The current Michelin man logo
The aim of all advertising is firstly to create recognition for a brand and then, ideally, affection and loyalty. This can be achieved in a multitude of ways, but probably one of the best examples can be found in an instantly identifiable symbol that is 113 years old: the Michelin Man.
Michelin Man, or Bibendum as he is formally known, is an unusual figure in logo design. Light-hearted and jolly, he is more of a mascot for the brand, a cheerful figure constructed from tyres. In this he is a product of his time, according to design historian and curator Alain Weill. “Using specific characters was the trend,” he says. “The little girl for Menier chocolate, the Pierrot for Cointreau etc…. The great thing with the chubby little man made out of tyres is that he could be represented in various situations – the different possible versions is my favourite point about him.”
“It was a time in history when there was less of a self-consciousness about a logo’s impact, and more of an attempt to find mascots,” agrees Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at MoMA in New York. “Bibendum completely embodies this particular moment. It is a mascot, and in that you can say it’s much more sophisticated than so many other logos, because it’s today that we’re looking for that kind of biomorphic embodiment that really makes people attached to things. So it was very much ahead of its time. What does it say about the product? Not much after all. It just personifies it and gives it more affinity and emotional connection to users.”
The origins of the Michelin Man lie four years before he was first drawn, when the Michelin brothers, Edward and André visited the Lyon Universal Exhibition in 1894. Legend has it Edward noticed a pile of tyres on the Michelin stand and commented to his brother that, “with arms, it would make a man”. From this kernel, the beloved mascot grew. He was first painted in 1898 by the poster artist O’Galop, the alias of Marius Rossillon, and was apparently an immediate success.
Compared to the grinning character that we are accustomed to now, early iterations of the Michelin Man may come as something of a surprise, however. A series of posters from the early 20th century depict him as an almost sinister figure, large and bespectacled and chomping permanently on a cigar. His name, Bibendum, first appeared on the original 1898 poster as part of the Latin verse ‘Nunc est bibendum!’ [Now is the time to drink!], with the mascot shown beneath the slogan raising a huge champagne glass in a toast. The reference is put in context by further text stating ‘A Votre Santé Le Pneu Michelin Boit L’Obstacle!’ [The Michelin tyre drinks up obstacles!], though 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 Michelin Man learnt to change with the times. By 1950, he had shed the cigar and was shown cheerfully wheeling a tyre along the road, while a charming poster from 1975 shows him in true cartoon mode, dancing euphorically beneath the brilliant slogan ‘I’m clinging in the rain’. Fast-forward to today’s Michelin Man and we have a slimmed down, more macho-looking version, perhaps a reaction against Bibendum’s ongoing association with plumpness, highly discouraged these days of course. Despite these changes, the character remains recognisable throughout, due to his enduring outfit of white tyres, which are a throwback to his origins: when Bibendum was designed, tyres were light-coloured, with black versions only appearing in 1912.
Such is the public warmth towards Michelin Man, on occasion he has broken out of the realms of advertising and entered popular culture. Michelin recognised this early on, and put him at the centre of their flagship Bibendum Building in London, built in 1911. Certain versions of Asterix in Switzerland (including the English translation) see him make a guest appearance as a chariot wheel dealer, and he of course played a key role in the Oscar-winning animated short Logorama, which saw two Michelin Cops hunting down a villainous Ronald McDonald.
Aside from his innate huggability, heritage plays a large part in his enduring presence and success for the brand. “Once a character becomes a popular icon, you don’t have to question if it’s good or bad, it’s simply working,” says Alain 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.”
So would it be possible for a modern brand to design a contemporary Michelin Man? “Of course,” says Paola Antonelli. “I would never put it past our creatives to come up with an updated version of a concept like that. I don’t know if today it’s a matter of a logo, rather than a matter of an identity, because mediums are so different. At that time, you used to have the newspaper, you had your garage, and you had packaging. 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. But, that said, with the knowledge and skills of today, one can still go back to the same abstract concept of a mascot-like logo.”
Bibendum was created in a time when logo design was perhaps less scientific and more experimental though, when the launch of a new identity didn’t run the risk of being lambasted on blogs and in magazines all over the world, and was possibly taken a little less seriously. “I don’t know if people of that time put as much value on Bibendum as we do,” notes Antonelli. “Hindsight is always 20:20.”