The Greatest Logo in History
The remarkable success and longevity of the Michelin Man
The Michelin Man, official name Bibendum, is the greatest logo of the 20th century. Recognized in over 150 countries as the brand ambassador for the Michelin tire company, he has held firm as the most recognizable logo for more than 100 years. In marketing terms that is an incredible effort, when brands are constantly changing logos, designs, and in many cases, names.
The success of “Bibs”, as he is affectionately known, has been due to an excellent brand strategy that started long before many companies even focused on branding.
Michelin was founded by French brothers, André and Édouard Michelin in 1889. The idea occurred to them after helping a cyclist repair a flat tire. The brothers started manufacturing removable pneumatic bicycle tires.
The inspiration for what was to become the Michelin Man came five years later. Back in 1894, tires were white, and one day, the brothers noticed that a stack of white tires resembled the torso of a large man. This sparked André to contemplate how to leverage this idea to represent their brand. He enlisted the help of French cartoonist Marius Roussillon, who took André’s idea and created the poster below.
The slogan in French at the bottom means “the Michelin tire drinks the obstacle,” while the Latin phrase “Nunc est Bibendum” at the top of that poster means “now is the time to drink.” Although a little unclear at first, the thought behind the line was that Michelin tires could take on any road hazards and win.
The character took his name, Bibendum, from that slogan. Of interest, is that the two figures on either side of Bibs in the poster — who look a lot like Jabba the Hutt to me — represent John Boyd Dunlop (founder of Dunlop tires) and the head of Germany’s Continental Tire company. From the outset, Michelin wasn’t afraid to take on its competitors.
Anthropomorphism is not just a great word to play in Scrabble; it is also relevant to marketing. It means the humanization process of brands, to make the brand human-like, giving it a face, enriching it with stories, and connecting with customers. Michelin was the first company to do this, long before the term was attached to marketing. By making their logo a character and giving him a personality, it gave consumers a more emotional way to connect to the brand.
When studying marketing, Bibendum is often used as a case study as Michelin pioneered this marketing strategy. While their competitors simply sold tires, Michelin from the outset worked on building an enduring brand experience. This was unheard of 120 years ago, and the brothers have effectively influenced so many other brands to follow in their footsteps.
Think of Ronald McDonald and the Pillsbury Doughboy or more current iterations such as the M&M characters and the Geiko Gecko. All inspired by the original Michelin.
The human-like brand icon resonated with clients and provided a unique and memorable point of difference in what is a reasonably unexciting product category.
Bibendum soon became synonymous with the brand. He became such an icon, that in 1907 when Michelin launched a travel magazine, Bibendum had his own travel column.
Evolving the brand
The car industry was still in its infancy in the early 20th century. In France, there were barely 2,000 cars, and something like a road trip was unheard of.
The Michelin brothers realized they needed to expand the market and get more people driving and for longer. They wanted to shift the perception of driving from something considered as only done for short distances occasionally to a feasible way of covering long distances.
To this end, they created The Michelin Travel Guide. It contained a wide range of relevant information — where to purchase gasoline, restaurants, hotels, mechanics, and itineraries — all designed to encourage drivers to take trips and explore their country.
Of course, the benefit for Michelin would be that more driving equaled more need for tires. They wrote, produced, printed, and then distributed these free guides which grew in popularity. Front and center on the guides and amongst the information was Bibendum. Every journey, every road trip, Bibs was there with you. To offer advice and to make the best of each trip. They were evolving his personality and brand to incorporate information, expertise, and reliability. He became the motorist’s guardian angel.
The guides became so popular, they were expanded to include more countries, and in 1920, Michelin started charging for them. Soon, they introduced their own rating system to help their clients choose restaurants. This system still lives on with their famous Michelin stars — highly sought after by chefs around the world. Yes, this distinguished culinary award originated purely to sell tires.
Pop Culture Influence
Over the course of the 20th century, Bibendum continued to evolve, and his popularity increased. He was illustrated by famous artists such as Salvador Dali and after Michelin tires were featured as product placement in the James Bond film, A View to a Kill, found himself alongside James Bond himself in advertisements. Bibendum was cool.
He has featured in street art, satire, merchandise, and even furniture design. The famous 20th-century designer Eileen Gray made a chair that she said was based on his characteristics and named it after him.
To save you the trouble of looking it up, this chair sells for almost $3,400. Expensive, but hey, you would be sitting on a chair modeled after the Michelin Man.
In 2000, the Michelin logo was voted the greatest logo in history by an international jury of 22 designers, advertising executives, and branding gurus.
“He’s much more than an advertising tool or corporate logo,” said Édouard Michelin, the company’s chief executive at the time of the vote and the great-grandson of its co-founder. “He has lived through the whole history of the automobile. That gives him a status beyond any other type of corporate logo. He’s alive. No, really.”
As mentioned like all the best logos — Nike, Shell, McDonald’s — it has the power to stand alone. Just the picture of Bibendum brings to mind Michelin. I’m not sure that he is alive, but it’s probably as close as a brand logo will get.