still paper over French bistros worldwide.
The name Bibendum comes from the phrase Nunc est Bibendum, Latin for “Now is the time for drinking” (from Horace’s Odes). Early ads depicted him as a self-assured party host holding up a coupe glass full of nails and broken glass in a toast, glinting through his pince-nez, promising to “Drink up all obstacles,” towering over a set table.
With this poster and art direction, Michelin made a clear and targeted play to align themselves with French nationalism and the bourgeoisie class, which proved to be effective in France and across Europe.
These days, automakers might run through a few more options before showing their mascot, knocking back champagne and outwardly catering to the richest of the rich, but this was France during the Belle Époque.
But as times changed, so did Bibendum. Over the years, they tested thinner and wider versions of the Michelin Man. They also did away with the booze and showed a more down-to-earth, relatable version of him as cars began to enter the middle-class market and as the world economy took a downward turn.
Now he’s a cheerful three-dimensional figure who looks at once both reassuring and huggable, in a paternalistic way. He’s not quite a stack of tires—though they did briefly attempt to turn him black when special black carbon was introduced to the tire-marking process in 1912, without success—but bouncy and tough, just like a good tire.
Michelin guide content marketing strategy
The Michelin guide has long been synonymous with white tablecloths and the finest of fine dining, but its first issue, released in 1910, was much more practical than pretentious.
Back then, there were fewer than 3,000 car owners in France. There was no established road system, let alone gas stations, and very few mechanics who knew how to operate modern cars. These early car owners were, for the most part, driving blind.
It was also when early tires did not breeze down those primitive dirt roads quite as easily as you’d assume. Cars and bicycles also shared road space with horses and carriages, which left nails scattered across the surface. Between a limited fuel capacity, the looming threat of tire-puncture-by-horseshoe-nail, and no reliable commuter maps to tell you where you were going or how to get back, or where to fill up on gas or find a public washroom, people were not going on long road trips.
But Michelin changed all of that.
Owing to Edouard Michelin’s early career as a government cartographer, the company was able to put out accurate, reliable road maps that also included a directory of pharmacies that sold gas and a simple manual for basic car repairs, and, shortly after, as drivers began to venture out further out, information on hotels and restaurants.
With the quick and explosive success they saw in France, Michelin added more regions to their guides, publishing new issues for Algeria and Tunisia, and other French-speaking countries.
Turning readers into buyers (of tires)
There were 35,000 copies of that first issue in 1900, and they were handed out for free—a shocking investment for a small tire company with a customer base that realistically capped at 3,000.
But they weren’t just selling tires. They were selling the dream of car ownership. They knew that 90% of their readership weren’t going to be drivers but aspiring drivers. And aspiring drivers would one day become existing drivers—and drivers need tires.
The guide was a brilliant content marketing strategy. Here are their keys to sustained success:
- They invested heavily in high-value content—They were playing 3D chess, content-wise. Another tire company might resign themselves to the deeply unsexy work of designing tire ads for some automotive magazine. Michelin printed and published the magazine and stuffed it with, yes, ads, but also tons of useful and applicable information that nobody else had. That opened up the opportunity for a deeper relationship with their customers.
- They created the framework around cars—At the time, cars were toys: Novel ways for rich people to pass the time. But the guide visualized a future where private cars became a reliable mode of transportation. It also armed car-owners and prospective buyers with the tools to make it a reality. And more cars = more tires sold.
- They saw well beyond the early adopters—They knew that for every car owner, there were at least ten people interested in cars and the potential this new technology held. They gave these people more reasons to buy cars: Just look at all of the places they could drive to.
- They catered to the interests of their demographic—They knew that anyone who could afford a car could also wine, dine at nice places, and pay for finer experiences. The inclusion of suitable restaurants and hotels, later ranked by quality, gave drivers a purpose to take their cars out on the road.
- They made themselves indispensable—Michelin became so well known for their maps that during World War II, Michelin maps were highly relied upon by militaries on both sides (their 1939 guide was reprinted in the US and the UK and stamped with the words “FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY” and slipped into the pockets of military officers en route to France ahead of D-Day). This established their corporate authority across Europe and the world. After all, if the army was relying on Michelin’s expertise, everyday drivers could as well.
FUN FACT—Michelin didn’t just stop at helpful printing information to further the automotive industry. They went as far as to campaign for numbered roads across France and then helped introduce road signs to create safer driving conditions for drivers.
