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When the "Michelin Babies" made their debut in 1984, the responsibilities they assumed were adult from the outset.

Created by a union between the giant French tire company and the New York office of DDB Needham Worldwide, the "Babies" were initially charged with distancing Michelin from two aspects of its past: its perception as an over-priced classy tire and its image-as personified by the puffy Mr. Bib-as old-fashioned.

"Babies" took on the image problem first, hoping that the image transformation would follow. The brand decided to differentiate itself from the pack by positioning it as a family-safe tire-the first in the industry to abandon the up-to-the-minute technological innovations claims. Combining high price with safety, the campaign developed a strategy of value, which has consistently made it a top ranking campaign and the only one for tires in Video Storyboard Tests' research since 1988.

Its sales ranking has followed the campaign's success. Michelin became one of the best "asked for by name" tires in the country. From fourth position in 1985 (behind Goodyear, Firestone and Sears), it became the No. 2 brand in the replacement tire market by 1995. It posted a unit gain of 18% vs. only 5% by Firestone.

Despite a consistent theme, the advertising performance has been erratic over the past two years. After maintaining a steady position in the top 25 ranks in the early '90s, the campaign dropped out in 1995. Was the campaign showing signs of wear-out? "Ads in 1995 were very product specific" instead of the umbrella look that has been featured in most of the 40 executions to date.

The performance of the latest two executions-"Ark" and "Odo-meter"- (within striking distance of the Top 10) confirms the value of "Babies" and "safety" for Michelin.

DDB Needham Chief Operating Officer Peter Tate, in charge of the account for a decade, claims "it is now emotional safety. With safety, we pre-empted a category generic message and made it brand specific."

What the new commercials set out to do is combine the best of both worlds: the emotional sell of Michelin with the technological claims of the competition.

Dave Vadehra is president of Video Storyboard Tests.

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