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Michelin Advertising – Suicidal Change?

Over the years, AutoPacific has conducted a considerable amount of research on tires and tire advertising. One of the biggest blunders we have seen in recent years has been the shift by Michelin from its baby in the tire advertising to a refocus on the Michelin Man – Mr. Bibendum.
We can only guess that this change was brought on by new management at Michelin (not invented here – the previous management didn’t know what they were doing philosophy) or present management just growing weary of the same old successful baby in the tire advertising. Remember, advertising is only as strong as the management directing it.
Michelin’s Baby in the Tire Extremely Persuasive
In focus group after focus group one of the first things people remember about tire advertising is Michelin’s baby in the tire campaign. The second is Goodyear’s blimp. Michelin’s baby-oriented theme ran for years – maybe decades and was respected for continuity almost as much as BMW’s Ultimate Driving Machine message. The baby clearly communicated safety and security and hit the heart stings of every woman in the research.

Michelin Baby in Tire Ad.jpg

One advertising critique describes the Michelin baby campaign this way: “The message here, of course, is “if you don’t lay out the extra cash for Michelin tires, you are going to kill your own child.” Too obvious and crude to fool anybody? Nope. “We are so proud of the impact the baby campaign has had over the years,” remarks a Michelin “brand manager.” “It’s rare for an advertising campaign to have this kind of longevity and influence on an industry.””
Michelin Man New.jpg

So, faced with a long running successful campaign, Michelin shifted to the Michelin Man and killed the baby. Not that we don’t like the Michelin Man, we do, but there probably was room for both.

Advertising Age Review of Michelin Advertising Over the Years

Advertising Age describes the Michelin Man advertising in glowing terms. Introduced in 1898, the Michelin Man was an idea conceived by Edouard Michelin. Advertising Age explains:
“Andre Michelin commissioned the creation of this jolly, rotund figure after his brother, Edouard, observed that a display of stacked tires resembled a human form. The artist’s sketches of a bloated man made of tires was exactly what the brothers had in mind.
Michelin Man Velo.jpg

One in particular, picturing the character lifting a beer glass and shouting, “Nunc est bibendum! (Now is the time to drink!)” seemed to embody Michelin’s slogan at the time, “Michelin tires swallow up all obstacles.”
The artist reworked the hulking figure, replacing the beer bottle with a goblet of nails and glass that the character rose in a toast to all road hazards.
Today, the Michelin Man is one of the world’s oldest and most recognized trademarks and it represents Michelin in over 150 countries.”
In researching this brief blurb on Michelin’s advertising, we found Google overflowing with links. A scholarly book has even been written on Michelin advertising. The review of the book is found below the fold.

Marketing Michelin: Advertising and Cultural Identity in Twentieth-Century France
Harp, Stephen L., Marketing Michelin: Advertising and Cultural Identity in Twentieth-Century France. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001
Reviewed for EH.Net and H-Business by Esther Redmount, Department of Economics and Business, Colorado College
“With few exceptions (food, shelter, sex), our needs are cultural . . . ” — a short pithy way of summarizing the now vast literature of consumption theory and, in effect, inviting us — historians, anthropologists, sociologists and economists — to question taste. If we accept that things have cultural meaning and that personal satisfaction is somehow tied to the cultural meaning of things, cultural constructs can be devised to play on that meaning and, in so doing, promote and sustain or alternatively, diminish and redirect, demand. Those are the basic premises behind marketing in general and advertising in particular. Identity is bound up with what we eat, wear, drive and play.

Michelin Man Rolling.jpg

It may also follow that we, the historians and archaeologists of culture, can gain insight into social, political and even economic constructs by focusing on the ads and marketing gimmicks of a bygone era which manipulated the sense of identity for economic ends. Promoting and sustaining a demand for tires was the raison d’etre of the Michelin Company, or so I would have said prior to reading a new book from Johns Hopkins University Press, Marketing Michelin: Advertising and Identity in 20th Century France, by Stephen L. Harp, a historian of France at the University of Akron. One happy and, I would suspect, intentional outcome of this exploration in economic and cultural history is to make overly reductionistic readings of firm behavior passé.
Michelin Man Bike.jpg

