In 1889 a cyclist arrived at a rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand, France, with a damaged tyre.
This caught the interest of the two brothers that ran the factory as the tyre was pneumatic – still a novelty then. It was not an easy job, as the tyre was glued directly to the rim of the wheel. Removing and repairing it took hours, and it then had to be left overnight to dry.
Sensing an opportunity, Édouard and André Michelin decided to make something better. Just two years later they were awarded a patent for the world’s first removable pneumatic tyre.
And this is where the story changes from one of technological ingenuity to one of marketing genius. The Michelin brothers knew they had a product that was perfect for the motor car. There was just one problem: hardly anyone owned one.
In fact, in 1900, there were fewer than 3,000 cars in all of France. And so that year the brothers came up with a brilliant way to encourage people to discover the joy of the open road – and increase vehicle sales and demand for tyres in the process. They called it the Michelin Guide. It’s one of the earliest and best examples of content marketing.
The first edition contained maps, the locations of garages, and of course some useful tips about how to change a tyre. By 1911 there were Michelin Guides for much of Europe, including the British Isles.
The Guide remained free until 1920, when André Michelin reportedly noticed a stack were being used to hold up a workbench at a garage. Being of the opinion that, “man only truly respects what he pays for,” a cover price was duly added.
To differentiate Michelin from a growing number of lower priced competitors, the Guide started to focus on the most discerning customers. They hired a team of undercover inspectors to visit the restaurants featured in the Guide, and to award stars to the very best.
Today, 117 years after its launch, the Michelin Guide is probably the most prestigious restaurant guide in the world. And Michelin tyres are some of the most premium. And that is no coincidence.
This post originally appeared in the Lancaster Guardian, where I write a weekly column.