Content Marketing, a Century Before the Internet


by Zac Goldberg February 04, 2015

If André and Édouard Michelin, the French industrialists who started the Michelin Tire Company in the late 1800s, were to pick up a computer today, and (with much training) browse the internet, they would undoubtedly be pleased with what they saw. Yes, they’d bear witness to the global reach of their Michelin tires, but what would really make them swell with pride is this blog, and the millions like it.

The Michelin brothers’ original intention for the guide was to “encourage the development of the industry” and “demand” for their products,” according to the preface of the original Michelin Guide. The Michelin brothers were determined to transform cars from a novelty to a viable form of transformation. Sound familiar? Our intentions for this blog are shockingly similar, substituting crickets for tires.

So how did Michelin stumble on the model of what today we call “content marketing,” nearly a century before the Internet was invented? What key factors allow the Michelin Guide to still be the most respected restaurant rating system in the world, and how can modern companies use these practices to elevate their own company blogs?

That’s what we aim to uncover…

Supply and Demand

The year was 1900, and Michelin, an engineer by trade, had just taken over his grandfather’s failing rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand, France. However, there were fewer than 3,000 cars in all of France at the time, and Michelin was looking for a way to drum up demand for cars, and therefore tires.

Michelin also understood that tires—no matter the quality—would not last the lifetime of the vehicle, and he therefore wanted to be top-of-mind when all of these newly minted drivers needed replacements. He wanted brand awareness. He knew that he had to stay in front of potential customers who perhaps didn’t need his product at that exact moment, but soon would.

Enter the Michelin Guide 

While the Internet didn’t yet exist, magazines and brochures did. And back then, people actually read them. Michelin created the Michelin Guide to distribute free-of-charge at gas stations; this was how he would keep customers coming back and buying Michelin tires after their first pairs wore out. The Guide was soon in the hands of millions of potential customers who didn’t even need new tires…yet.

During the first World War, printing of the Guide was stopped. When it began again after the War ended, around 1920, the Guide was revamped. Michelin had visited a tire store and found a bench being propped up by a stack of Michelin Guides. He immediately began charging a small fee for the booklets, as he realized that “man only truly respects what he pays for.” He also cut all outside advertising, since he had never been trying to make a profit on the Guide itself, and the absence of advertising delivered a much better experience. After all, this book was what people all over the world were going to associate with the Michelin name.

The maps in the Guide were so good—deemed the best in the world by the Allied Forces in World War II—that a copy was printed for every soldier deployed into France. On D-Day, the troops literally stormed the beaches of Normandy with the Michelin Guide in hand.

In addition to the maps, the brochure contained a list of hotels, mechanics, gas stations, and, as we all know, restaurant reviews. In 1926, the star rating system was introduced, establishing a way to compare restaurants around the world that is still prized today.

Star Struck

The fact that a tire company plays a big part in a restaurant’s reputation—just look at the controversy that ensued upon Gordon Ramsay losing his stars—illustrates the success of the Michelin brothers’ original project. Here are some lessons that have allowed the Michelin Guide to stand the test of time:

 

  1. Create content that’s relevant to consumers who already engage with your brand. Everything in the Michelin Guide relates to travel in some way.
  2. Create content that is good. Michelin didn’t use the Guide to just sell tires. He gave people information so that they would actually use their tires.
  3. Don’t go for the hard sell. Trust that if people appreciate good content, they will be loyal customers. Michelin gave the Guide away to anyone who wanted it, and never asked for anything in return.
  4. Value content for the halo effect, not as a revenue stream. While Michelin did start charging a small amount for the Guide, he never viewed it as a way to make profit. He simply wanted to create additional value for his consumers. This is why he cut all advertisements. (But if you to buy some Exo bars, we won’t be offended).
  5. Maintain high quality. This one might be the most important. The reason why the Michelin Guide is still relevant today, over 100 years after its first publication, is because the Michelin brothers created something that people actually want. The star ratings are still used because they have retained their standard of excellence.

 

The Michelin Guide started as a book of maps to help people on trips get to their destinations. Now, someone may plan a trip and consider a Michelin-rated restaurant itself the destination. That’s a loyalty that you can’t buy.

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Zac Goldberg
Zac Goldberg

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