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The Michelin Man’s Modern Makeover

Chubby, friendly Bibendum–better known as the Michelin Man–steps into a brave, newly-designed world to fight bad guys.

bib martini

He started out as a bespectacled, cigar-chomping good Samaritan made from a stack of tires. Hoisting a martini glass full of road detritus. Bibendum (from the Latin, to drink) was the epitome of a tough as nails character, ready to protect unsuspecting motorists from the dangers of flat tires.

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That was back in 1898, when brothers André and Edouard Michelin teamed up with French poster artist Marius O’Galop (better known as Marius Rossillon) to create an advertisement for their bicycle tires. They couldn’t have possibly known that the Michelin Man would grow to become one of the most recognized advertising icons in the world.

Michelin Man

Since then, the Michelin Man has gone through a variety of incarnations from genie to astronaut, lost his glasses, cigar and cuff links, changed color and facial features. Although his assortment of 26 tires has remained constant, Michelin corporate maintains that their beloved mascot has evolved to stay in step with the times.

Now he’s changing again. Sort of. Starting tomorrow, you’ll find him in print, in television spots and on the Web, in a newly-designed, animated world that pits him against the evil gas pump and the always-dangerous slick road.

The Michelin Man’s become a superhero of sorts–somewhat slimmer and more expressive than before–fighting against wear and tear while increasing fuel efficiency and safety. (It’s not hard to guess who emerges as the winner.)

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So why would you change a successful, globally-recognized image that many companies would give their eye teeth for? Acknowledging the wildly successful “baby” ads that have touted Michelin tires for over two decades, Scott Clark, COO of Michelin America Small Tires, says it was simply time to shake up complacency. “With the baby, it was hard to move beyond safety,” he explains.

In another sign of the times, Clark cites disruption as the philosophy for the redesign. “Makeover is not strong enough of a word,” he says crediting the New York office of TBWA for leading the creative which he says took over a year to develop.

Mark Figliulo, chairman and chief creative officer of the New York branch of the global agency that counts Apple and McDonald’s among others on their client roster, says it was a challenge to retain all that the Michelin Man has meant for over a century, while moving him into the future.

bib against evil gas pump

“There were rules,” Figliulo says, “that challenged what could happen creatively.” Indeed, the size of the tires, the shape of the face and other features had been standardized for so long, Clark admits the process of redesign created some internal tensions.

The way forward then, involved a detour. The result: “The Michelin Man’s world changed more than he did. He’s still a very friendly, joyful character,” says Figliulo noting that by placing him in animated scenes rather than the real world, they were able to deal with fuel efficiency and safety in a much more engaging way.

Clark adds these rendered worlds will make the messaging more impactful as well as translate well to all the markets that sell Michelin tires. (Which is not insignificant: Michelin is the top selling tire brand worldwide with sales for the Michelin Group at 16.4 billion euros in 2008. North American sales reached $8.3 billion last year.)

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Clark is confident that Bib’s new look will be as well received as any of his past personas. “He’s more dynamic and more heroic. He removes tires from himself because the right one changes everything,” he states. Figliulo concurs. “We turned him into an agent of change.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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