History of the Michelin Guide: A Marketing Triumph Like No Other
As far as marketing case studies over the past 100 years go, I think Michelin might be the most fascinating and most overlooked. Sure, we can talk about Apple, Red Bull and the disaster-at-first introduction of the New Coke... but nah, I want to focus on Michelin. And that's because in my 20 years of marketing experience I can think of no other brand that has built as much cache as Michelin, in a semi-unrelated field. Fine Dining expertise... coming from a tire company? Around the world, when it comes to the finest in cuisine, the Michelin Star is the undisputed benchmark. There is no other distinction for a restaurant that's more prestigious. Not Zagat. Not the New York Times, not Yelp. Nothing compares to the Michelin Star. So how did a tire company become the go-to source for the best restaurants in the World? Humble Beginnings The Michelin Guide is Europe's oldest and best known Hotel and Restaurant Guide. It all started at the turn of the century when very few cars were on the road (a few thousand in France). Andre and Edouard Michelin came up with a small guide with the simple intention of helping people navigate primitive roads with ease. The first copies were printed in France and gave motorists basic information like where to find gas, get repair or parts, etc. It was simple, and it was necessary.
Soon thereafter, the guide was published in other countries with more than just basic services information. It offered ideas for roadtrips and travel. The guide was a hit and was sought after in other European countries as well. Michelin was on its way to becoming the go-t0 source for travel.
The Michelin Guide
In 1933 the Michelin brothers expanded the guide by including restaurants in France along with a simple "Star" rating system. One star is for "very good cuisine in its category"; two stars represent "excellent cuisine, worth a detour"; and a rare three stars are awarded to restaurants offering "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey."
See which Cities and Countries have Michelin Stars
It is so difficult to receive 3 Stars that there are fewer than a dozen restaurants in the United States who have been awarded them. Some of the most notable are The French Laundry in Napa, Alinea in Chicago and Eleven Madison Park in New York City. Japan currently has the most (over 30) with France a close second. It's a grueling feat to get 3 stars and if you're still reading this you've got to check out the movie Juri Dreams of Sushi where you'll likely be shocked at apprentices training for over 10 years. Juri has 3 stars and he proves it a'int easy.
The Michelin Man
This doughy Stay-Puffed character is part of the guide, integral to the brand and has been around since before the turn of the century. He is one of the World's oldest corporate mascots. Aunt Jemima and Quaker have been around longer, but the list is short. His official name is Bibendum which translates to "Now is the time to drink" (yeah, more on that below) and he was first introduced in 1894 in Lyon by the Michelin Brothers.
As the story goes, while attending college Edouard and André Michelin noticed a stack of that tires that looked like a man and were inspired. Later, they met a cartoonist who had a character for a Brewery that he never sold. The cartoonist transformed the character into the Michelin Man who is one of the world's most recognised trademarks, representing Michelin in over 150 countries.
Is all this really a Marketing triumph?
Yes. While the Michelin Man himself is a nice corporate symbol, and arguably no cooler than the Philsbury Doughboy, Ronald McDonald and not nearly as interesting as Geico's Gecko - he represents more. Why I care is that it's almost impossible to find a parallel example. Even saying it is hard to believe: a tire company is THE undisputed last word on the world's finest restaurants? A list so chic that most people will never even visit one. WTF.
To put it into more context, think about all the abysmal failures when companies and people go outside their core competency. Donald Trump's lame attempt at sports with the USFL (remember that?). Kim Kardashian's credit card is the bottom of the barrel, then again she has no competency. Remember when Budweiser thought it was an entertainment company and created Bud TV? What a fail that was.Some have succeeded like Paul Newman making salad dressing, Nestle getting into the Coffee business with Nespresso and Nespresso cafes. Hooters is known for other things and that's been good for them. Oh and there was once a Tricycle Company named Bugatti that started making other stuff, and that worked.
But for Michelin, a brand that is associated with something as down and dirty as a tire and upscale as New York's Per Se, we give credit. While it's arguable that they were there first, if the products Michelin made weren't great, would the guide still matter? It's an interesting chicken or the egg. Shit, now I'm hungry.
Mark Fortner is a marketing and advertising executive who contributes on occasion to BoldRide.