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Michelin is the second largest tire company in the world.

If this isn’t already a great piece of statistics, then consider this – they manufacture tires for the fastest car in the world – the Bugatti Veyron (these Michelin tires set cost a whopping $42,000), they produce tires for the largest dump truck caterpillar in the world too, and wait – they also made tires for the Space Shuttle.

Incidentally, they also make tires for common folks like us. 😊

Impressed? You should be…but there are a lot more surprises in store.

Bibendum, commonly known as the Michelin man and the mascot of the Michelin brand appears in other uncommon places as well. You might just bump into him at the entrances of several fancy restaurants!! To be awarded the “Michelin stars’ is the ultimate rating that a restaurant can get. It is like the Oscars for world-class food and service.

Is ‘Michelin Star’ by the same Michelin that sells tires……well, yes, it is! But Why? What is the connection, then? Most people don’t know that they are connected, and even fewer people know the “why” of the connection. How did a tire company go on to give ratings to restaurants that have today become the most coveted evaluations in the culinary industry?

To find out the answers, we have to rewind back to more than a hundred years in history.

Humble beginnings of Michelin

To save an ailing family business, the Michelin brothers, Andre an engineer, and Eduardo Michelin a landscape artist took over the factory that specialized in manufacturing farm equipment, and spotting an opportunity, they quickly diversified into selling vulcanized rubber tires in the late 1800s about the time when the first automobiles were rolling out.

André and Edouard Michelin

While helping to fix a cycle tire in their factory, they chanced upon a technique that did not require the tire to be glued to the rim of the wheel, and thus was born the first detachable pneumatic tire that heralded the birth of the brand Michelin in 1889.

1900 was the year that saw the beginning of the first automobile boom. There were approximately 3000 cars in France at that time. The Michelin brothers who had invented the ‘replaceable’ air-filled tire were very ambitious. While their inventions may have won them some accolades, their lateral marketing strategies were far ahead of their inventions!

There are two ways to increase sales of tires – one at the time of selling a new car and the other by tapping the ‘replacement market’. While the former is dependent on the sale of cars, the latter depends on the usage. The more the usage, the faster is the replacement cycle. The Michelin brothers owned a rubber factory, and if they had to play a bigger role in this expanding market, they knew they would have to help ‘grow the market’.

The Birth of Michelin guide book

The automobile industry was in its nascent stage, and in keeping with their strategy of playing an active part in the cycle, they hit upon the idea of a guidebook. Guide books were in vogue then – Remember ‘Google’ came in 100 years later. 😊

The guide book that they came out for motorists had information that any motorist would need – a compendium of all the mechanics in France, instructions on how to replace a flat tire, the location of fuel stations, and ‘suitable restaurants and hotels for travelers to eat and stay while journeying across France along with a detailed road map.

It was one of its kind guides, as there was nothing quite like that in the market.

The Michelin Guide became an instant hit. It became such a rage that the brothers decided to launch a similar guide along the same lines in other European countries as well, and needless to say, it became a runaway success.

The first-ever Michelin Guide contained a list of restaurants that travelers could visit.

How “Michelin Star Restaurant” concept came into the picture?

In the 1920’s Automobiles became more common and people didn’t need to be educated on how to handle mechanical issues, change tires etc., so the brothers decided to increase the food section that had grown in popularity.

They had the foresight to juxtapose customer focus and rivet it onto their expansion plans. They decided to appoint full-time ‘food inspectors’ and food critics to review restaurants and rate the cuisine and service, anonymously. The company has retained this philosophy to this date. Only the best restaurants would feature in this guide.

In 1926, they decided to make it even more exclusive; after all, only the well-heeled could afford to purchase and drive a car, so why not. To make these restaurants more exclusive, they started ranking them and awarding stars. Michelin Stars. They followed this for five years awarding the best restaurants single Michelin star

What does Michelin Star restaurant actually mean?

