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What Michelin Stars have to do with your marketing

Imagine you’re at a party. There are perhaps thirty people sitting down to eat dinner and you want to speak to everyone there. But the person next to you just won’t stop talking. Worse still: they’re only talking about themselves. You keep catching bits of other people’s interesting conversations but then your neighbour is back again. Talking about how good he or she is at their job. Talking about how amazing their company is. Talking about anything to do with who they are and what they do.

Does that sound similar to any marketing you’ve seen recently, any content you’ve seen from other advisers, or firms within the industry? We all know someone or a firm who is that person at the dinner party, so desperate for attention that they just will not stop talking about themselves and their successes. They’re the best at this and that, they’ve won this award and that one too. They shout louder than anyone else at the marketing table but they will never get the attention they want or that intangible part of marketing that every marketeer wants for their brands: the positive feeling towards a firm or a person that gets them recommended by peers, clients and people who have never even met them. Their approach to getting your attention is too crass, too direct and too invasive.

A little bit of history…

Rewind to France, 1900 and a story the advertiser Dave Trott tells well in his book, Predatory Thinking.

The motor car was still in its infancy but its rise was well and truly underway. Armand Peugeot had built his first car four years previously. In 1898, the Renault brothers had joined the fray, and sold their first automobile. And, after just over 10 years of being incorporated, Édouard and André Michelin needed to figure out how to sell more of their tyres.

They could have gone about this like the chap sitting next to you at the dinner table. In 1891 they had patented the removable tyre. They were growing and optimistic. They could have shouted at anyone who would listen that they were the best, that their tyres were perfect for the new Peugeots and Renaults flying off 1900s forecourts. They didn’t do that. Instead, they created The Michelin Guide.

The Michelin Guide has absolutely nothing to do with tyres. It is also marketing genius.

Originally distributed for free, The Michelin Guide listed great places to visit in France. It also noted nice local restaurants, garages for drivers to purchase petrol from and places to stay if the trip was a particularly long one.

It encouraged people to see great things in their car. Which meant that they had to buy more tyres.

After a few years, the guide was mass produced and available everywhere, so the Michelin brothers pulled a classic marketing trick. They reduced the amount available and started to charge for it. Almost overnight, the guide became exclusive. More people wanted it and every restaurant wanted to be in it. Now, and still today, there’s another marketing advantage for Michelin from the guide: it associates their brand with exclusivity, taste and industry-leading rankings. Which is exactly what Michelin want you to think they stand for, when they charge you twice as much for your tyre as other brands.

Michelin engaged in what we now call Content Marketing. They produced a piece of content that people wanted. It didn’t matter that it had little to do with their core business. All that mattered was that it ultimately benefitted their core business. That is a key piece of thinking in modern marketing and one that many firms are still struggling with.

The alternative, though, is to be the dinner party guest who won’t stop talking about themselves. And really, nobody wants to be that person and nobody wants to listen to that person. Which is how your marketing and Michelin Stars are ultimately pretty closely related.

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