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Once upon a time... the Michelin man mascot

Published on 15 April 2021 - 7 reading minute(s)

Once upon a time, there was the Michelin Man mascot. Here is the story of the beloved road companion and smiling guardian angel who watches over truck drivers everywhere around the world.

From Brazilian trucks to a tuk-tuk in the busy streets of Bangkok

Wherever you are on the planet, you’ve likely come across little Michelin Man mascots perched on the roofs of vehicles, from trucks on the lonely roads of Brazil to a tuk-tuk in the busy streets of Thailand.

Did you ever stop to wonder how such a tradition came to be? How did the Michelin Man become the international phenomenon we’re so familiar with, and even a collector’s item, and how did the crazy idea emerge of attaching him on top of trucks? Let’s find out.

To answer these questions, we need to go back to the very origins of the Michelin Man.

“Nunc est Bibendum”: the Michelin tyre drinks up the obstacle

Back in the late 19th century, in the early days of the company, the Michelin brothers were exhibiting their products at a fair in Lyon when one of them noticed that if you added arms and legs to the pile of tyres they were showcasing, it would look like a man.

A few years later, with the contribution of a caricaturist, the Michelin Man was born. Well, the first version of him. He was actually adapted from a character in an advertisement for a German brewer; in the process, he switched from drinking beer to having the capacity of “swallowing the bumps in the road”, as the early slogan went, to make the ride smoother. That idea is where his name originated: Bibendum, from the Latin phrase “Nunc est Bibendum”, now is the time to drink!

The Michelin Man is an ambassador, not a single logo

In those days, as you might have seen in old movies, tyres were white, so the character naturally adopted that color, which he has kept to this day. Also, the main tyre market back then wasn’t for cars, but for bicycle wheels, so he was created as an assemblage of thin rings, unlike the ones we’re familiar with today.

He immediately became Michelin’s brand ambassador: in promotional campaigns of the early 20th century, people dressed in Michelin Man costumes would hand out little Bibendum dolls to the crowd as goodies. You can imagine how popular those quickly became.

This friendly mascot who inspired trust and emphasized the comfort provided by Michelin tyres, was a big success. Also, as a brand ambassador rather than a fixed logo, he’s had the capacity to evolve through the decades, which enabled him to always stay relevant to the changes in our lifestyles and even successfully enter the digital world.

Always a smiling and caring guardian angel

Just see for yourself: over the course of a century, he got rid of his cigar and monocle, lost any connection to drinking – not a great combination with driving – and got fitter: he lost weight despite switching from thin bike tyres to thick truck tyres, became younger looking and swapped his boots for sporty driving shoes. All those changes certainly made him much more mobile, but one element remained: he always kept his white color.

Here’s how Helen Tattersall, who is Head of Vehicle Accessories for Michelin Brand Licensing, sums it up: “The Michelin Man embodies our values and reflects our customers, which is why he evolves with them. He's also a reminder of the message that comes with using our tyres: no matter the brand of your truck, you’re safe with Michelin.”

Thanks to the combination of the positive values he represents and his capacity to always stay modern, the success of the Michelin Man never faded. So much so that in 2000, shortly after his 100th anniversary, he was voted best logo in the world by the Financial Times, and a study showed that 90% of the world’s population could instantly recognize him!

But all that doesn’t tell us how he ended up on top of trucks. Let’s get to that now.

An iconic product that appeared at the beginning of the 1950s

At some point over the course of this amazing success story, certain enthusiastic Michelin customers came up with the idea of attaching their promotional Michelin Man mascots on the roof of their vehicles, particularly on trucks.

After World War II, the development of radial tyres, a revolution in the automotive industry, accelerated this movement, while strengthening the presence of Michelin in the truck world. It also associated the brand’s ambassador with the superior safety provided by its tyres. As the image of the Michelin Man has become the perfect embodiment of the brand’s values, as a three-dimensional mascot, he became some sort of guardian angel watching over the driver and his truck… Keeping them safe!

So in the 1950s, Michelin decided to manufacture higher quality, more resistant mascots, specifically designed to be fitted onto truck roofs. This transformed the quirky idea of a few Michelin fans into a full-blown tradition in the trucker world.

The Michelin Man mascot is back by popular demand!

In 2016, by popular demand, and because too many counterfeit Michelin Man mascots were in circulation, a new edition was released. It’s available in two versions: one for outside, made of plastic that retains its color over time and comes with steel brackets to safely attach it to the roof of a truck, and a slightly smaller dashboard version, with the mascot sitting on two truck tyres. That way, if you can’t put him outside, you still get a chance to personalize the interior of your vehicle.

Available in service stations, in tyre stores and online, the new Michelin Man mascot even comes with a certificate of authenticity so buyers know they’re getting the real thing. They can even register their mascot online and become a part of a global community.

Needless to say, it was an instant success!

A brand icon that is loved by all and universally recognized, the Michelin Man is a truly unique symbol, with no equivalent in the trucker world or anywhere else.


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