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Michelin Man Brand
 

Michelin Man - Pumped


  Michelin Man
pumped
by Jackson Mahr
January 3, 2005

You can go into any bookshop in any big city and find a reference book that will tell you how you should best be applying personality to your brand—how you should be giving your brand a face and an intangible human-ness that will make consumers personally engage with your brand and feel warmer when buying the product it represents. Chapters and volumes and libraries are devoted to the subject. However there is a brand that has been doing this long before we imagined that a brand could be something more than a stamp on the side of a delivery truck.

 
 

The Michelin Man, otherwise known as Bibendum, is the ultimate in personality-driven branding. Inspired by a man-shaped pile of tires that the Michelin brothers originally saw at the Lyon Universal Exhibition in 1894, he started out as a fairly spooky looking character—a fat foppish aristocrat with a monocle—and evolved into an adored symbol recognized worldwide.

From a design perspective, the Michelin man has an extraordinary versatility. Every major organization has volumes of instructions that tell you that their brand needs to be a certain size and particular color, that it needs a certain amount of white space around it or must never appear in a certain position on the page—all very rigid and tightly managed rules that conventional thought says enhance a brand’s strength.

Michelin tends to break most of these rules when it comes to Bibendum. Brands are supposed to be consistent, they’re not supposed to change shape; Michelin’s brand smiles, waves, runs, folds his arms and could probably play pétanque. His actions don’t erode Michelin’s brand recognition—he’s still the Michelin Man.

If other brands with more abstract logos want to project a happy warm image, there is a lot of marketing and persuasion involved in getting an abstract logo or typeface to take on a warm human quality—not to mention a great deal of cash. For the Michelin man to do it, the brand managers simply draw a little smile. Bibendum’s color is a brand manager’s dream come true—black and white: easy to manage, cheap to print, no fussy Pantone colors.

Bibendum started life looking the way individual commissioned artists painted him. There wasn’t really any consistent style to him apart from being fat and being made of tires. This meant that he was the subject of portraiture rather than a consistent graphic device. A slicker line drawing version appears now; the version we are all familiar with has lost all graphic reference to being made of tires. Today, he is a little thinner, a lot friendlier and appears as a bouncy soft version, safe for children to cuddle at public events. The Michelin Man’s message has always been about safety and his marshmallow physique reiterates this like an airbag (Michelin Man shaped airbags—now there’s an idea). The simplicity of the lines makes a potentially complex shape into an easily recognizable (and reproducible) icon.

The mark of a brand’s strength is when its logo can stand alone, without a name, and retain its recognition. Nike, Apple and Shell have all achieved this status. Michelin certainly has the same recognition value, and graphically Bibendum can stand alone.

Bibendum could be considered a naïve brand—one first conceived in the days when a brand could just as easily be invented by the driver of the delivery truck as the boss. There were no brand consultancies, no focus groups and certainly no Pantone color charts. Other brands like Levi’s, Oxo and Shell were developed in the same sort of vintage and fashion. Nowadays it is doubtful that a brand consultancy would name an oil company after an explosive device, or a crustacean. Branding meant something different back then. That’s the charm of naïve brands—the people who invented them didn’t have a corporate track record to refer to and therefore came up with ideas that possessed a kind of innocence.

Another naïve move is to have the same brand for tires and tourist guides. This sprung from a marketing idea that said “You have the tires, now here’s where you can go on them.” Today it would be considered a little odd, if not obtuse marketing behavior to have the same brand for tires and restaurant guides; it would be a little like Chanel delving into the auto parts business or Goodyear selling frozen dinners. Today we would not only make books a sub-brand of the Michelin brand, we would probably be inclined to distance them altogether by devising a totally different brand.

Creating a brand involves stretching the product’s message beyond the product itself. Good brands don’t just say, “We make a good product,” but “Our great product will make your life better.” Michelin does this in a way few other brands do. It makes the brand feel safe, fun, happy and humorous. Bibendum is retro chic, a French national icon, a spokesperson and a jolly decent chap who probably wouldn’t mind babysitting your kids on a Friday night. In his naïveté, he teaches us not to be so stodgy with our brands, let the reigns a little loose and have some fun. Flexibility, warmth and personality count for a lot and can mean more to consumers than consistency, order and the right shade of red.

 
     
  

Jackson Mahr is a director of Kodimedia, a London based design and brand consultancy.

  
     
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