The aim of all advertising is first to create recognition for a brand, and then, ideally, affection and loyalty. This can be achieved in a multitude of ways, but one of the best examples can be found in a symbol that is now 116 years old: the Michelin Man, or Bibendum, as he was formally known.
He is an unusual figure in logo design. A light-hearted, jolly character, the Michelin Man is more of a mascot for the brand, albeit a rather strange one constructed solely from tires. In this he is very much a product of his time, as design historian and curator Alain Weill suggests: “Using specific characters was the trend–the little girl for Menier, the Pierrot for Cointreau, and so on. The great thing with the chubby little man made out of tires is that he could be represented in various situations; the different possible versions is my favorite thing about him.”
The origins of the Michelin Man can be traced to four years before he was first actually drawn, when the Michelin brothers, Édouard and André of Clermont-Ferrand in France, attended the Lyon Universal Exposition in 1894. Legend has it that on noticing a pile of tires on the Michelin stand, Edward remarked to his brother, “Look, with arms and legs, it would make a man.”
In 1898, the Michelins’ concept was first painted by the poster artist O’Galop, the alias of the cartoonist Marius Rossillon. But the character did not acquire his Bibendum name until later that year. It is thought that French artist O’Galop first showed André a rejected poster he had made for a Munich brewery, which depicted King Gambrinus, the patron saint of brewing. The king was shown announcing “nunc est bibendum” (now it is time to drink), which was written at the top of the poster. This text remained on the artwork when O’Galop substituted the regal figure for André’s man of TIRES. At the Paris–Amsterdam–Paris race in July that year, the driver Léon Théry apparently shouted to André “voila Bibendum, vive Bibendum,” and in taking one of the words from the Michelins’ poster (Théry did not know Latin), inadvertently named their character. Compared to the cuddly mascot that contemporary audiences are accustomed to, early iterations of the Michelin Man come as something of a surprise.
Many of the posters from the early 20th-century depict him as a somewhat sinister figure, large and bespectacled and chomping permanently on a cigar. Initially he was shown drinking champagne, which linked to the Latinate toast, and this was reinforced by a strangely worded tagline that had been first mentioned in 1893: “À Votre Santé Le Pneu Michelin Boit L’Obstacle!” (The Michelin tire drinks up obstacles!). The poster apparently led to the character being known for a while as the “road drunkard,” an image that would be abhorrent to any car-related company today. But the Michelin Man learned to change with the times. In the 1920s he discarded his pince-nez eyeglasses, and also gave up his cigar (at the dawn of the motor age these appendages had helped him appeal to the very small, wealthy section of society that had the power to buy a car). The white tires remained, however, as an important visual throwback to his 19th-century origins. When Bibendum was originally sketched out, tires were light in color, and black versions only appeared in 1912 when a preservative, carbon black, was added to the manufacturing process.
By the 1950s he had become a more rotund figure, and was even depicted gaily rolling a tire along the road; a further 20 years on and he had transformed into a true cartoon, in one iteration dancing euphorically beneath the slogan “I’m clinging in the rain.” The 21st-century Michelin Man has slimmed down, and is even a touch macho-looking, perhaps in a reaction against Bibendum’s ongoing association with a larger than life existence.
Such is the public warmth toward the Michelin Man that he has on occasion broken out of the realms of advertising and entered other forms of popular culture. The company recognized this early on, and put him at the centre of their flagship Bibendum Building in London, built in 1911. Certain versions of Goscinny and Uderzo’s comic book, Asterix in Switzerland (including the English translation), see him make a guest appearance as a chariot wheel dealer; more recently he played a key role in the Oscar-winning animated short, Logorama, which saw two Michelin cops hunting down a villainous Ronald McDonald.
Heritage has also played a large part in his enduring presence and the success story of the brand. “Once a character becomes a popular icon, you don’t have to question if it’s good or bad,” says Weill. “At different periods Michelin stopped using him, but always came back to him. He has lasted so long because the brand did, which is not the case with many others who invented brilliant logos.”
Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the department of architecture and design at The Museum of Modern Art and notable Bibendum fan, points out that wide-ranging identity systems are today becoming the norm, instead of the single logo or mascot. “At that time, you used to have the newspaper, you had your garage, and you had packaging,” she says. “In a way, it was a set of applications that could be contained in a manual. Now, it’s much more complicated because the mediums are so dynamic and diverse.” That Bibendum is still with us in the 21st century, happily drinking up those obstacles–though no longer shouting about doing so–is testament to the rewards of sticking with a brilliant idea.