Michelin Man: The Inside Story
Impersonating the famous tire guy, our reporter (above) bathed in love and in sweat. Nothing new for this 107-year-old icon. A true tale of serendipity, survival, and brand management.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – My field of vision is constricted because I'm peering out of the cheesecloth mouth of the costume, and I've been instructed to keep looking down lest the mascot's head appear to be rocking back unnaturally toward the sky. A battery pack strapped to my back powers two blowers near my thighs that inflate the suit's nylon infrastructure and its outer artificial-leather shell. The blowers are supposed to provide circulation too, but acrid sweat is already soaking through my third T-shirt of the morning. I can now make out a nearby family of tourists, maybe from India, on the Times Square traffic island where my handlers have led me. I waddle toward them, waving exaggeratedly. They reward me with startled grins and laughter and are soon taking turns posing for photos with me. Earlier this morning, after just five minutes in this bathysphere-shaped getup, the neural synapses that control my social inhibitions suddenly toggled off. As long as I was encased in this thing, people of all ages, races, and creeds would reliably respond to me with enchantment and glee. Accordingly, I could approach anyone. The most forbiddingly beautiful women; the severest, most humorless executives; the baddest, buffest bike messengers--they would all be flattered by my attentions, enthusiastically shake my hand, touch me, hug me. Whoever categorized goodwill as an "intangible" had obviously never spent a day as the Michelin Man.
Though most Americans recognize the Michelin Man--the symbol of what is now the world's leading tire company by market share (No. 294 on FORTUNE's Global 500)--their appreciation for him is only tread-deep. They think of him as a younger cousin to the cuddly Pillsbury Doughboy, who was created in 1965. But the Michelin Man has been promoting tires since 1898. Though not the oldest corporate mascot (the Quaker Oats Pilgrim goes back to 1877, and Aunt Jemima to at least 1893), he has probably been drawn, painted, sculpted, die-cast, injection-molded, animated, and pixelated in countlessly more postures--and in infinitely more imaginative postures--than they or most of their protégés put together, including the Morton Salt Umbrella Girl (1911), Mr. Peanut (1916), Betty Crocker (1921), the Jolly Green Giant (1925), and Reddy Kilowatt (1926). (I exclude Mickey Mouse, born in 1928, because he is Disney's product itself, rather than simply an emblem of its product.)
On the occasion of FORTUNE's 75th anniversary--a time of looking back and taking stock of societal change and corporate adaptation--we think the Michelin Man's evolution and remarkable staying power can teach us all something about creating, burnishing, and preserving an inspiring corporate identity in a changing world. Plus, we just think he's neat.
The Michelin Man was anything but cuddly in his earliest incarnations. He had a frightful, mummy-like aspect then, and sometimes appeared as a gladiator or a kickboxer. In the Italian market he was a grandiloquent memoirist, a nimble ballroom dancer, and an incorrigible ladies' man. Stranger still, back then he was known as the "road drunkard." To this day his official name is Bibendum, the Latin gerundive meaning "drinking to be done." The name comes from the first series of posters featuring him, which bore the Latin legend Nunc est bibendum--"Now is the time to drink"--and depicted the tire man hoisting a champagne goblet filled with nails and broken glass, sometimes garnished with a horseshoe. The seemingly tortured conceit, as the ad copy spelled out, was that "Michelin tires drink up obstacles"--i.e., they wouldn't puncture easily.
Yet what sounds today like a preposterously ill- advised advertising campaign made keen good sense at its moment in cultural history. And the quirkiness of Bibendum's origins is part of what inspires such loyalty among his fans today.
"I'm so happy you are writing on Bibendum, my beloved," says Paola Antonelli, the curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. "It's so funny how they picked logos in the past. Today it's a longer process of distillation--much more abstract. But he came from piling up tires, and his name from the fact that he could swallow obstacles. It's so serendipitous. It really sticks in your mind." In 2000, Antonelli was on an international jury of 22 designers, advertising executives, and branding gurus who voted Bibendum the "greatest logo in history" in a competition sponsored by the Financial Times and the Canadian magazine Report on Business. (The symbol for the London Underground came in second.)
"He's much more than an advertising tool or corporate logo," says Édouard Michelin, the company's chief executive 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."
In 1889 the brothers André and Édouard Michelin took control of a struggling rubber products business in Clermont-Ferrand, an industrial city in central France. According to the company's official history, a bicyclist came to their workshop in 1889 with a flat tire. Pneumatic (inflatable) tires had just been invented by John Boyd Dunlop the year before. Pneumatics provided a much more comfortable ride than the alternative--solid rubber tires--but they were subject to punctures, especially since roads were so poor. In fixing the flat, the brothers discovered that the customer's Dunlops were glued to the rims, making patches extremely time-consuming. They soon developed and patented a detachable pneumatic tire that could be repaired in 15 minutes or so. Next they pioneered pneumatic tires for carriages, and by 1895 an early automobile known as the Éclair (it looked like one) completed a 750-mile race on Michelin tires.
During this period Bibendum was in gestation. His first kick in the womb came in 1893 when André argued to the skeptical Paris Society of Civil Engineers that pneumatic tires could "drink up obstacles." Fetal Bibendum kicked again in 1894, when Édouard motioned to stacks of tires at an auto exposition in Lyon and commented to André, "Add some arms, and you'd say they were men."
