Car tyres and oysters

How the Michelin brothers used fine dining to sell tyres, what we can learn from them and why they still stand out today, 117 years after.

In 1900 the tyre manufacturers André Michelin and his brother Édouard published the first edition of the Michelin Guide. It contained useful information for motorists, including maps, instructions for repairing and changing tires, and lists of car mechanics, hotels and petrol stations. Back then there were only 3.000 cars on the roads in France. The book was published in 35.000 copies. Did marketers have more guts back then, I wonder?

In the following years they started listing the best restaurants in France, then Belgium, Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and so on. Today the Michelin Guide collection comprises 26 guides covering 23 countries on three continents. It is a fair assumption that the guide itself has outgrown the tyre it is selling. It is an unparalleled success in marketing.

Today, 117 years after the first Michelin Guide was published, content marketing is at the peak of popularity. From Airbnb’s Neighbourhoods to Google’s National Parks, marketers are trying to inspire their users into new ways of using their product.

Despite huge investments, few brands get it quite as right as the Michelin brothers did back then (and still do).

To start with, the Michelin brothers gave the book away for free, but an experience at a tyre merchant in 1920 changed their approach. Andre noticed multiple copies of his beloved guide being used to prop up a workbench. Based on the principle that “man only truly respects what he pays for,” the brothers decided to start charging a price for the guide. Having people pay for advertising is a rare sight. It is proof that they made something that had risen above the level most branded activities reach.

There is a lot of good content marketing going on today as well. The examples I gave earlier, Airbnb’s Neighbourhoods and Google’s National Parks are both prime cases of that. IBM’s IBMblr and Nike’s Your Year could be others. What the good content marketing examples typically have in common is that they are more “Michelin guide” and less “tourist guide”.

What is it about the Michelin Guide and those alike that sets them a part from the rest?

First of all, recommendations found in the Michelin guides are not the sporadic findings of art directors and copywriters. They are the results of experts within their field. The experts are a rigorously selected and trained team of inspectors, who visit restaurants several times a year. They pay for the meals themselves and they are not allowed to take notes while dining. This way the inspectors can remain undercover, thus not getting a special treatment from the restaurateurs. It’s a completely uncompromising approach to the task.

The Michelin Guide has decided to be the number one authority in the fine dining category. This fact alone sets it apart from most content marketing. Usually marketing doesn’t dare to compete with ‘normal’ distributors of content. They accept to play in a lower league. That mind-set will not get you on everybody’s lips.

"Good content adds to our culture. Bad content is rearranging what already exists."

The Michelin guide is elevated above just inspiring its consumers to use more tires, it assists and helps them when they do. As Stefan Olander points on the efforts of Nike:

“People now demand us not to say ‘Just do it’, they say ‘help me just do it’. ‘Enable me to just do it’. And the role of the brand changes from one of inspiration to one of inspiration and enablement.”

The visionary French brothers used oysters to sell car tyres and created the first, and best, piece of content marketing long before the term existed. Their imagination, ingenuity and guts serve as an inspiration for today’s marketers to find their own oyster and prepare it with authenticity.

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