An unlikely saviour

By Guy Cookson on October 29th, 2012

At the start of the twentieth century, Michelin had a problem. Despite inventing the removable pneumatic tyre in 1891 (trust me when I say this was a big deal back then) they faced intense competition at a pivotal moment in history.

Although by 1900 there were just 3,000 cars in their home market of France, it was clear that the global motor market was primed to explode. But how to get all those new drivers to use Michelin, and not some other brand?

They could advertise, of course, and advertise they did. Michelin posters were everywhere. But so were ads for Dunlop, Pirelli, Firestone and Continental. The company needed something more, something that would make Michelin the premium tyre brand, rather than just another purveyor of rubber and air.

And then came the insight. Rather than advertise the specifications, features and benefits of their tyres, Michelin would seek to embody the very virtues of motoring, the advantages of which were still unknown to the majority of the population.

How? By creating the Michelin Guide, a beautifully produced, red-bound celebration of the open road and all its untold possibilities. The things to do, the places to go. The Guide didn’t cater to an existing demand for an auto component; it helped to create one for the entire automotive category.

The message was: Michelin doesn’t sell tyres; it sells freedom.

It can sometimes seem as though the era of such inventiveness is over. Every month we’re told digital advertising is worth a few billion more than it was this time last year, but all we see are websites ever more saturated with ads.

It can feel like the content is struggling to justify its existence.

Of course, everyone knows this is madness. Jakob Nielsen’s eye-tracking studies back in 1999 revealed that people focus on the content, not the margins, where most of the ads are. The huge drop-off in click-through rates over the last decade has provided ample evidence of this behaviour bedding in.

It’s no exaggeration to say solving this problem is the greatest challenge facing the free-to-access web. The CPM gravy train has been derailed by pitiful response rates on desktop and extremely limited space on mobile.

Digital advertisers know that presenting ads that auto-play or take over the screen, irritating potential customers, can boost response rates in the short-term. But they are no way to delight, inform and seduce – especially when ad blocker software is just a click away.

That’s why smart advertisers are thinking again, like Michelin did more than a hundred years again. If you can’t cut through the clutter with traditional ads then a new approach is needed.

As Michelin discovered, the answer likely does lie not in traditional ads, but in comparably old, newspaper era wisdom: content is king.