The Guide takes a delicious detour
By the 1920s, the guide had evolved into something that motorists were now paying for. The content was changing too: It was clear that readers were no longer just looking for mechanics and toilets, but also for better, more unique dining experiences that were found in farther-flung French locales. In other words, their restaurant section was blowing up.
So they shifted gears. The Michelin company hired a team of anonymous inspectors to review and assign star ratings to restaurants and hotels, giving drivers added incentive to drive out further to try notable restaurants.
By 1936, they had nailed down the rating system that we have come to know today. Their star rating was, and continues to be, based on distance-worthiness:
- One star: restaurants considered very good in its category;
- Two stars: restaurants worth the detour;
- Three stars: restaurants showing exceptional quality, worth a memorable trip.
From the way back in 1926, it was becoming crystal clear: Michelin was no longer simply peddling tires. They were, in fact, pioneers in the auto-tourism market. These famously top-secret food critics have become a major pillar for the Michelin Guide brand, earning the reputation of utmost discernment and trustworthiness.
Over the next century, they expanded into different French-speaking markets and then across Europe and the world. The first Michelin Guide for the US was published in 2005 for New York and its five boroughs, covering 500 restaurants and 50 hotels. Their Tokyo edition was published in 2007, with new Asian cities added almost annually.
These days, restaurants in the highest echelon live and die by their star ratings, with millions of diners flocking to newly awarded restaurants every year.
Tourism has gone way beyond roads and highways. Dedicated foodies and moneyed travelers aren’t driving to the world’s top restaurants; they’re hopping on planes. Yet the Michelin guide employs hundreds of anonymous food critics worldwide to dine on three-figure meals and sleep in four-figure-a-night hotels—on the company’s dime, no less—for content that most readers can access for free on the Internet.
The profit figures are not disclosed, but the company has admitted that this aspect of their business is an investment, underwritten by their marketing department, rather than a money-maker.
So what’s in it for them?
- It aligns them with the luxury class—Just like when they catered to rich leisure drivers in the early 1900s, they’ve found a way to maintain a loyal readership in one-percenters and aspiring one-percenters who equate the Michelin brand with premium quality and refinement—and the cost that comes along with it.
- It keeps them in contact with their customers—People change their tires every few years, depending on where they live. However, new guides come out annually, with a fresh new press cycle. The regular use of them also helps to maintain a casual relationship with customers outside of tires.
- It keeps them in contact with governments—Just as Michelin provided military support in the form of top-tier cartography during World War II, they now support tourism bureaus by encouraging travel to their countries—with, controversially, a generous kickback, too.
- It is its beast now—Even though Bibendum still presides over Michelin Guide awards ceremonies and press conferences, most people forget that it’s the same, Michelin. The Michelin Guide no longer sells tires but rather itself: One legacy business has become two over the last century of guidebooks.
Michelin sports marketing
As a legacy brand, Michelin’s involvement with motorsports can be traced back through the history of the sport itself.
The first time Michelin sent out a set of wheels for competition was way back in 1891, at the Paris-Brest-Paris cycling race, with Charles Terront at the helm. They had just patented the first detachable bicycle wheel, and Terront won easily due to his skill and determination and a truly game-changing set of wheels. On Michelin’s tires, he suffered fewer wheel punctures, and even when he did, he was able to get back on the road in just 15 minutes.
From there, they started organizing races and sending out professional racers on their wheels to test out the new products and to generate more buzz. Not long after that Paris-Brest-Paris race, they organized a race from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand. They even scattered nails across the roads just to prove the wheels’ durability: An early publicity stunt that demonstrated the tires’ awesome capabilities.
Their first automobile tires debuted in the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race in 1895, considered the first motor race in history. Even though Andre Michelin, who was driving the Michelin-built L’Eclair, placed last, they finished in glory (that they finished at all was a feat—only 9 drivers made the finish line).
Through the course, L’Eclair broke down multiple times and even caught on fire, but the tires had proven their worth. From that point, detachable pneumatic wheels became a staple of motorcar racing.
Since those early years, Michelin has been heavily involved in motorsports. As a manufacturer, they’ve seen a 23-year run of consecutive victories in the Le Mans 24 Hours Cup, one of the oldest endurance races in the sport, and 102 victories in Formula One. They are also the official tire of several competitions, including the SportsCar Championship Canada series and the European Le Mans Series.
