by Melanie Lindner
The iconic French tiremaker has given up the top spot to Bridgestone. Now it is relying on a new global ad campaign to reclaim its title.
For a 112-year-old iconic character, the Michelin Man has held up remarkably well as the mascot behind a global brand. Now if he could only do something about the French company's second-place showing in the tire wars of the 21st Century.
Michelin's rival, Bridgestone of Japan, has only a narrow lead, but that is too much for Michelin, a storied company that has been in business since 1888 and is regarded as a global arbiter of taste, bestowing its coveted stars on the world's finest restaurants.
When it comes to tires, the company still commands the highest quality ratings in every category from Consumer Reports.
But in the battle for the public's attention, Bridgestone has had a better run lately.
During the all-important advertising display at Sunday's Super Bowl, Bridgestone sponsored the halftime show (this year's rock act: The Who) and had two high-concept ads that managed to build buzz leading up the game.
Michelin may have sat out the big game, but the company's management is determined to reclaim leadership of the $140 billion global tire market.
To get the job done, it reached out in 2008 to finance and communications expert Claire Dorland-Clauzel, a veteran of French government and business, to become senior vice president of communications and brands.
After two years of work, she started to roll out a massive marketing and advertising initiative that debuted in the United States in October and is scheduled to appear internationally between now and June.
Her intention was to develop a new kind of campaign suited for an increasingly global market.
"Now that the same products are being sold all over the world, it only makes sense that we would have one branding message, one ad campaign," she said between sips of tea during a recent breakfast in Manhattan.
Rather than trying to teach consumers about the same Michelin products through a dozen different advertising campaigns, Dorland-Clauzel decided to leverage the Michelin Man to act as the face of the business worldwide.
The Michelin Man, one of world's oldest trademarks, has been around almost as long as the company itself.
After starting the company in 1888, brothers Edouard and Andre Michelin got the inspiration for their mascot at the Lyon exhibition in 1894 when they saw a stack of tires that bore a resemblance to a rotund person.
Four years later, a character called the Bibendum was born.
The newest campaign is focused on commercials that feature an updated Michelin Man as an animated superhero rescuing a city from an evil, overpriced gas pump, a driver from slick conditions, and even a batch of small animals that otherwise would have ended up as roadkill.
A modern background beat plays as the Michelin Man saves the day by pulling "the right tire" from his waist and throwing it to the victim just in time.
Now, the Michelin Man has been called upon to galvanize the company's sales. For Michelin, tires constitute 86 percent of the company's revenues, while the rest comes from Michelin maps and travel guides.
For the first nine months of 2009, Bridgestone generated tire sales of $20.9 billion while Michelin took second place with $15.3 billion, according to IBIS World.
But both tire giants were down significantly compared to the same period in 2008, with Bridgestone dropping 25 percent and Michelin off 12.5 percent.
Michelin's tire market share falls just shy of Bridgestone's too. Michelin claims 16.3 percent of the global tire market, while Bridgestone accounts for 16.7 percent, IBIS World reported.
Profits for the tire manufacturing industry were down in 2008 (the most recent profit data available) due to a hike in rubber and steel prices that was too quick to effectively pass off to consumers, according to Bruce Davis, special projects reporter at Tire Business.
Michelin's profits dropped to $1.3 billion, down 44.1 percent year over year, while Bridgestone's profits fell to $895.7 million, down 52.5 percent from 2007.
Between gulps of tea and quick sideways exchanges in French with her assistant, Dorland-Clauzel explains that as global standards for pavement and roadway maintenance emerged in the United States, Europe, and parts of Asia, Michelin began eliminating old products that were made to ride on terrain in just one region, and developed replacements that serve the globalizing marketplace.
"We needed a unified global message for our products that are sold all around the world," she said.
Dorland-Clauzel approached New York-based advertising firm, TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, a division of TBWA Worldwide, to develop a creative scheme for Michelin's global print, television, online, and point-of-sale audience.
TBWA tapped New York-based animator Psyop (makers of the Coca-Cola happiness campaign) to do the graphics.
"An upbeat voice can narrate this story in any language anywhere in the world," says Mark Figliulo, chairman and chief creative office officer at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York.
Michelin couldn't launch its new campaign without measuring how it would be received by various cultures, so Dorland-Clauzel and her team called on Paris-based global market research agency, Millward Brown.
Christophe Bouillon, project leader at Millward Brown's Paris office, found that a few slight adjustments could improve Michelin's chances of getting consumers to identify with the brand and choose Michelin products over those of its competitors.
For instance, the animated video ads are based on a problem-solving scenario, but early tests on consumers in France, Germany, China, and the United States showed that the problem and solution didn't have enough visual contrast.
Millward Brown advised Michelin to add darker colors to the problem portion and lighter colors once the problem has been solved to emphasize the positive change that Michelin products bring.
The advice resulted in Michelin, TBWA, and Psyop adjusting the ads to present a more noticeable happy end under a clear, blue sky with slightly remixed music.
Millward Brown also suggested that Michelin "remove the very American-style urban elements, like big buildings and SUVs," says Bouillon. Tests showed that global audiences related better to more neutral city settings and smaller, more cartoonlike cars.
Analysts agree that it's too soon to tell whether the new campaign, which is still being introduced in most markets around the world, will have the desired affect of boosting Michelin back into the top-selling spot, though it should at the very least reduce expenses.
While generating and testing the new brand concept was expensive (Michelin won't disclose its exact investment in the initiative), Dorland-Clauzel says she expects ongoing expenses to be 10 percent to 15 percent less than maintaining regionally specific branding messages.
"Consumers see a lot of messages, and unlike with, say, luxury goods, it's difficult for them to distinguish between brands in the tire industry," says Dorland-Clauzel. "We're aiming to stand out by using our internationally recognized character, the Michelin Man, to help build brand awareness."
8th February 2010