Motoring, marketing, and the story of the Michelin Man
Michelin is the world's leading tire brand and has been for 120 years, but the Michelin Brothers did far more than just make good tires. Born in 1898, Bibendum (the Michelin Man) has communicated Michelin's message across the entire history of the automobile. A rare original Bibendum poster printed in 1910 is going to auction in Paris this week at RM-Sothebys and the competition to own that poster could be intense as it is far more than automobilia – it is a landmark in the history of advertising and marketing and a gilt-edged investment.
The word branding evolves from the 2700 year-old practice of humans burning their mark into the skin of animals to claim ownership. Corporate branding attempts much the same thing with the human mind.
The idea of developing a symbol to indelibly imprint an enduring relationship on the consciousness of the public is relatively recent in the commercial world, having first taken flight in the 1870s when the first trademarks were registered.
Concepts such as corporate identity, company logo, advertising motto, and brand experience did not coalesce into an industry until the 1950s, as commercial broadcasting (radio, then television) enabled far more cost effective communication with the masses than newspapers, and the psychology of mass communication became an art form with scientific underpinnings.
The Michelin Brothers appear to have intuitively understood this protoscience long before it became high art, and whereas their competitors sold tires, their body of early work in building an enduring brand experience shows immense foresight, because they began developing a more sophisticated form of branding, a human-like brand icon and a much broader brand experience long before there were textbooks on the subject.
Humanizing the brand is now termed Brand Anthropomorphism, and the Michelin Man is now the classic business school example on how to do it right. There may have been brands prior to Michelin, but none with anywhere near the enduring top tier performance.
Bibendum, as the Michelin Man became known and loved, has been with us almost as long as the automobile itself, communicating Michelin's message better than a human company spokesperson could, using crafted human-like attributes, traits, and emotions.
We often write about the dreams of individuals becoming reality. Sometimes people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk achieve it in their lifetime. Most often though, the baton is passed to others and the ultimate fulfillment of the dream occurs long after the founder's demise.
Just as with the Battista Pininfarina story we covered recently, I feel certain the Michelin Brothers would be very proud of what has been achieved in their name, and in this particular case, what their pseudo-child, their most enduring legacy has grown up to become.
According to Brand Directory, the Michelin tire brand was the most valuable tire brand in the world in 2018, worth $7.93 billion in its own right. A substantial part of that brand value can be attributed to the natural marketing genius of Edouard and André Michelin, the brothers who founded their company on May 28, 1889, just one year after the invention of the pneumatic (inflatable) tire by John Boyd Dunlop. Until that time, all tires had been solid rubber.
The brothers ran a rubber products company in Claremont Ferrand in France, and the Michelin Man was conceived at the Exposition Internationale et Coloniale in Lyon in 1894, when Edouard noticed a stack of tires and remarked to André that it looked like a human being without arms. Just what happened beyond the "eureka" moment, or during the gestation phase of the concept has been lost to history, but the first image of the Michelin Man was finished in April 1898, in the poster below.
Between 1894 and 1898, the concept of an anthropomorphic representation of Michelin's tire business had grown with bicycle sales and the advent of the automobile. It is believed that André Michelin began working with a commercial artist by the pen name of O'Galop during 1897, and the above promotional poster is the only surviving relic of the development of the idea.
The Michelin Man's name, Bibendum, subsequently derived from this initial poster. The Michelin company catch phrase at that time was "Le pneu Michelin boit l'obstacle", meaning "the Michelin tire drinks the obstacle", and the Latin phrase "Nunc est Bibendum" at the top of that poster means "now is the time to drink." On either side of the inaugural Michelin mascot were caricatures of John Boyd Dunlop (founder of Britain's Dunlop Tyres) and the other is purportedly meant to be the head of Germany's Continental Tire at that time, symbolizing Michelin's primary rivals in the quest to win the custom, hearts and minds of the European public.
Instead of what would customarily be served in and toasted with, the champagne glass in the poster contained the "obstacles" that tires of the era had to contend with – errant horseshoe nails, glass, metal shards and rocks. In 1898, 99.9 percent of European roads were unpaved, road traffic consisted of horse-drawn carts and bicycles, and automobiles were only for the fabulously wealthy. The pneumatic tires they rode upon were made of real rubber, not the resilient and durable synthetics of today. Fixing punctures and changing tires was commonplace given the deplorable conditions, and despite the embryonic technological development of the automobile, tires were still the weakest link in the chain.
The first public appearance of the Michelin Man was the Exposition Internationale d'Automobiles in 1898. Organized by the Automobile Club de France (ACF), the Exposition Internationale d'Automobiles subsequently became Mondial de l'Automobile (Paris Motor Show), the world's longest running automobile exhibition.
