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Not just symbols


Some of the most iconic symbols in the industry are just as famous as the brands they represent





Paolo Ferrini

Bibendum, the Michelin man

Michelin’s symbol, Bibendum, probably stands out as the most famous in the tire industry and not only. As is often the case, its origins cannot be attributed to a specific marketing study, but rather to a series of random events. Legend has it that Edouard Michelin, back in 1894, saw a pile of stacked tires in front of the company’s stand at the “Exposition universelle, internationale et coloniale” in Lyon, France. Speaking to his brother Andrè, Edouard stated “with arms and legs it would look like a snowman!”.

Three years later, illustrator Marius Rossillon (a.k.a. O'Galop) shows the Michelin brothers a number of advertising sketches including one he prepared for a brewery portraying a customer raising his glass. Andrè Michelin immediately associates the sketch’s slogan ("Nunc est bibendum", Latin expression by Horace which literally means "it's time to drink!") to his concept of a tire that “drinks up obstacles” and changes the slogan to read "Le pneu Michelin boit l’obstacle" (cheers! The Michelin tire drinks up obstacles). The evocatively- shaped stack of tires seen a few years before does the rest, and soon after a snowman made of stacked tires which raises a goblet "to your health!" completes the commercial. The Michelin Man was born.

The poster was an instant success, following which the Michelin brothers commissioned a giant cardboard dummy for the 1898 Paris Motor Show. The huge dummy created quite a stir but still lacked an official name, just a few nicknames including the rather unedifying "street drunkard”.

Once again, in a rather casual and involuntary fashion, the process of associating brand-image-name is completed when, during the Paris-Amsterdam-Paris race of the same year , one of the participants, Leon Thery upon seeing Andre Michelin crossing the finish line on a Panhard-Levassor greeted him saying "Look!, here comes Bibendum!" which was not exactly meant as a compliment. Nonetheless, the Michelin brothers liked it and immediately adopted the nickname: the Michelin Man now had a name.

Since then, Bibendum has obviously been the subject of numerous changes and reviews - including a crash diet ... – with the purpose of adapting the image to the changing times, trends, styles and languages, without changing its original spirit. An absolutely striking figure in the advertising landscape of the time, the little man with rimless spectacles - similar (just a coincidence?) to those worn by André Michelin - lifting a glass goblet full of spikes and broken pieces of glass has come a long way to become the chubby superhero we know today, able to defeat even those fearsome gas pumps.

After having featured so greatly in the company’s original advertisement, highlighting the benefits of using Michelin’s tire to automotive engineers and manufacturers alike, Bibendum has since played an important part in presenting new products as well as providing useful suggestions for every motorist, becoming the brand’s ambassador around the world.

In 1905, Michelin opened a sales office in London. Bibendum was depicted as a "knight" wearing a helmet and a shield bent on conquering this new territory. The words on the coat of arms featured a famous phrase by English poet Tennyson suitably adapted to promote the French tires: "My strength is as the strength of ten, Because my rubber is pure." Two years later, in 1907, Michelin "crosses the Atlantic to open a factory in Milltown, New Jersey, and advertising becomes more educational. The Michelin Man is in fact portrayed as a giant who accompanies travelers handing out useful advice, highlighting at the same time the benefits of the company’s products.

From 1907 to 1915, the Italian Distributor published an amusing monthly review in which the Michelin Man is a sort of diplomat idolised by women.

Michelin used a large number of artists to portray Bibendum right up until the 1930s, where each brought its own interpretation to the character. His shape was characterized by the narrow silhouette of the tires, typical in those years, while his appearance and attitude reflected the average customer of the time, smoking a cigar and wearing spectacles.

From the 1930s onwards, Michelin made increasingly less use of outside artists. As a result, images of the Michelin Man became more standardized, although there were country-specific variants. In Germany, as in other Nordic countries, the Michelin Man wears a hat, boots and a scarf when the weather gets cold in winter. In Japan, he was portrayed as a man with sumo-like proportions. Meanwhile, adapting to the technological evolution of tires, his rings became thicker and his image was adapted to a broader customer base, appearing slimmer and more dynamic. Elected “World’s best logo of the century” in 2000, Bibendum is now taking full advantage of the most innovative digital technology often appearing in 3D format.


Goodyear blimps

Wingfoot One! This is the name of Goodyear’s latest airship. The name was chosen through an online competition among 10 proposals previously selected among the 15.000 options received by the Akron based company.

