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History of the Michelin Man

Iconically known for his larger than life appearance in ‘Ghostbusters’, The Michelin Man is everyone’s favorite jolly tire mascot.

The tire industry achieves an average of $32.1 billion in sales annually. Michelin accounts for 12 percent of these sales. Michelin is one of the three largest tire manufacturers in the world, comparable only to Bridgestone and Goodyear. Michelin manufactures tires for space shuttles, aircraft, automobiles, heavy equipment, motorcycles, and bicycles. Their original product was bicycle tires, and the evolution of the company is mirrored within the evolution of its recognizable mascot, the Michelin Man.

What's In A Name?

While the Michelin Man himself is known far and wide, what many do not know is that he actually has a name. Bibendum, sometimes called Bib or Bibelobis, is the formal and original name for the jolly white figure we know today as the Michelin Man. It is unclear when the word "Bibendum" came to be the name of the character himself. At the latest, it was in 1908, when Michelin commissioned Curnonsky to write a newspaper column signed "Bibendum." 

Bibendum was introduced at the Lyon Exhibition of 1894 where the Michelin brothers had a stand, and is one of the world's oldest trademarks. His slogan, Nunc est bibendum, is taken from Horace's Odes (book I, ode xxxvii, line 1). The slogan translates to “Now is the time to drink” in English. A 1898 poster showed him offering the toast "Nunc est bibendum" to an array of scrawny Michelin competitors with a glass full of road hazards. It was followed by the title and the tag "C'est à dire: À votre santé. Le pneu Michelin boit l’obstacle." This translates to "That is to say, to your health. The Michelin tire drinks up obstacles.” The implication is that Michelin tires will easily conquer road hazards. The company used this basic poster format for fifteen years, adding its latest products to the table in front of the figure.

Michelin dominated the French tire industry and was one of the leading advertisers. This status remains true to this day; the company’s famous guidebooks are very widely used by travelers. Bibendum was portrayed as a lord of industry, a master of all he surveyed, and a patriotic expounder of the French spirit. In the 1920s, Bibendum urged Frenchmen to adopt America's superior factory system, but patriotically asked them to avoid using the "inferior" products of those factories. As automobiles diffused down to the middle classes, Michelin advertising likewise shifted downscale. Its restaurant and hotel guides began to cover a broader range of price categories. Consequently, Édouard and André Michelin ended up at the Universal and Colonial Exposition in Lyon in 1894. The brothers noticed a stack of tires that suggested to Édouard the figure of a man without arms. 

Four years later, André met French cartoonist Marius Rossillon, popularly known as O’Galop. O’Galop showed him a rejected image he had created for a Munich brewery—a large, regal figure holding a huge glass of beer and quoting Horace's phrase "Nunc est bibendum.” André immediately suggested replacing the man with a figure made from tires. From there, O'Galop transformed the earlier image into Michelin's symbol. Today, Bibendum is one of the world's most recognized trademarks, representing Michelin in over 150 countries.

Changes Over Time

Bibendum is white because tires were originally gray-white or light, translucent beige in color. Around 1912, companies added carbon as a preservative and strengthener to the base rubber material, giving them a black appearance. Bibendum's appearance also changed. For a brief period of time, he was black like the tires he was made of. Though briefly featured in several print ads, Michelin quickly changed back his appearance, citing printing and aesthetic issues for the change. However, many believe that the company chose to change the mascot’s appearance back for racial reasons, and Michelin has faced significant criticism on the issue.

Bibendum's shape has also changed over the years. O'Galop's logo was based on bicycle tires, which were originally Michelin’s largest market. The original figure also wore pince-nez glasses with lanyard, and smoked a cigar. By the 1980’s, Bibendum was being shown running, and in 1998, his 100th anniversary, a slimmed-down version became the company's new logo. He had long since given up the cigar and pince-nez. The slimming of the logo reflected lower-profile, smaller tires of modern cars. Bib even had a similar-looking puppy as a companion when the duo were CGI animated for recent American television advertisements.

A Pop Culture Icon

A history of the emblem was written by Olivier Darmon and published in 1997: Le Grand Siècle de Bibendum; Paris: Hoëbeke. Pop culture embraced the Michelin Man so extensively 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 chose to use it to their advantage. Michelin has put him at the centre of their flagship Bibendum Building in London, built in 1911. A "Bibendum chair" was designed by Eileen Gray in 1925. Bibendum entered the world of books when Cayce Pollard, the main character of William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition, had a strong aversion to corporate brands and logos. The sight of Bibendum in particular gives her panic attacks.

In the village of La Roque-Gageac on the Dordogne river, the doorway of an ancient house was refurbished, with Bibendum carved into the replacement stone surround. Bibendum has also made appearances in the music world. Michelin sued the performance artist Momus for releasing a song about the trademarked Michelin Man, and French reggae band Tryo sang about Bibendum on their album Grain de Sable. Bibendum has even made comic appearances. Certain versions of Goscinny and Uderzo’s comic book Asterix in Switzerland 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.

Michelin has also named movements and events after its mascot. The Michelin Challenge Bibendum is a major annual sustainable mobility event, sponsored by the French tire company Michelin. In December 2008, Michelin announced that it was postponing the 2009 Michelin Challenge Bibendum event—scheduled for April 2009 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—until 2010, due to the economic crisis. That event ran from 30 May through 2 June 2010. In 1998, executives at Michelin made the decision to host an event that would showcase technological research into "clean vehicles" and allow them to be assessed in real operating conditions.

Heritage has also played a large part in his enduring presence and the success story of the brand. At different periods Michelin stopped using Bibendum, but always came back to him. However, it is important to note that the brand is as important to the mascot’s survival as the mascot is to the brand. Bibendum has lasted so long because the brand did, which is not the case with many others who invented brilliant logos.