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The tire industry is considered by many to be a rather pedestrian business, turning out products barely distinguishable from one another. Yet despite this lackluster image, the industry boasts two of the most recognizable and enduring corporate icons ever created- Bibendum (the roly-poly Michelin Man) and the Goodyear blimp.

Michelin's first 100 years

Created in 1898 during Michelin's infancy, Bibendum has been used consistently ever since. The name Bibendum, taken from the Latin phrase nunc est bibendum (now is the time to drink), was adopted by the Michelin brothers, Andre and Edouard, to underscore the ability of their products to "swallow" obstacles and keep going.

The first incarnations of Bibendum reflected the tires of the day, so the early Bibendum was comprised of dozens of tires stacked on top of one another, making the figure appear somewhat mummylike. Later, as tires became wider, Bibendum's appearance was modified, becoming more and more the roly-poly character familiar worldwide today.

French artist Marius Rossillon—alias "O'Galop"—created the Michelin Man, holding a cocktail glass full of nails and broken glass with the phrase "Nunc est bibendum" supplemented with "The Michelin tire swallows obstacles" in posters that were first issued in June 1898. The Michelin Man's white color reflected the hue of tires of that time.

The Michelin brothers saw considerable promotional opportunity in the nascent motoring industry. In 1900, the company issued the first "Guide Michelin:—a simple red-cover, pocket-size book containing information vital to the motorist's safe and enjoyable journey: maps and locations of gasoline and repair stations, inns, restaurants and hotels. Andre Michelin is also credited with one of the earliest examples of the "advertorial."

In 1901, he used advertising space in daily newspapers to publish what appeared to the reader to be an editorial column, addressing topics of interest to both the cycling and motoring public. Known as "Les Lundis de Michelin" (Michelin Mondays), the columns ran weekly for more than 13 years, ending with the outbreak of World War I.

Andre Michelin sought out another market segment by buying the back cover of an illustrated magazine, L'illustration Théâtrale, and creating "Le Théâtre Illustre du Pneu" (The Illustrated Tire Theater). The posterlike illustrations portrayed a scene drawn from that issue's contents, casting Bibendum in a starring role.

Bibendum nearly went out of favor in the post-World War II period as Michelin, like other rebuilding companies, struggled with its own identity amid the postwar chaos. Michelin also was hampered by the deaths of its founders—Andre in 1931 and Edouard in 1940—and the lack of a clear-cut successor. During the 1950s, advertising and promotion took a backseat to manufacturing investments as demand outstripped supply.

As the company's creative minds struggled over whether to update Bibendum or replace him, an event occurred in July 1969 that was beyond the company's control and breathed new life into the Michelin Man. Many viewers who witnessed U.S. astronauts take their first walks on the moon could not help but be struck by a resemblance between the space-suited heroes and Bibendum.

In 1985, Michelin gave Bibendum a fresh look globally. It cost the company more than $300 million to phase in the new image, putting the character's likeness on company stationery, vehicles and more.

Besides its century-old Tire Man icon, the French tire maker's U.S. subsidiary lays claim to an ad campaign whose message remained virtually unaltered for more than 18 years—the DDB Needham-created infant safety campaign highlighting the company's safety-oriented tagline: "Because so much is riding on your tires."

Michelin North America retired the baby campaign in mid-2001 and turned over its account to Detroit-based Campbell-Ewald. Campbell-Ewald retained the tagline, "Because so much is riding on your tires," but replaced the baby with images of Bibendum caressing tires in a factory before their release for sale. By 2004, Bibendum continued to appear in advertising.

Goodyear: Triumph of the blimp

The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s use of the blimp as an advertising and promotional vehicle—and later as a corporate symbol—developed over time, beginning in 1917, when the company received contracts to build airships for the U.S. Navy. Goodyear built both rigid dirigibles and non-rigid blimps; the former were phased out, but the latter were used fairly regularly by the Navy throughout the 1930s and '40s.