The design of this latest generation blimp (though not really a blimp, according to experts, since the main body is rigid) is the creation of Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik. Not surprisingly, then, this airship, capable of flying at a speed of 115 km / h (compared to the 80 k/h max speed of previous airships) has been built in partnership between Zeppelin and Goodyear.

Having started in 1911 producing aircraft tires, in 1917 Goodyear built its first airship. But it wasn’t until 1925, in an attempt to promote its activities during a time of crisis, that Goodyear built and flew "The Pilgrim" ("the pilgrim"). At a time when man was still firmly rooted to the ground, that airship, which slowly and quietly plowed through the sky with its huge "Goodyear" sign, fired people’s imagination. Thus the legend of these authentic flying ambassadors of the greatest American tire manufacturer began, and developed into a series of more than 300 blimps.

In the Thirties, on behalf of the US Navy, Goodyear built the USS Akron and USS Macon airships, which paved the way for a number of aircrafts equipped with radar, and used for about twenty years to warn merchant ships of any impending danger.

After the Second World War, Goodyear blimps have been involved in special events such as non-stop flights from Massachusetts to Europe and Africa and of course many promotional and sporting events. In 1955, for the first transcontinental television broadcast, a Goodyear blimp was used by the US network NBC to broadcast the Roses Parade tournament from California. Since then Goodyear blimps have often provided excellent technical support to television operators and channels in broadcasting major sports and cultural events from their vantage point in the sky, thanks to their special Gyrocam 360 cameras.

At the end of the twentieth century, Goodyear’s blimps were a common sight during any major events in the United States, Europe or South America, as well as performing community service monitoring traffic, analyzing air pollution and acting as security support during great events, besides being used in any other way where a  fixed, silent and vibration-free flying platform was needed. 


The Dunlop bridge

More recently, the so-called Dunlop bridge, a huge tire straddling across a race track, has become a common sight in many of the most famous racing circuits around the world. The first was installed in 1932 at Le Mans (and there is where it still stands albeit in its latest evolution).

At the time, to avoid crossing a nearby town, the organizers had purchased a plot of land on which they built a stretch of the track with a wide right uphill corner, a short downhill straight followed by a fast chicane. At the end of the first corner is where the organizers placed the Dunlop bridge, still strongly linked to the French 24 Hours race. The promotional success was enormous.

In time, more “Dunlop bridges” were installed on other circuits, such as Reims, Albi, Oulton Park, Montlhèry, Brands Hatch and Donnington. Some have since been removed, but the Dunlop Bridge has become, and remains, a “classic” in international motorsports.



"The Cal"


Another classic - and undoubtedly a worldwide marketing icon - is the Pirelli calendar. A non-profit limited edition photographic gallery, "The Cal" is not sold, but given to a limited number of important customers and VIPs, which makes it even more coveted as a status symbol. It is in fact a rather fashionable product, characterized by fascinating images, including artistic nudes.

Created in 1964 on the banks of the river Thames at the time of the Swinging London, but strongly sponsored by Pirelli, "The Cal" absorbed the spirit marked by planetary musical hits and great social and political issues. From mere promotional object, it quickly became a unique symbol of style with a strong aesthetic and cultural vocation.

The publication, which stopped after the 1974 edition due to the global economic recession following the oil crisis, was resumed a decade later. By now "The Cal" had become a symbol of the changing times, initially under the guidance of its first art director, Derek Forsyth, and then with Martyn Walsh who gave a very specific imprint to the photo-shoots. The new Pirelli calendar introduced subliminal tread marks on stunning models and photographic sets. In 1987, Terence Donovan created the first calendar entirely dedicated to black models, among whom sixteen-year-old Naomi Campbell stood out.

Over the years, contributing to the making of the Pirelli calendar became a mark of distinction for photographers, commissioned to create the calendar, as well as for supermodels, actresses, singers, international figures and personalities (men included).

Today, half a century after the first edition, "The Cal" returns to its early pure artistic expression without restrictions or conditions, except those dictated by style and good taste. When the art direction was moved to Pirelli’s headquarters in Milan, any reference to tires was abandoned. The "elongated P" has became an international brand, one that is not identified with a single family of products, but evokes a wide range of values, innovations with the pursuit of excellence being first and foremost.

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