Behind the Michelin man is a woman: Claire Dorland-Clauzel.
The tire giant's head marketer is Sorbonne-educated, a one-time senior staffer in the French treasury department and known as highly motivated, passionate and fast-rising. She joined Michelin in 2008 after a decade-long post running brand communications for insurer Axa and recently became the first female executive in Michelin's more than 120-year history to be invited onto the company's executive committee.
What's more, her responsibilities are expanding. She has been overseeing advertising as well as internal and external communications for the brand and has just been tapped to lead Michelin's maps and guides departments. The additional role constitutes one of the more consumer-facing extensions of Michelin's business -- and an intriguing one, given the nearly 100 secret professionals who gather each year to select the restaurants worthy of earning a prestigious Michelin Star.
Despite the economic downturn, Michelin's financials are anything but tired. The company, which supplies all manner of transport including bicycles, trucks and airplanes, and is the biggest tire maker in the world after Bridgestone, upped its profit goals for 2015. It cited brand awareness and strength in a variety of global markets that is leading to increased demand.
Michelin is based in Clermont-Ferrand, a city in central France nestled within a chain of ancient volcanoes. But Ms. Dorland-Clauzel met up with Ad Age just outside of central Paris, at the company's new high-rise office in the suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. The once-secretive company is opening up more these days, and we spoke at length with Ms. Dorland-Clauzel about her role and the values that are central to the Michelin brand.
On advertising during hard times...
Marketers based in Europe or those that derive a significant portion of their business from European consumers are all carefully watching the market and bracing for the worst, particularly in countries such as Greece and Italy. Ms. Dorland-Clauzel, noting that Michelin's financial results have bucked trends, believes part of the reason for that is the strength and recognition the brand has built up over many years. For premium brands especially, she said, it's best not to slash prices but to stay the course and rely on the trust they've built up while innovating with new products.
"When you have a crisis, a strong brand is what consumers turn to," she said. "It's true that a Michelin tire is a little more expensive than another brand, but you have safety and quality guarantees, and that 's what we have to communicate. Of course, in a [severe] economic downturn we have to tighten our budget and spend less. But till today, we have maintained [spending], and after my arrival we have increased our advertising spend. It's important to be in consumer minds."
On Michelin's history as a family company ...
Michelin's roots are as a rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand founded by brothers Edouard and Andre Michelin, and until earlier this year there was always a link to the Michelin family at the company's helm. But Michael Rollier, the last relative to oversee the corporation, in May was replaced by new CEO Jean-Dominique Serard. The way Ms. Dorland-Clauzel sees it, the succession to a non-family member is a positive thing, but she's also confident that the Michelin brand will always keep the ideals of its founders at heart. Asked if she thought having the founders' name on the door can be constraining in terms of marketing activities, she replied that it actually makes things easier.
"What is important and what is the difference with this kind of company and brand is that the values and guidelines have been established and are very strong," she said. "But it doesn't mean that we don't manage change, of course. We have to always evolve the mission of the brand." She noted that innovations in technology are a top priority for the company, such as the creation of tires that can help cars use less fuel. "Michelin is a company that always has a long-term vision, long-term strategy and wants to create products that help mobility."
On why brand mascot Bibendum is still relevant ...
"It is not an icon. It's an ambassador," said Ms. Dorland-Clauzel of the loveable, roly-poly face of the Michelin brand. The notion of an ad icon is one whose heyday has come and gone, but she believes that Bibendum, as he's always been known in France (or the Michelin Man to the rest of the world) is still relevant today as the company attempts to conquer emerging markets in Asia.
"The two brothers had the vision to create a character to be an ambassador for the brand because it's not so easy [for consumers to associate] with tires. They are round, dark, sometimes dirty. ... This is very important for the brand, and it's a point of differentiation against the competition," she said. "Awareness of Michelin is 80% around the world -- even in China -- and in Europe it's more than 90%, more like 92%, and that 's because he's been used in all the communications from the beginning. I think that it was genius to create such an icon."
The look of the character has changed over the years, with its most significant update coming in step with Michelin's first global ad campaign in 2009, by Omnicom Group's TBWA. It's hard to overestimate the care with which the company considers the Michelin Man's appearance and demeanor; every six months it conducts surveys and evaluates how the character is being perceived by consumers around the world, and roughly every other year it publishes a "Passport" for the icon that 's disseminated to staffers globally. The Passport is used to set boundaries for use of the Michelin Man in advertising. It states, for example, that he will never be aggressive or deliver a sales pitch, and can never be lacking in physical integrity, such as appearing dirty or covered in mud. He is always benevolent and can have fun, laugh and smile, and even be a little mischievous.
On being a branded-content pioneer ...
Marketers today are investing many resources into branded content, but Michelin, via its travel maps and dining guides, has been at it for nearly 100 years. The Michelin Star is a global ranking that most every restaurant covets. But people don't often refer to it in association with its proprietor, which pays anonymous foodies to try various restaurants and publish the guides.
"Maps and guides are a way to have proximity to the consumer," said Ms. Dorland-Clauzel. "You buy a tire every two years, so your proximity with the brand isn't so frequent -- but these guides come out once a year, and they can be used regularly. It's a very agreeable way to interact with the brand."
One focus of the company has been evolving the content to be more accessible. In doing so, it has added a "Bib Gourmand" ranking -- which has a tiny image of the Michelin Man -- to its guides. The idea is to suggest good food that 's not expensive -- or, as she puts it, that has "a better ratio between quality and cost."
ViaMichelin is a subsidiary of the company that houses a digital-mapping business providing travel solutions for phones and GPS products. It generates millions of maps each month via the web to help customers navigate the U.S., Europe, Australia and, increasingly, Asia and South America. It also has licensed its brand to sell non-tire products in stores and via the website Michelinfootwear.com. The products include slip-resistant shoes and boots that use tire technology on soles.
Currently, the company offers its restaurant guides via a Michelin app that it charges for (in Europe it's as much as nine euros, more than $11), which sparked a discussion about the ability to charge for premium content when so much free content is available. Ms. Dorland-Clauzel agreed that it was a challenge: "Let's see. We are trying to adapt to this new digital and free-content environment."
On women in business ...
Hanging on the wall in Ms. Dorland-Clauzel's office is a photo of a female line employee in a Michelin tire-manufacturing plant. It's symbolic not only of her rapid ascent within a historically male-dominated business, but also of how she hopes to help shape the future of Michelin. Hiring more female executives is a focus for Ms. Dorland-Clauzel, and for the firm as well. It recently instituted a new rule that mandates that for every two men, there must be one woman hired -- a sea change for the 120-year-old company.