André and Édouard Michelin had a mission, and they accomplished it through a brilliant example of content marketing—before content marketing was even a “thing.”
The year was 1900. Their tire company was 11 years young and definitely not the household name it is today. Only around 3,000 cars were rolling around in France at that point, so their goal was to increase the demand for cars, and in turn, the demand for tires.
To reach this goal, they decided to publish a guide to the British Isles. It would be full of useful info for drivers: accommodations, petrol stations, how to change a tire, maps, etc. They printed 35,000 free guides and distributed them to motorists. More tourists, more cars, more tires. Good plan, right?
Presto! Instant fame and success! Tire sales through the roof! Well…not so much. As the story goes, André was visiting a shop that sold his tires, and he noticed that a workbench was being propped up by copies of the guide. They weren’t exactly prized possessions. So he decided to try to add value to the guide by charging for it, and tweaking the contents.
The brothers categorized the restaurants, and removed ads (there’s a content marketing lesson in itself- saying farewell to ads.) The brothers realized the restaurant section was doing well, and they focused the guide on restaurants, created a team of “inspectors” and 26 years after the inaugural guide was published, the first stars were awarded to fine dining establishments.
Today, gaining or losing a Michelin star can make a restaurant sink or swim. The world’s top chefs wait on pins and needles to hear if they’ve kept their star, gained a new one, or lost a star. Culinary enthusiasts travel across the world to visit two and especially three-star restaurants.
Through an ingenious storytelling vehicle, a tire company became not only a household name for tires, but the world’s leading culinary authority. That’s content marketing if I’ve ever seen it. The Michelin Guide provided useful information to a specific audience with a specific goal in mind, all the while keeping the ultimate goal in mind: selling tires.
So what can we learn about content marketing from the Michelin Guide?
Learn from your failures
The guide wasn’t a smashing success at first, so the brothers pivoted and adjusted their approach. Sound familiar? Sometimes our well-thought-out content marketing falls flat, and we have to accept it, learn from it and get better through the hiccups. That willingness to be flexible paid off massively for Michelin.
Start with story
The Michelin brothers had a keen grasp on the importance of story and character—starting with the famous Michelin Man. “Bibendum” is the Michelin Man’s formal name, and it comes from the Horace quote “Nunc est Bibendum,” meaning “now is the time to drink.” Which is where I bring in this slightly terrifying, but historic image:
The copy translates as: “That is to say, to your health. The Michelin tire drinks up obstacles.” This iconic image takes a larger-than-life man made of tires to tell the story that Michelin tires will drink up the nails and obstacles the road brings. While not a great poster to hang in your toddler’s bedroom, it’s a beautiful use of imagery and story.
It’s the same with the Michelin guide. The idea of a book that helps you create a traveling adventure, all with the subtle reminder that “oh by the way, we make the tires your car is riding on” is a brilliant stroke of storytelling. And all the while, Bibendum (the Michelin Man) guides you along.
Focus on bringing value
What if the front of that first Michelin Guide said: “A guide to France, which you should see in your car, on which should definitely have Michelin tires, which by the way, we sell!” Tongue-in-cheek, of course, but you get the idea. We can smell marketing and salesmanship a mile away, and if you’re like most people, you run far away. André and Édouard understood that. The Michelin guide was, and still is, a useful guide. You know that a Michelin restaurant review is done by a professional, and a starred restaurant is worth your visit. It’s useful, it’s helpful, it doesn’t overtly sell—that’s top-shelf content marketing.
Keep the bigger picture in mind
André and Édouard wanted to boost demand for cars, and therefore tires, but they didn’t focus on that narrow goal. They focused on meeting a bigger need—providing a guide that would help people find the best spots across the British Isles. In the end, their company’s brand awareness went through the roof, and they became a food authority. Big picture thinking paid off.
Were the Michelin brothers thinking “content marketing” when they created the Michelin guide? Maybe not, but the concepts line up beautifully, and in the end, the benefits were huge. Centered around story and character, it focused on useful content with a bigger picture and goal in mind. And that’s something content marketers can drink to—or in this case—“Bibendum!”
Note: This originally appeared as a guest post on Anthony Gaenzle’s Integrated Marketing Blog.