France was the epicenter of the global automobile industry prior to WW1, and the ACF was responsible for organizing not just the first international motor show, but the great city-to-city races of the period – the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux, 1896 Paris-Marseilles, 1897 Paris-Dieppe, 1897 Paris-Trouville, 1898 Paris-Amsterdam, 1898 Paris-Bordeaux, 1899 Paris-Bordeaux, 1900 Paris-Toulouse, 1901 Paris-Bordeaux, 1901 Paris-Berlin, 1902 Paris-Vienna, and the 1903 552 km Paris-Bordeaux race that was intended to be the first leg of the 1307 km Paris-Madrid race in 1903.
Motor racing on public roads was folly to begin with, but was banned after scandal erupted during that 1903 Paris-Madrid race when the race was stopped by French authorities in Bordeaux, with half the participants having crashed or retired, and eight people (three spectators and five racers) dead.
International events did eventually follow, becoming the grandest of them all, with both the 1907 Peking-Paris and 1908 New York-Paris becoming the stuff of legend, but following the madness of the 1903 Paris-Madrid event, racing on French roads that were not closed to the public was banned, resulting in the world's first Grand Prix in 1906.
Grands Prix are commonplace these days, but in the beginning, there was one, it was recognized globally and it was held by the ACF. It would later become the French Formula One Grand Prix, and the now universal usage of the term "Grand Prix" all began with the ACF's pioneering efforts in 1906.
The first public appearance of the universally recognizable character that has lived through the entire history of the automobile occurred on the opening day of Exposition Internationale d'Automobiles and Michelin's heritage department thankfully has an image that captures that momentous occasion (above). The exhibition (pictured both above and below), opened in Jardin_des_Tuileries (Tuileries Gardens) near the center of Paris, on June 15, 1898. On the above photograph of the Michelin stand, note the prominent Michelin catch phrase "boit l'obstacle" and the concentration of bicycle tires. There were very few cars on the roads in Europe at the time, and in the late nineteenth century, the bicycle had become the first new personal transport machine since the horse and cart.
The automobile had captured the imagination of the public however, particularly due to the average speeds attained by the winning cars in the ACF city-to-city races that had begun in 1895. The 1898 exhibition showed 232 different models from 77 manufacturers and 140,000 people attended. The horseless carriage had come of age, and while the battle was still on for the primary motive force (steam, electricity and petroleum powered a substantial percentage of the vehicles on display), all the cars used tires, and Michelin was on home ground ... at the epicenter of the fledgling global automotive industry.
By 1900, France was easily the world's largest producer of automobiles, producing nearly 5000 cars a year, more than all the other countries in the world combined. Even Germany's largest car producer, Benz & Cie, sold far more cars in France than it did in Germany.
There were more than 100 car manufacturers in Paris at the turn of the century, ensuring that Michelin's tires were being exported across the world as the new century unfolded. By 1903, more French cars were sold internationally than domestically, and one third of the more than 7000 exported cars were being sold in Great Britain.
America though, was quickly looming as an unstoppable competitor, overtaking France as the leading car manufacturer in the world in 1904 by volume and in 1905 by value. By 1907, America's 250 car manufacturers were producing more cars (44,000 per year) than France, Britain and Germany combined, and America's more equitable income distribution and far higher average wages put the dream of personal transportation within reach of the common man.
Ultimately, America would start behind the European countries in its quest for mass personal transport, but it would put the freedom machine in the hands of the people a full generation ahead of Europe.
From five vehicles for every 1000 Americans in 1910, there were 86 vehicles for every 1000 people by 1920, and by the end of WW2, Europe lay in ruins while America's homeland was untouched by war and there were 220 cars for every 1000 people. In just a few decades, one in five Americans had purchased a car. Next to a home, it was the most expensive discretionary purchase most people ever made and car ownership would eventually reach eight in 10 Americans.
Production continued to grow rapidly in Europe between 1900 and 1914, despite America's rocketing economy and production numbers, as the supply of automobiles could not match the global demand.
Not surprisingly in such a bullish marketplace, with strong competition and rapidly evolving technology, the capabilities of the car progressed at warp speed.
Our extensive feature on The fastest cars in history: 1894 to 1914 details the exploits of Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat and his first automobile land speed record of 63.1 km/h (39 mph) set on December 18, 1898 and his rivalry with Belgian Camille Jenatzy. Billed by the newspapers as a duel between the "Electric Count" and "Le Diable Rouge" (The Red Devil), the initial the initial record was broken five times in four months before Jenatzy (pictured below), cracked the 100 km/h mark and settled the dispute with an emphatic 65.8 mph (105.3 km/h) on April 29, 1899.
The Red Devil's new speed record made the pages of every newspaper in the world, and although the standard imagery associated with the record is the main image above, his tire sponsors ensured the French public knew of their involvement, once more using Bibendum to great effect.