Michelin is a fascinating company, worthy of study, in several respects. The name itself is associated with high quality automobile tires and longevity in a highly concentrated, rivalrous industry. It is also the source of the ubiquitous red and green guides that define tourism for many of us. Though it did not invent the star system of restaurant ratings, Michelin’s ranking of restaurants has enshrined fine dining in the consciousness of many. And there are few who would not recognize what Americans call the Michelin Man, though as Harp reminds us, his name is Bibendum and a great deal of effort went into making him recognizable to several generations of potential buyers of tires.
The Michelin name is also associated with innovative wage and payment systems, an outgrowth of the Michelin brothers’ commitment to both Frederick Winslow Taylor and their own very public, pro-natalist positions in the inter-war period. How, Harp asks, are we to understand the investment in these highly visible, but seemingly tangential forays from the main enterprise of producing and selling tires and what does the very nature of these marketing ploys tell us about France, the French and the market?
Harp is not the first in this field of cultural production, but his approach is an illuminating one. Demand for tires is, as economists would say, a derived demand and therefore not a commodity whose meaning is easy to decipher. Tires “derive” their value from their complementarity to various modes of transportation. Why should the consumer pay any more attention to the tire than they do to the spark plugs or distributor caps of their cars? It is fairly easy to see how identity may be bound up with the kind of car you drive though, in fairness, marketers and advertisers have been at work a long time to make that connection clear.
Harp’s answer is to show us in a thorough and convincing way the evolution over time in Michelin’s use of Bibendum and its regular written publications, Le Lundi and the development of its red and green guides. What started out in the late 19th century as a mode of instruction for the users of a new product quickly became the means by which those with time and means could get off the “beaten track.” Being able to get off the beaten track was equated with the luxury of touring, and the message that this required not only maps and other guides, but good tires, was not lost on bicyclists or drivers at the dawn of the motoring age. Later in the history of the company, exploring the highways and byways of France was given explicitly patriotic and later religious overtones, as drivers made the pilgrimage to WWI battlefield sites. Over time, the Michelin tire became the means to fulfilling what began as a pleasure and mutated into a sacred duty. Still later, Michelin would tie good tires to the business of transporting the nations’ goods, thereby completing the process of transmuting what had once been a luxury into a necessity for the individual and for France.
Harp’s chronological approach has much to recommend it. In using the passage of time to move his narrative along, he emphasizes Michelin’s agency in the process of building its market. He can also extract a great deal of mileage from the ambiguity of saying Michelin. Does he mean André, the marketing genius who lived in Paris and devised much of Michelin Tire’s advertising agenda? Does he mean Edouard, the production genius who organized and oversaw the factory work in Clermont-Ferrand? Or does Harp refer to the company as distinct from the actions of the brothers? Where is the agency in a family firm? Did the Michelin company support pro-natalist policies as a means of selling tires or did the elder brother use the resources of the company to promote a personal agenda? While the ambiguity may not trouble cultural historians, economists have a narrative of how firms as agents behave and it would be illuminating to have this ambiguity further explored.
The chronological approach also allows Harp to put structuralist and post-structuralist theory in his footnotes. Letting his narrative unfold with the 20th century obviates what many readers find tendentious anyway. The repetitions that sometimes occur when history or advertising repeats itself may be a small price to pay for a simplicity of presentation that avoids controversial meta-narratives.
The downside of the chronological approach may be apparent only to the economic and business historians in Harp’s audience. Economists and business historians tell stories that suggest that markets have structures that impinge on the agency of individual players. The use of marketing and advertising are tactics in a basket of strategies firms might pursue to obtain market power. What does Michelin’s history — in particular its highly visible marketing strategy — tell us about the construction and maintenance of market and political power in highly concentrated industries? More economic data, presented much earlier, would have been helpful. It is not that Harp does not offer some background on Michelin’s major competitors; rather, these data are not presented until two-thirds of the way through his text. Given Harp’s access to company records, it would also have been illuminating to know more about the profitability of the family firm. Sprinkled here and there through the text (a by-product again of a chronological approach) are inklings of how Michelin fortunes waxed and waned, but only inklings.
Stephen Harp’s Marketing Michelin is a fascinating, well-researched book. His strengths as a historian and speaker of French are well displayed here. His archival work is also very impressive. If the book does not entirely succeed in its objective to wed cultural and economic history, it is certainly a worthy effort in that direction.

1 Comment

  • Bob Metz| March 21, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    Whoever wrote the title “Michelin Advertising – Suicidal Change?” clearly never actually read the article — or the review. Making the change in their marketing approach from the baby ad to Bibendum is _not_ clearly a suicidal change, and the article (and book review) never actually make that point.
    The writer states that “One of the biggest blunders we have seen in recent years” is the change in Michelin ads from the baby to Bibendum, but never even suggests that this contention can be supported, and does not offer any proof. He says, “faced with a long running successful campaign, Michelin shifted to the Michelin Man and killed the baby,” but offers no evaluation that this is a “suicidal” move. Nor does he even suggest that he has a reason for the statement (other than, perhaps, his own taste in the advertising).
    Personally, I like the Bibendum ads, especially from an historical perspective. I was never particularly fond of the baby ads. So whose taste is the proper arbiter here?
    I’d suggest that the writer make a more persuasive point — or take the headline writer to task for bending the meaning of the article and review to sensationalize the subject to incite readership. Pooh.
    Hi Bob:
    Frankly, I like the Bibendum ads as well. The point is that such equity had been established with the baby in the tire that the baby and the safety message had become synonymous with Michelin. Moving to the more frivolous Mr. Bibendum positioning removed much of the strong safety message. If Michelin wanted to enhance Mr. Bib perhaps they should have used him as an overlay to the baby. Sorry, killing the baby – or even deemphasizing the message – still seems like folly.
    Maybe not as much folly as Michelin pulling out of last year’s Formula 1 race in Indianapolis.

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