Diana Marszalek 09 Nov 2017 // 1:00PM GMT
Started in 1900 by a French tire company, Michelin restaurant guides — and those coveted stars for excellence — remain remarkably robust, making the books one of the auto era’s most enduring marketing mechanisms. While the little red guidebook, crafted to promote French auto travel, has certainly morphed and grown (the guides now rank restaurants in 28 countries), the marketing idea behind their creation has remained steadfast: Providing consumers information on places to go (in this case, restaurants) promotes car travel; More driving means more car sales, as well as purchases of all those things that keep them on the road — like tires. “They were trusting in the development of the industry,” said Claire Dorland Clauzel, who, as EVP of Michelin Brands, holds the company’s top marketing and communications job.
During a late October stop in New York to unveil Michelin’s 2018 guide to the city’s restaurants, Dorland Clauzel spoke with the Holmes Report about why the guidebooks are still relevant, how Michelin reconciles business interests and environmental responsibility and what makes a tire company one of the world’s top authorities on fine dining. An edited transcript:
For two men in the early tire business, the Michelin brothers demonstrated keen marketing prowess. What was behind their efforts — primarily the guidebooks?
Very early, they had this vision that mobility is a whole, it’s not just making tires. And they were right when you look at what’s happening today. It was a question of quality first and of client service. They thought it was very useful for these first drivers to have some help...at a time when there was nothing on the road, and they wanted to encourage people to drive more. The (early) Michelin guides connected motorists and services — garages, doctors — and within a short time they thought it would be useful for people when they traveled to have addresses and hotels and restaurants.
Nearly 118 years later, Michelin, still very much a tire company, is considered by many the authoritative voice on dining and restaurants. How did that happen?
What’s extraordinary, what established the Michelin Guide as the best guide in world, is that there is a methodology and independence. We pay inspectors to build it. They have dinner or lunch in a restaurant, pay the bill. What is important is the methodology those inspectors have in mind when they rate restaurants. There are five criteria: the quality of the product; the quality of the food preparation; value for money; innovation in cooking; and regularity — is the client able to (count on) having a good meal. Very often people think we are rating the service and luxury. Not at all.
In the age of the Internet, though, everyone is a food critic, on top of the proliferation of sites like Yelp, Chowhound and Trip Advisor. How do Michelin Guides compete?
It’s been more than 10 years since we digitalized our publications and we know that, as a service for customers, we have to be on all platforms. But people still want books, and the Red Guide is a book that people like to have.
On the Internet, you can find anything — the best and the worst. The competition is very hard. But I think the main reason for our durability and success is that people trust us. We stay relevant because we have the five criteria and the fact that our inspectors are paying their bills, and earning (money rating restaurants). They are clients with palates, they know a lot and they are respected by the chefs, even though you have some people who disagree with ratings. This is life.
Many consumers don’t realize that Michelin the tire company and Michelin the guidebook publisher are one and the same. Do you think the marketing tie-in still works?
The purpose of our company is to improve mobility, and mobility is not only tires. Mobility is going from one point to another, and between these two you have to travel. At the end we want to develop some business activity around these guides...to organize events around food. We see gastronomy is playing a more and more important role than it did five or six years ago, so its very important for us that the Michelin brand is associated with that...that there be emotional contact with the brand. (Otherwise) there is not much contact. You buy a tire only every two or three years.
How do you reconcile promoting mobility, essentially more car travel, with demand on corporations to reduce their negative impact on the environment?
We know that mobility is going to double from now to 2030, double in terms of cars and double in terms of airplane activity. We think mobility is good for humanity, for development. But we also know that we have to chance the way mobility is developed because of conditions like CO2 and traffic. So we have to incorporate sustainability.
Our CO2 emissions are due to the rolling resistance of the tire, and so all our research is focused on that. We have created the Vision (concept) tire. The tire is rechargeable, and it can adapt to the conditions of the road. If you are going to go skiing, you can stop at a retreading station and put on the tire the right tread for winter conditions, the economy and the planet. The tire has no air, and it is connected with a digital system that communicates with the vehicle and the driver. We want to develop the future of mobility. The Vision is how we really think about the future of mobility...we want to develop that future. But we also have to take into account that mobility is going to change.