Then, in 1897, while thumbing through a commercial artist's portfolio, André had a fateful epiphany. It was triggered by a sketch that had been rejected by a Munich brewery, showing a legendary king hoisting a stein and uttering a Latin toast. André told the artist, who went by the pen name O'Galop, to substitute a tire man for the king. In O'Galop's final version, completed in April 1898, Bibendum is flanked by two tattered, flaccid rivals who couldn't hold their rusty nails. To contemporaries, the competitors' caricatured faces were readily recognizable as those of John Boyd Dunlop and the then-chief of Continental Tire.
If Bibendum was made of tires, the reader may ask, why wasn't he black? Simple answer: Tires weren't black until 1912, when makers first began adding carbon black as a preservative. Until then they were either a gray-white or a light, translucent beige.
While it may seem astounding that a company would base an advertising campaign on a Latin motto, the Michelins weren't wooing the masses. Both motoring and bicycling were rich men's avocations. Accordingly, O'Galop's Bibendum was, like his customers, quite upper crust, smoking a fat Havana cigar and wearing a lorgnette.
André Michelin gave Bibendum his first speaking engagement in December 1898 at a Paris cycle show. He set up a large cardboard cutout of the tire man at the Michelin booth and hired a cabaret comedian to crouch behind it and provide in-character banter. According to a biography of Bibendum by Olivier Darman, André had specified that he wanted someone with "perfect elocution," "keen repartee," and "wit without vulgarity." So large a crowd is said to have formed around the spectacle that rival vendors became enraged, pushing and shoving broke out, and gendarmes had to be called in to restore order.
In those days competition was brutal, and so was Bibendum. One poster depicts him as a gladiator in the Coliseum, his sandaled foot across the throat of a writhing, bleeding tire man, with three tattered tire corpses littering the arena behind him. Competitors responded in kind. A maker of solid rubber tires depicted its own symbolic champion, a Pre-Raphaelite beauty, about to drive a huge nail into a cowering Bibendum, who abjectly begs for his life.
In 1907, Michelin launched a travel magazine in Italy, giving Bibendum a regular column. In one, he wrote of a Ball of Nations he had attended, praising ladies representing various lands. According to biographer Darman's translation, Bibendum addressed Italy: "O you sublime Madonna, Rome's destiny, accept my homage, you whose eyes shine with the splendors of the Renaissance." In an almost cruel postscript, Bibendum reported the crushing impact his social conquests were having on his rivals: "ashen-faced suitors with fixed smiles, living symbols of a shattered illusion." No Pillsbury Doughboy he!
With iconic status, alas, comes a certain responsibility to one's public. As a product succeeds, its mascot must appeal to a wider audience--and tone down his sharper edges. In the early 1900s, Bibendum swore off violence and began to strike more playful poses--say, riding a bike while flinging tires like Frisbees--and he increasingly defined himself as the motorist's guardian angel. In a 1914 poster he assists a family with a flat by donating the biggest, choicest tire from his own midsection, as an azure sky shows through the hole left in his abdomen.
These behavioral modifications were complemented by physical ones. As the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould once observed in an essay on Mickey Mouse, successful mascots frequently undergo an evolutionary process he called "neoteny": They develop increasingly juvenile physical characteristics, because those are the ones that we consider the most lovable and unthreatening. Like Mickey's, Bibendum's head over the years has grown larger relative to his body, his eyes bigger relative to his head, his jaw less prominent, his limbs pudgier. By 1925 he had discarded the lorgnette, and in 1929, during a tuberculosis epidemic, he gave up cigars too.
Some purists carp that Bibendum's evolution has left him too bland. "He's shed all the characteristics that made him endearing," says Scott Goodson, founder of the StrawberryFrog ad agency and a great admirer of O'Galop's Bibendum.
But MoMA curator Antonelli comes to the defense of her beloved. "We all evolve," she protests. "I think it's beautiful that logos have a life. It really highlights the visual history of the world."
To complete my research, I asked Michelin whether I could interview Bibendum when he next appeared in mascot form. A spokesperson explained that he is mute. "But you could be him, I suppose," she countered. I accepted.
A few weeks later, Matt Brady, co-founder of the Mascot Organization, is helping me into the $2,000 Bibendum costume that Brady usually wears himself when the tire man visits the Northeast. A product of computer-aided design, the costume is sewn together from 477 pieces. The company has about 100 of these suits.
"Try to keep both hands visible at all times in photos," advises Brady, "because of ... the Tigger incident." A Disney employee was tried last year on molestation charges after a 13-year-old girl said he'd groped her while dressed as the Pooh character. (The employee was acquitted.)
Brady also counsels me to beware of children who seem to be studying me. "Kids that are sharp look for kinks in your armor," he warns. They size up how the costume works, then sneak up and block the air intakes, causing you to deflate.
But I encounter no sabotage during my stint as Bibendum in mid-August, first at a meals-on-wheels event on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and later passing out tire gauges in Times Square. To the contrary, all I see is inexplicable good cheer.
Because he's silent, Bibendum is not a demanding role to play. (Virtually no mascots speak, since their sponsors can't control what they might say.) Bibendum is also mute in a series of television commercials produced for him since 2001 by the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency. His silence there is an artistic choice, says John Stewart, the creative director. "He's the strong, silent type." But that could change. "We're working all the time on new things," says Stewart. "Different aspects of his personality will come alive. [Americans will] learn more about him as time goes on."
At 107, Bibendum is still just finding himself.