How a Tire Company Changed the Restaurant Business ForeverDec 07, 2021
Around the world, a Michelin star is known as one of the most prestigious honors that can be awarded to a restaurant.
The Michelin Guide, which has existed for over a century, ranks the world’s top eating establishments on a scale from zero to three stars. The criteria for achieving three stars is so difficult that earning even a single star is enough to vault any chef into instant fame.
What’s surprising, however, is that one of the highest accolades in professional cooking was created by a tire company.
Yes — the Michelin company that created the guide is the same one that advertises its products with a marshmallowy mascot who looks like a pile of white tires with arms and legs.
How did this happen?
The Michelin brothers started their tire company in France in 1889, when the rapidly-evolving automobile was just a fraction of the transportation market. (In America, the invention of the Ford Model T was still almost 20 years away.) One of Michelin’s strategies for marketing tires was to give people a reason to drive.
The Michelin Guide began as a set of recommendations for travel: places to go, gas station locations, instructions on changing a tire. Though it included ads, it was free for many years.
But everything changed when one of the brothers, Andre, saw the Michelin Guide being used as scrap material to prop up a tire shop workbench.
Rather than deeming the guide a failure, the Michelin brothers changed their approach: They ditched the ads, started recommending places to eat based on categories, hired mystery diners to review restaurants, and sold the guide for seven francs instead of giving it away. In 1936, the brothers published the criteria for the star rankings that they had begun to use in the guide.
Thanks to serious treatment of the guide and Michelin’s persistent efforts over many years, Michelin stars became the desired award of chefs all over the world. In fact, Michelin has sold over 30 million guides — and who knows how many tires — in the last hundred years.1
It’s not terribly often that marketing campaigns work their way into our historical record. But more importantly, Michelin is still considered by some to be one of the most authentic and most trusted brands in the world.2,3
Marketing Is About Creating Relationships
You may have heard that marketing is about a lot of different things: creating sales opportunities, telling stories, casting a vision, generating awareness, developing brand trust, instigating change… and so on.
To some degree, it’s about all those things. But I believe that fundamentally, marketing is about creating relationships.
A business is really just people selling to other people. The moment that we forget the significance of the person-to- person connection, the more that marketing becomes about gimmicks, tricks, and manipulation.
The Michelin brothers did not push their products upon potential customers. Instead, they focused on creating and optimizing the guide, a quality resource that also spoke to the quality of their tires. They helped their customers do more than acquire reliable tires. They proved that they shared the values of the traveler: to eat well, enjoy new destinations, and have unforgettable experiences while on the road.
Because of its focus on quality and values, the Michelin company created a relationship with its target market as well as the restaurant industry. That relationship is paying dividends to this day — and it will likely do so for years to come.
So if marketing is about creating relationships, how do relationships begin? They begin with shared values.
Surface-level relationships start at shared interests, but substantive relationships are about shared values — that is, not just connecting, but connecting on what’s important. The following are five qualities of great relationships. There are certainly more, but these are critical for our purposes.
5 Qualities of Great Relationships
- Trust - being credible and reliable
- Authenticity - being true to form
- Transparency - being clear and honest
- Generosity - being charitable, well-intentioned, and willing to help
- Mutuality - able to demonstrate equal interest and care
Businesses that communicate and exhibit these qualities have an excellent reputation in the marketplace. That reputation allows them to interact with customers at a level that is beyond transactional. They inspire and empower. They engender loyalty. They have relational equity with their customers, which transcends matters of cost — and even competition. They put the interests of their customers ahead of profit. Because of this, they attract new customers and repeat customers in droves, year after year.
To these businesses, marketing is not a chore. It’s not a machine they have to build, fix, and constantly re-engineer when it breaks down or is no longer relevant. Instead, marketing is an expression of the body of their business, performed like a well-choreographed dance. It still takes effort, but it’s natural, fluid, and true to form — not distracting, clunky, and fake.
This kind of marketing reliably translates into sales, first because it feels organic, and second because it allows businesses to properly mirror the customers’ interests back to them. Instead of shrinking back in skepticism, customers are drawn in by natural desire and curiosity.
A positive marketing relationship makes the business an advocate for the customer. Too often, businesses start marketing by prematurely asking the customer to be an advocate for the business. Sales should never be about what you want from someone, but what you want for them. When customers sense that a business wants something good for them — not simply for itself — the purchasing process feels natural, even empowering.
In order to create this positive relationship, businesses must act on their values. To act on their values, they have to be explicit about what those values are. They also need to know who shares them (because not everyone will). Then they need to be able to communicate them and live up to them on a consistent basis.
Exercise: What Are Your Values?
What are your values — the ones that you want to direct your career or your business?
Take some time today to think about (and write down) what’s important to you. Let those values be the cornerstones of your marketing: what you talk about, what you focus on, and how you connect with your target market.
This is an edited excerpt from my book Mission, Market, Message: The Actionable Guide to Marketing for Small Business Owners, which you can purchase on Amazon.
- About the MICHELIN Guide. MICHELIN Guide. https://guide.michelin.com/us/en/about-us.
- Cohn & Wolfe. (2017). Authentic 100. Authentic Brands. http://www.authentic100.com/.
- Franks, D. (2020, January 9). Who are the World’s Most Trusted Brands and Why? (Updated for 2020). Infegy. https://blog.infegy.com/who-are-the-worlds-most-trusted-brands-and-why.