After the close of World War II, Goodyear bought back five Navy blimps to use for advertising and promotional purposes. In 1958, Goodyear began to use the blimps for promotion. A publicity tour of the eastern U.S. seaboard exposed millions to the Goodyear blimp and convinced the company to put more funding behind the effort.

When the Navy scrapped its remaining blimps in 1962, Goodyear's "Skytacular" was the only blimp flying in North America. An array of programmable lights on each flank of the blimp allowed Goodyear to broadcast both corporate and civic messages at night. By the mid-1960s, the company had commissioned two more blimps; they were in constant demand as aerial TV platforms for sporting events and other outdoor spectacles.

Despite the obvious popularity of the blimp, it has not been a focal point of company advertising except on one occasion. In 1982, Goodyear TV spots featured the blimp flying at treetop level, following cars as they drove along. The message: "Put the blimp behind you." Goodyear had a monopoly on the skies for more than two decades before other companies took to the air with their own, albeit smaller, blimps.

Young & Rubicam was Goodyear's agency for passenger tires, replacing the Kudner Agency in the 1940s. N.W. Ayer handled corporate and institutional for a period also. Y&R remained with the company until it was replaced in 1985 by J. Walter Thompson Co.

In the late 1970s, rival tire maker B.F. Goodrich—playing off the confusion between the Goodyear and Goodrich names&mdashand its ad agency, BBDO, created a "We're the Other Guys" campaign that used comic situations to point out the fact that "Goodrich doesn't have a blimp."

In early 2001, Goodyear split with JWT and moved its account to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, which created a campaign called, "On the Wings of Goodyear." This campaign, based on its winged-foot logo, focused on the human element—scenes of carpooling, the morning commute and family vacations, for example—instead of the firm's technological accomplishments. It replaced the "Serious Freedom" campaign Goodyear had used from the mid-1990s and through 2001.

An expanding field

Over the course of the 20th century the tire business became progressively more competitive. By the 1930s, several major U.S. brands were actively advertising, including Goodyear (ads by the Kudner Agency; Y&R; JWT), Firestone (Sweeney & James Co.), General Tire (D'Arcy Advertising), B.F. Goodrich (Ruthrauff & Ryan; BBDO after 1940), Kelly-Springfield (J. Stirling Getchell Inc.; Compton Advertising after 1942), U.S. Rubber (Campbell-Ewald Co.) and several smaller companies.

Firestone was among the first to aggressively enter network radio when Sweeney & James launched "The Voice of Firestone" on NBC in 1928, a year after the founding of the network. The program of concert music was intended to distinguish the company with a reputation for quality; Firestone also entered TV early, simulcasting the radio show starting in 1949. In the mid-1950s, Firestone coined a phrase in-house that has withstood the test of time: "Where the rubber meets the road."

As the 1990s approached, still more companies had entered the field, but the familiar names still dominated, although they were somewhat reconfigured and consolidated. Firestone merged with Bridgestone to become Bridgestone/Firestone, with advertising handled by TBWA Chiat/Day. In 1987, Goodrich merged with the tire division of chemical giant Uniroyal Inc. to become Uniroyal-Goodrich Tire Co., which subsequently was bought by Michelin in 1989.

In 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone faced a marketer's nightmare when its tires were implicated in several fatal crashes involving Ford's Explorer sport-utility vehicle. The tire marketer developed an all-newspaper campaign to educate consumers about a massive recall of three of its Firestone tire models.

In the first six months of 2001, with its Firestone brand still under a cloud, Bridgestone/Firestone spent just less than $12 million advertising Bridgestone tires in the U.S., up from $400,000 in that same period the previous year, and $1.3 million to support its Firestone brand, down from $8 million in the first half of 2000. Grey Worldwide handled the efforts, part of a 50% jump in parent Bridgestone Corp.'s total U.S. ad spending in 2001.

But Firestone started advertising in earnest again in 2004, bringing back its classic "Where the rubber meets the road" song from 20-plus years ago.

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