Marketing experiences, rather than things
France’s first cycling races were marketing events. Similar to how Red Bull revolutionized daredevil sports events to sell more energy drinks, races in the early 20th century were organized and sponsored by newspapers and magazines to sell more issues.
It was beyond flashing a logoed banner at the finish line: These newspapers would organize ambitious, multi-day cycling events and retain full reporting rights to them, which boosted circulation throughout the races, which stretched on for days.
The first Tour de France in 1903 was organized by L’Auto daily newspaper to outsell a rival newspaper to put them out of business. L’Auto at the time was part-owned by a group of politicians, automakers, publishers, and Edouard Michelin (Michelin penned a hugely popular column that went out every Monday about tire ownership and auto maintenance).
For the Tour de France, L’Auto’s publishers maxed out their expenses by putting on a previously unheard-of 21-day race affair.
The stunt worked: With this one race, they doubled their circulation and succeeded in putting Le Velo out of business.
Motor racing isn’t just about the thrill and the skill; it’s about the equipment.
Your family’s SUV may not look anything like a NASCAR race car, and a packed highway at rush hour couldn’t be further from a closed circuit. But a lot is linking these speed machines to the average passenger vehicle—Namely, research and development.
Race circuits are considered testing grounds for all facets of vehicle development, from tire modeling to fuel efficiency to software development. A lot of what goes into a race car ends up on suburban streets.
Michelin invests about 700 million euros annually in R&D, and motorsports are the most effective way to test-drive some of their latest innovations under a highly challenging yet controlled environment—all under the public eye.
Michelin has always been oriented towards supplying technical information and value-added content to their customers, either through the Guide or their media appearances.
By nailing race day performance, they end up reaping rewards elsewhere, both in reinforcing their reputation as technical experts and being able to apply their technology to passenger cars, trucks, and aircraft across the world.
Innovation is still at the forefront of the Michelin brand. After they revolutionized the bicycle tire with their detachable pneumatic tires, they put out a patent for the first radial tire, featuring crisscrossing rubber grooves that add durability and momentum to the vehicle. These are their two best-known innovations; others include the world’s biggest tire (designed for transport in mining), the first connected tire for aircraft, and the first sustainable range of tires, introduced in 1992 to reduce fuel consumption.
Michelin is a globally recognized company on its own. Still, its name is aligned with luxury and premium quality goods and services—while that might suit the wealthy just fine, the brand’s reputation puts them out of reach for most vehicle owners in the world.
To capture a range of different markets worldwide, most of Michelin’s products don’t bear their name on them. They operate under Michelin, BF Goodrich (a sports performance tire company), and Uniroyal (value-minded passenger cars and SUV tires) in the US. They also own Kléber tires in the UK, Camso in Canada (which manufactures off-road vehicles like agriculture and construction machinery), and all types of other tire distributors and manufacturing companies worldwide.
They directly sell to customers, but they also offer their products as a subscription service to manufacturing and mining companies (like Caterpillar), integrating smart tracking technology to let companies know when it’s time to change their tires.
Michelin has made it so that for every vehicle and customer, there’s going to be a tire suited to their needs, at any price point and industry.
The Michelin Guide still garners a strong international following, with new editions released each year covering different cities in the world. Their success has become a double-edged sword, as chefs and restaurant owners began a trend of giving back their stars, unprepared for the waves of bookings that each new rating gives them.
The Guide has also been criticized for favoring French and Japanese cuisine over others.
The restaurants they feature have also changed: No longer do they exclusively feature the finest of fine dining. In the 2010s, they started introducing more non-restaurant meals into their guides, from gastropubs to street food vendors.
The brand saw a promising opportunity in the European online restaurant reservation platform Bookatable but sold it in April 2021 after five years of ownership and partnership with TripAdvisor.
As they’ve learned, their challenge is to continue diversifying their products and demographic targets to keep up with the rapidly evolving consumer landscape—one which relies less on vehicle ownership than before and which has grown tired of the formerly flashy trappings of wealth and luxury.
As Michelin goes forth into the future, it is well prepared to meet society’s changing needs and values. With its strongholds in all types of manufacturing and commuter vehicles. Motorsports and tourism can pivot and adjust their advertising as needed to capture new audiences across the world.