This weekend, I found out something that many more well-informed humans than I are aware of: the Michelin tire company is the same Michelin that produces the Michelin restaurant guide.
Maybe this is something I should have known years ago, but I'm not alone in my lack of observance here. According to a Priceonomics interview with Michelin spokesperson Tony Fouladpour, this is a pretty common misconception. “You’d be surprised how many people don’t know,” he says. “All the time, people tell us, ‘We didn’t know it’s the same company!’”
The Best Early 20th Century Content Marketing I've Ever Seen
The Michelin Guide is a vintage masterwork of content marketing before any communications consultant ever thought to pair the words "content" and "marketing" together. When Michelin began making tires in France in the year 1895, there were only about 350 drivers on the road in the whole country. Michelin wanted the elite class of French people who were wealthy enough to get behind the wheel to use those tires as much as possible.
So what did they do? They created the Michelin Guide, an exclusive guidebook to France's best restaurants across the country. They put in the research and staffed up to find hidden gems across provinces, ones that rich customers would need to drive miles and miles to reach. And thus, one of the most well-respected restaurant critiquing powerhouses was born.
By creating this guidebook, Michelin was really thinking about their audience and how they could provide value to them. Michelin had such a clear vision of and affinity for their audience that the Michelin Man - who, notably, looks like a marshmallow monster from Ghostbusters today - started out as a manifestation of the aspirations of their wealthy clientele. Though still made of tires, the swany anthropomorphic stack of rubber “chomped on a cigar, held a champagne flute, and wore a pince-nez” in early print ads (Priceonomics).
When faced with the giant problem of an exceptionally small market in 1900, Michelin did something innovative. Instead of running around in circles trying to solve symptomatic issues, they took a step back and reframed the whole thing.
If you only have 300 people in your entire luxury tire market, how do you serve them best and meet your own goals? You give them access to an elite publication that speaks to their perceptions of themselves and their greater wants, and you get them wearing out those tires on cross-country food tourism trips. This is obviously not the only solution, but it seems to have served Michelin pretty well for a century or so.
Oh Wait, Right, Maybe It's Not So Great
I loved the idea of the Michelin Guide as early 20th century content marketing genius for about five minutes, and then I remembered where this blog post started. I - and many others (I promise!) - had no idea the Michelin Guide and Michelin Tires were connected.
The world has changed a lot since 1900, and the audience for Michelin tires has changed as well. Cars are no longer an item exclusively for the luxury class and neither is food tourism. And in a universe of online food blogs and Yelp and TripAdvisor, what value does a printed Michelin Guide provide to a consumer?
That's an answer that only Michelin's marketing team is really equipped to answer because they've got the data to back up whether or not this guide is worth the investment they're putting into it.
For your sake (and for the sake of the Michelin marketing team, if they're reading this), here are a few questions I would ask to assess whether or not the Michelin marketing guide (or any piece of content marketing) is a value-add to the organization:
Who is the target audience for this piece of content? Are they the same target audience that we need to serve to reach our organizational goals?
How does this content provide value to the organization's target audience?
How does this content act as a funnel to help us develop relationships with our constituents? Are there emails we can collect? Data we can pull? Other information we can gather that will help us know our audience better?
Does this content help your team create a bunch more content? Are you distributing this as far and as wide as possible across the appropriate channels?
What's the lift behind this content? Who's producing it and what would they be doing with their time if they weren't doing this? What's the best use of that person's time?
Thinking About The Next Generation of Impactful Content
Let's just hypothesize, for the sake of the point I want to make, that the Michelin Guide has not continued to serve the Michelin marshmallow monster well. As its audience expanded, they became less interested in elite food tourism and stopped connecting the dots between the writers of the guide and the tires on their cars. If Michelin's target audience is no longer interested in (or - gulp - aware of) the Michelin Guide, it might be time to let it go.
Pruning is a part of growth. Making room for our teams to prioritize the content that provides real value for our audiences is the best use of our organizations' limited time, talent, and resources. And it gives us more opportunities to step back and solve big problems, creating more impactful content while we're at it.
Have you recently let go of an iconic, legendary content piece or campaign and are wondering what to do next? Or maybe you're thinking about how to convince your boss that it's time to shift your communications team’s priorities to something that will drive greater value? I would love to know how you're thinking about these issues (and maybe even try to provide some helpful advice on them). If you've got thoughts or questions related to this subject, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.