Behind the story of a brand is a desire to solve a problem, often in new ways. Innovative companies don't stop there, they keep asking better “what if” questions, gaining insights on how to improve the product or service. Product use creates a feedback loop. To get more product in market and use, organizations create demand.
The secret to establishing an enduring brand is a strong reputation based on deep relevance. It's a process of discovery for users of the product as much as it is for the producers. When relevance goes deep, it becomes shared meaning.
Start small, build on success
Édouard Michelin and André Michelin were two brothers who ran a rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand, France. The story has it that a cyclist stopped by the factory with a pneumatic tire in need of repair. In 1889, tires were glued to the rim, so a repair took three hours — remove and repair, then leave it overnight to dry.
Next day, within a few hundred meters the repair failed. The setback did not deter the brothers. Further development on the pneumatic led to a patent for the first removable pneumatic tire in 1891. Using the tire that same year, Charles Terront, the cyclist, went on to win the world's first long distance cycle race — the Paris–Brest–Paris.
What happens when the rubber meets the road set the stage for the company's success.
Solve the real problem
A flat tire is bad enough. Not being able to repair it easily is much worse. Solving the real problem also helped save time, something that would come in handy in competitive racing. But this solution still left the problem of getting a flat tire. It's never convenient to be left without a ride.
Michelin worked on a fix to being unable to ride potentially in the middle of nowhere. In 1934 it introduced the run-flat tire — a tire that, if punctured, would run on a special foam lining. The easier to handle radial tire came in 1946. Delivering savings in fuel costs helped spread the new invention throughout Europe and Asia.
Consumer Reports' “superior” rating of the radial tire construction in 1968 made the company known in the U.S. where radial tires now capture 100% of the market. Michelin's numerous inventions also include the removable tire and the pneurail, a tire for trains made to run on rails.
In 1989, Michelin acquired the tire and rubber manufacturing divisions of the American firms B.F. Goodrich Company (founded in 1870 and recently merged) and Uniroyal, Inc. (founded in 1892 as the United States Rubber Company). The purchase included the manufacturing plant in Norwood, North Carolina, which supplied tires to the U.S. Space Shuttle Program.
Focus on improving performance
Market expansion helped the company diversify. In 1972, Michelin joined MotoGP, the Grand Prix of motorcycle racing introducing radial construction in 1984 and multi-compound tires ten years later. The company introduced the radial tire to Formula One in 1977.
Extreme uses provide the best testing conditions for tires. But MotoGP riders switched to Bridgestones as early as 2007 after complaining about performance. Errors of judgment in allocating adequate tires for some of the race weekends compounded the issue. Michelin returned to MotoGP only in 2016.
F1 followed a similar pattern, with some political issues in the mix as well — participation between 1977-1984, and rejoining in 2001 with significant improvements starting in 2005 and withdrawal in 2006. Michelin is involved in endurance races such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the American Le Mans Series.
Another extreme sport Michel participated in was the World Rally Championship. It traded places with Pirelli briefly between 2008-2010, but then came back.
Michelin's performance is rooted on the belief that progress should never stop. The company's purpose to “find a better way forward for everyone” came from the idea that “mobility is essential for human development.”
Align purpose and experience
Michelin's focus on innovation translates into a vision for a safer, more environmentally friendly product. Its vision for the future involves connecting R&D and circular economy through a “4R strategy,” reduce, reuse, recycle, and renew.
With a production of 187 million tires in 2016, sales of Michelin tires were up 8% for passenger cars and light trucks in Q1 2017 and a surge demand for CrossClimate and Pilot Sport 4S lines. In the same period, Michelin introduced of new mountain bikes tire ranges#.
To this day, Michelin continues to be one of the top recommended tire brands. Consumer Reports says they
Back in 1900 when Édouard and André Michelin were helping Terront win the world's first long distance cycle race, there were fewer than 3,000 cars on the roads of France. Races helped test and refine the performance of tires, but that requires only so many tires.
Cars were quite new, and the specter of the war was still at bay. To increase demand for cars (and tires), the brothers published a guide to help French motorists find restaurants, hotels, gas stations, have handy tire repair and replacement instructions, and maps — thus the Michelin Guide was born.
That first year, distribution of the free edition of the guide was 35,000 copies. Four years later, Belgium had a Michelin Guide. Algeria and Tunisia had their own in 1907. The Alps and the Rhine (northern Italy, Switzerland, Bavaria, and the Netherlands) followed in 1908. Then Germany, Spain, and Portugal in 1910, Ireland and the British Isles the following year, along with "The Countries of the Sun" (Les Pays du Soleil) (Northern Africa, Southern Italy and Corsica). In 1909, an English-language version of the guide to France was published.
After an interruption due to the war, the guides reappeared in 1920. The story has it that André Michelin noticed copies of the guide being used to prop up a workbench in a tire shop he was visiting. Based on the principle that “man only truly respects what he pays for,” Michelin decided to charge a price for the guide, which was about 750 francs or $2.15 in 1922.
Restaurant listings were becoming very popular, so they started organizing them in categories. The brothers recruited a team of inspectors to visit and review restaurants anonymously. They added hotels beyond Paris, and stopped placing advertisements in the guide.
Earn stripes with stars
Hence the star ratings were born. They went from one in 1926 to up to three in 1931. With the restrictions of post war Europe, only two stars were awarded. Curiously, the Michel Guide to Italy debuted in 1956 with no stars. The first U.S. guide covering Manhattan debuted in 2005.
In an article for The New Yorker, John Colapinto talks about the anonymity of the inspectors:
Michelin has gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain the anonymity of its inspectors. Many of the company's top executives have never met an inspector; inspectors themselves are advised not to disclose their line of work, even to their parents (who might be tempted to boast about it); and, in all the years that it has been putting out the guide, Michelin has refused to allow its inspectors to speak to journalists.
The inspectors write reports that are distilled, in annual “stars meetings” at the guide's various national offices, into the ranking of three stars, two stars, or one star—or no stars. (Establishments that Michelin deems unworthy of a visit are not included in the guide.)
Today, Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy has earned three Michelin Stars for exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey. Our highest award is given for the superlative cooking of chefs at the peak of their profession. The ingredients are exemplary, the cooking is elevated to an art form and their dishes are often destined to become classics.
Of course, now it's possible to find the ratings and reviews online using Via Michelin#, a service that designs, develops and markets digital travel assistance products and services for road users in Europe.
Michelin the brand has also earned its stripes with branded searches. When we compare Michelin to tires in Google search trends, they're still pretty close in results today. This is particularly true when compared to other branded search terms for tires.
Publishing resources for travelers earned goodwill and associated the name Michelin with travel. Today, the Michelin Guide is still synonym with quality based on its rating system, as restaurants around the world continue to promote the prestigious stars.
The stars have become shared meaning, they're relevant to travelers and restaurants, and keep the Michelin name front and center in people's minds.