In 1931, they decided to have 3 categories – 1, 2 and 3

1 star meant – high quality cooking, worth a stop

2 stars meant – excellent cooking, worth a detour

3 stars meant – exceptional cuisine, worth a detour

With this brilliant marketing move, the Michelin brothers managed to successfully dovetail this strategy to meet their end objective – make people travel more and then be a part of their journey, thereby meeting business goals.

However, they took the listing very seriously and had extremely sound philosophies and processes woven around the same. This rigor is followed even today. All reviews are done anonymously. They are then cross-checked and verified leaving almost no scope for error. These food inspectors or culinary spies 😉 are well trained and always visit the shortlisted restaurant in complete anonymity. They pay for their food and leave just as quietly without drawing any attention to themselves.

Since this was their single biggest differentiating marketing strategy, they wanted to be the best and continue being the best. These guides were extremely of high quality.

Initially, the guides were given out free of cost. Later they charged a small cover price that did not even cover the cost of production. But it didn’t matter as it was a ‘marketing cost/investment’ and came out of the marketing budget as this was the main marketing/brand strategy!

Power of Tag: Michelin Star Restaurant

Some critics even go so far as to say that the Michelin Guide is the Bible of the culinary world — it is that influential.

Its prestigious Michelin Star ratings can also be a huge game-changer for any restaurant. Those who receive a Michelin Star for the first time can expect a flood of customers to their establishment overnight.

Likewise, losing a Michelin Star can be devastating to the businesses of restauranteurs and chefs alike. It’s akin to having your gold medal snatched back right off your neck.

It was even reported that in 2013, superstar TV chef and decorated Michelin Star awardee Gordon Ramsay, once broke down when he lost two Michelin Stars for his New York-based restaurant, The London.

Many chefs and restaurants became famous and raked in millions of dollars by just receiving a rating. What Michelin has done for the restaurant business over a period of 100 years is unparalleled. What makes it all the more remarkable is that it was executed by a tire company.

In conclusion

By introducing a rating point – Star, they got the restaurants to compete fiercely, raise the standards of their offering and maintain their quality. Michelin’s customers and millions of others benefited from this

In its early years, the guide was constantly accused of including only expensive and luxurious restaurants in its list, especially French ones. It was often criticized as an elitist guide that gave no thought to the demands of working-class foodies.

In response to this Michelin immediately created a new segment in the guide called the Bib Gourmand- named after Bib (Bibendum), the company’s nickname for its logo, the Michelin Man. The special feature of the Bib Gourmand is that it must only offer menu items priced below a maximum determined by local economic standards.

In Singapore, where there is a huge proportion of the working middle class, Michelin has localized to give Michelin stars to affordable places in hawker centres, such as Hawker Chan Soya Sauce Chicken Rice. A plate there is only $2.

The quality of these guides was world-class – even though these guides’ production was not their main line of business, they ensured that whatever they did, it was executed in keeping with the highest quality standards. After all, it was their primary marketing strategy.

History records that when the Allied forces landed in France to take on the Germans in World War II, all the soldiers were given Michelin guide books, as they had the best maps and details of France! The quality of the guidebook just goes to show how seriously they took this marketing strategy.

In marketing and branding, they were far ahead of their time. Michelin was probably the first brand to have a mascot – a man made up of tires with an objective to communication. It’s still evergreen.

Michelin is a great example of successfully adapting a marketing strategy in line with the current market. The Michelin Guide or the Red Book was the bedrock of their marketing strategy.


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Sundar Kondur
Author

Sundar Kondur is a professional with experience in Brand, Media, and Strategy. Co-creating solutions with marketers/advertisers is what keeps him going on a professional front. On a personal front, he is an avid storyteller, lifelong student, prefers the outdoors, loves rock music, and is a big foodie. He is currently SVP with The Times of India Group.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Pankaj Singh Reply

    Cant even describe how thrilled i am knowing the journey of a Michelin narrated by Mr. Sundar Kondur. An insight so wonderful that leaves us eager to get more such stories from you in coming times.

    Thank you!

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