It may come as a surprise to learn that Bibendum, aka the Michelin Man, hasn’t always been the kindly, marshmallowy mascot we know today, but started out as a rather demonic, elitist emissary of the Michelin tyre company – drinking, smoking and generally lording it over his competitors.
In 1900 the first Michelin Guide proclaimed: “The art of motoring has just been born… and the tyre is the essential organ without which the car cannot travel.” The Michelin brothers had pioneered the use of the pneumatic tyre in a round-trip race from Paris to Bordeaux in 1895. The Michelin Company, whose very livelihood depended on the idea of travel for pleasure, craftily promoted it. Advertising tyres had become as important as the tyre itself. Bibendum appeared in Michelin’s first advertisement in 1899 and, more than a century later, he’s still the backbone of their marketing.
This anthropomorphic tyre-man sprang from the imagination of the Michelin brothers. Legend has it that upon noticing a stack of bicycle tyres in front of their kiosk at the 1894 Universal Exposition in Lyon, Édouard Michelin remarked to his older brother, André, that the pile resembled a man.
They turned to a very French method of promotion, the full colour poster, to market their wares, hiring illustrator Marius Rossillon, known as O’Galop, to bring their imaginary man of rubber to life. Inspired by one of his earlier posters for beer, O’Galop created a humanoid avatar of chalky white tyres, hoisting, somewhat incongruously, a goblet filled with nails and broken glass. These obstacles were no match for Michelin tyres, and in celebration Bibendum cheered, “Nunc est bibendum!”, which is Latin for “It’s time to drink”.
One of the company’s race competitors, Léon Théry, not being well versed in Latin, called out to André Michelin at the starting line: “Voilà Bibendum! Vive Bibendum!” André thought this was clever and promptly christened the company’s new mascot.
The name stuck. Synonymous with the tyre company, Bibendum left Michelin’s competitors in the dust. The original Michelin Man was intimidating. The mummy-like figure was oversized; drawn as tall as 32 tyres, his size equalling Michelin’s success. Copyrighted holding a smouldering cigar, early Bibendum was shown with a glass of champagne, a status symbol of the French leisure classes. Bibendum was playful, boastful and sometimes risqué. He mirrored the joie de vivre of the Belle Époque and along with the Michelin restaurant and travel guides, he linked the company name with the idea of having a good time.
Throughout the years, designers have redefined Bibendum’s image, making him soft but strong, hard yet humorous. Recognised in more than 150 countries, the Michelin man has topped the list of the most recognisable logos for over a century and bears the distinction of being one of the oldest trademarks still in use.
From France Today Magazine
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Lead photo credit : Nunc Est Bibendum © O'Galop (public domain)
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