It is not easy to make an icon standing for all its 119 years of its existence hand in hand with a brand that is 127 years old. Think of our ‘Maharajah’ that was identified more than the airline Air India but was dropped for several years, before the character was resurrected.
Here we, speak of the great iconic French brand that has been moving the world for over 100 years. Yes, its MICHELIN and its oldest surviving icon – BIBENDUM, also known as the ‘Michelin Man’.
The story begins in 1891 when the brothers André Michelin & Édouard Michelin took the patent for making the world’s first pneumatic tyre that was replaceable. Shifting gears from making rubber hoses & pipes to tyres, the brothers knew that making tyres made sense as the automobile industry would grow exponentially.
So they started participating in various exhibitions displaying their new product. During one such fair in 1894, the younger brother Édouard (Edward, in English) noticed a pile of tyres placed one above the other, at a corner and told his brother “André look there, by just putting arms & legs, the pile of tyres can take the form of a human”. Something striked him then, but couldn’t go ahead with completion of his idea. Four years later in 1898, he comes across French cartoonist Marius Rossillon, who showed him his work portfolio. Édouard liked one of his sketches that had a man holding a beer mug. Marius had actually sketched this figure of King Gambrinus (mythical German king and patronised as the Saint of beer) for a German based brewer. The sketch named ‘nunc est bibendum’ (now, its the time to drink) was however rejected by them.
So Édouard shares his idea of the ‘man with tyres’ and asks Marius to combine both. Marius makes his new sketch with a ‘tyre looking man’ holding up a mug of nails and glass, presents it to the brothers. It was accepted and the same displayed in their publicity campaigns with the original words - nunc est bibendum. What the brothers wanted to imply through this new publicity campaign was they make tyres that can easily drink up all the obstacles. Brilliant, this was but there was one thing, this character had no name. This however, came soon.
Driving a Renault Voiturette in the Paris-Amsterdam-Paris race of 1898, ‘The Chronometer’ as the French racing driver Leon Therry was called, shouted at André Michelin “voila Bibendum, vive Bibendum” with André pondering what he meant. André didn’t fully know the meaning of Bibendum (then) but he liked the catchy name and decided that hereafter this character will be known by this name.
The Bibendum assumed the proportion of an ‘angel’ in France. Some posters in the last century even depicted him as the cigar smoking man (this was stopped when cases of Tuberculosis increased in the late 20’s in Europe), some posters even showed him as the champagne sipping neighbour, etc. Huge hoardings, intensive publicity campaigns, carnival shows, other road shows over the years catapulted it as the topmost figure. Not just in France, even abroad.
It crossed the Atlantic in to USA in 1907, when Michelin set up its first factory there. In colder Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Norway, the Michelin is draped in hats & boots. In Japan, he is depicted as the ‘Sumo’ looking man surrounded by a bevy of pretty looking ladies.
You have seen Chefs Vikas Khanna and Vineet Bhatia on cooking shows, that were so popular here. You have also heard of celebrity chefs Atul Kocchar, Karunesh Khanna and Alfred Prasad who are all associated with well-known gastronomic experiences through their signature restaurants. Guess what is common between them and the Bibendum?
Well, it is the Michelin Stars, the brand they earned and have. Way back in 1900, both the Michelin brothers felt the need to rate and grade restaurants as people started travelling more and more with halts at various points for lunch & dinner. They came up with the Michelin Guide and promoted it through the now popular, Bibendum.
But with changing times, the Bibendum evolved. Today the figure is seen more slimmer compared to the plumper look, it had earlier.
Bibendum – the MICHELIN man.