Design Evolution: Michelin Man

By Heather Taylor, Editor-in-Chief, PopIcon

What comes to mind when you think about the Michelin Man mascot? Fans might easily recall him as the brand ambassador of the Michelin tire company with a friendly smile, caring disposition, and overall build composed of inflated white tires.

What you may not realize is the character we all know and love now has only had this design since 1998. The Michelin Man holds the unique distinction of being the only brand mascot to make his introduction to the world as a drinker and smoker, both vices which faded to obscurity as the decades rolled on.

Let’s step back in time to 1898, the year the Michelin Man — AKA Bibendum — made his debut and look at some of his greatest design evolution hits.

1894: The “Evocative” Pile of Tires

It was an evocative pile of tires that inspired the earliest designs of the Michelin Man.

According to the Michelin North America website, brothers Édouard and André Michelin were attending the Lyon Universal Exhibition in 1894 when they happened to notice what is described as a pile of “evocatively-shaped” tires.

“Look, with arms, it would make a man,” Édouard told André.

1898: Birth of the Michelin Tire Man

André hung onto his brother’s idea. Four years later in 1898, he met the cartoonist Marius Rossillon, also known as O’Galop, who drew poster art.

As the story goes, O’Galop was showing André a rejected advertising sketch he drew for a Munich brasserie. O’Galop’s original drawing featured a bearded giant holding a beer glass and pronouncing “Nunc est Bibendum” — Latin for “Now is the time to drink.”

Suddenly, André saw an opportunity for Édouard’s idea to come to life.

What if there was a man made from a pile of tires instead of a bearded giant? The cup, instead of beer, would be full of nails and broken glass. This was indicative of the toughness of Michelin tires, which didn’t puncture easily.

An additional French slogan was added into the sketch copy, “À votre santé. Le pneu Michelin boit l’obstacle.” This was a slogan André had come up with a few years earlier that translates to “Cheers, the Michelin tire drinks up obstacles!” This slogan, the Michelin website notes, was meant to convince engineers of the benefits of tires.

The Michelin Man was made from 26 tires and pictured wearing pince-nez glasses. These tires were all colored white as tires would not be colored black until 1912.

Those who were familiar with him knew he ran through a series of lifestyles. Various illustrations before the 1920s depicted the Michelin Tire Man as a gladiator, kickboxer, and ballroom dancer. He drank and smoked cigars in an effort to appeal to the upper class. He even had a column in an Italian travel magazine launched by Michelin in 1907 where he reported on attending the Ball of Nations.

1922: Naming the Michelin Tire Man

For several decades after his introduction, the Michelin Tire Man was a nameless entity in the advertising landscape.

In 2022, an ad ran in The Saturday Evening Post advertising $1,000 in cash and 65 other prizes for successfully naming the Michelin Tire Man. No more than 10 words could be submitted as a possible name and anyone could compete in the contest except for Michelin employees in the United States or abroad.

For those submitting a name for consideration, Michelin outlined the following three facts to review prior to submission in their original 1922 ad:

  1. Michelin is the oldest pneumatic tire maker, having introduced the first pneumatic automobile tire in 1895.
  2. Many of the most important developments in the tire world are Michelin inventions. Notable examples are the first non-skid tire, the original demountable rim, and the ring-shaped tube.
  3. Michelin Tires enjoy the widest distribution. They are made in extensive factories in France, Italy, England, and the United States, and are recognized all over the world for their superior quality.

Though the contest closed on March 25, 2022, little information is available as to who won it. Rather, it is suggested that the mascot’s name originated from the Latin phrase which accompanied his early advertisements: “Nunc est Bibendum.”

So he became Bibendum, or Bib for short, Michelin’s brand ambassador.

1920s: Bibendum’s Changing Image in the 1920s

There was more changing for the Michelin Tire Man throughout the 1920s besides getting his first name. The character was undergoing drastic lifestyle changes.

Bibendum stopped smoking and drinking. He began working out and playing sports in advertisements, such as running and riding a bike. Posters from this time showed Bibendum leaning into a much more family-friendly image. It suited him much better if we do say so ourselves.

1940s: Pride Booms With International Michelin Customers

Post-World War II, Michelin took notice that it was becoming quite trendy for Michelin customers in Europe and Asia to attach promotional Michelin Man mascots to the roofs of their vehicles and trucks.

This uptick in proudly promoting the Michelin Man mascot came on the heels of the development of radial tires. It allowed the Michelin tire brand to strengthen its brand messaging for its superior tire safety and build increased recognition in its Michelin Man brand mascot.

1998: The Michelin Man Turns 100!

1998 marked the 100th anniversary of the Michelin Man. This was the same year his appearance was redesigned to reveal a brand-new look.

Bib was given big, expressive eyes, a Michelin banner draped across his front, an attitude full of good humor, and a body made of big, choice tires which could be easily removed for vehicles in need.

The Michelin Man celebrates his 126th anniversary in 2024. He’s come a long way since 1898 and it will be exciting to see where Bib goes next!

About the Author

Heather Taylor is the senior writer and editor-in-chief of PopIcon, Advertising Week’s blog about brand mascots. Got a pitch on brand mascots or want to wax nostalgic about characters? Drop her a line at howveryheather@gmail.com.

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