Those early 1895-1905 races that captured the imagination of the public with incredible point-to-point average speeds, were also an opportunity that Michelin did not miss. The old adage of "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" worked not just for the manufacturer of the winning cars, but much more so for the manufacturer of the winning tires, which were relevant to everyone with a car. Once more, the unambiguous imagery of Bibendum's involvement ensured advertising cut-through no competitor could hope to match. Michelin still had to win the races, which it did, but the Michelin man ensured the message was delivered to the public.
In those early races, such as the Paris-Bordeaux (top left), Bibendum was the perfect visual link to the win. Similarly, in the top right advertisement (circa 1903) entitled "Distribution des Prix", Michelin's wins in the 1896 Paris-Marseille, 1898 Paris-Amsterdam, inaugural 1899 Tour de France Auto, 1900 Paris-Toulouse, 1901 Paris-Berlin, 1902 Paris-Vienna, 1903 Paris-Madrid, 1903 Circuit des Ardennes, and 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup could be visually represented in a single glance. The later (c. 1908) advert at bottom left may not be as clear as it is disdainful of the competition, but the packages being carried on the camel are labelled with famous wins including the Targa Florio and Grand Prix.
Bibendum was an ideal character to let loose into the real world for a bit of promotional fun too, appealing to children in particular, the population in general and to promote a brand of tire into the consciousness of the population at a time when car ownership was growing rapidly. The above images were all taken prior to WW1 beginning in 1914, and cover America, France and Germany. We all know the Michelin man, and it wasn't by accident that Bibendum's image is easily recognized in each human's personal image library.
The evolution of Bibendum, by which name Michelin's human-like mascot was known across France within a decade, was remarkable. The above photograph from the Michelin stand at the 1913 Salon de L'automobile illustrates the growing sophistication of Michelin's marketing and promotional efforts. Centered on the inflated Michelin Man protecting four children, the much larger and uncluttered stand demonstrates both a child and a female changing a tire, and numerous representatives on hand to sign up distributors.
Just what France's automotive industry could have become, and how big Michelin might have become is now a matter of conjecture, because World War I soon destroyed the economies of all of the major European countries, plus much of the infrastructure and the industries that had been repurposed for war.
The Michelin Guide
The marketing flair of the Michelin Brothers continued beyond inventing Bibendum in 1898, as in 1900, the company began publishing a guide for French motorists.
The Michelin Guide included maps, tire repair and replacement instructions, car mechanics listings, car dealership listings, hotels, restaurants, post offices, telegraph offices, public telephone locations, petrol stations and Michelin stockists across France and proved an invaluable promotional item in enrolling devotees to the brand.
The guide was given away free, and became a companion for motorists across France with more than 35,000 copies of the first edition finding their way into car gloveboxes. This was a time when gloveboxes really did have gloves in them ... and the Michelin Guide to consult for advice.
Despite the massive non-paid circulation, the invaluable publication more than paid for itself as it contained advertising from all the car and accessory manufacturers other than competitive tire manufacturers, and was simply a well-produced book with a non-traditional publishing model. An ingenious non-traditional publishing model.
Cars were not nearly as reliable a century ago as they are today, and knowing where to get mechanical assistance if something went wrong, where the nearest gas station was, and where to stay when touring the French countryside was vital information that was not easily accessible. Telephone penetration was still in its infancy in the first decades of the twentieth century. America led the way with one telephone for every 60 people, while France had one telephone for every 1216 people.
The Michelin Guide proved to be such a success that a free guide to Belgium followed in 1904, French possessions Algeria and Tunisia in 1907, Northern Italy, Switzerland, Bavaria, and the Netherlands in 1908, an English-language version of the guide to France in 1909, Germany, Spain, and Portugal in 1910, Ireland and the British Isles in 1911, and Northern Africa (largely still under French control), Southern Italy and Corsica in 1911.
It is still published to this day, though Michelin now charges for the guide. It is, like Bibendum, one of the most successful corporate communications campaigns in recorded history.
In 1910, the first stand-alone Michelin road maps appeared, the first maps specifically designed to meet the needs of motorists. The maps compact using a patented "accordion" fold and between 1910 and 1913, all of France was compressed into 47 maps drawn on a 1/200,000 scale.
The Michelin star system for grading restaurants
In 1926, Michelin went one further step entwining its brand with travel to unfamiliar places, developing a three-star fine-dining rating system to assist drivers in choosing food facilities. An entire industry has grown supporting the needs of road travelers since then –dining, fast food, accommodation, comfort, baby changing and shower facilities. Michelin was the first company to foresee this industry by publishing this information.
Beyond just a memorable logo, good branding increases the value of a company. A brand represents the sum of people's perception of a company's customer service, reputation, advertising, and logo.This 1910 poster embodies both excellence in, and the history of brand communications.