Rory Sutherland tells a really interesting story about The Michelin Guide.

The Michelin Guide is universally recognised as the most influential indicator of gastronomic ability.

If a restaurant has a single Michelin star it can charge pretty much what it wants.

If it has two Michelin stars the queue will be round the block.

If it has three Michelin stars you’ll have to book at least a year ahead.

The great chefs train their whole lives to achieve, and then hang onto, Michelin stars.

The interesting thing is The Michelin Guide didn’t start out to be a guide to cuisine.

It started out as a way of selling tyres.

In 1900 the Michelin brothers owned a company in France selling tyres.

They wanted to sell more tyres.

And, in order to do that, they needed to get drivers to use up the ones they had.

So in 1900 they issued the first Michelin Guide.

It showed all the great things to see and do around France.

Encouraging people to get out in their car and drive to all these places.

It featured a list of sights to see, places to buy petrol, places to stay, location of garages, mechanics, and, being French, good places to eat.

So the Michelin guide wasn’t originally just about restaurants.

It was a list of reasons to travel around.

That’s why the original meaning of the star rating for restaurants was as follows.


1 star: worth stopping for.

2 stars: worth a detour.

3 stars: worth a special journey.


The Guide was phenomenally successful.

So much so that it had to be printed and updated regularly due to demand.

But it’s popularity created its own problems.

Originally, when they started The Guide, they gave it away free.

They updated it every year at their own cost.

As a marketing tool, it seemed a good investment.

But after about twenty years it had stopped being a novelty.

It was taken for granted.

One of the brothers spotted a pile of Michelin Guides in a garage forecourt being used to prop up a table.

He was outraged.

It wasn’t being treated with respect.

People don’t value things that come too easily.

So the brothers stopped giving it away free.

They began charging for it.

And a funny thing happened.

Because they were no longer free, it meant there were less in circulation.

Because they had to be bought, people looked after them.

They wouldn’t loan them or throw them away.

All of this had the effect of making it more valuable.

More respected.

More of an authority.

And The Michelin Guide assumed a life of its own.

Away from anything to do with tyres, or motoring, or garages.

Now consumers looked to it for guidance on the quality of restaurants.

This meant chefs fought to get into it, and they fought for higher ratings.

The successful ones, loving awards, displayed their stars prominently.

Consumers seeing that top chefs took it seriously treated it as the ultimate authority.

The Michelin Guide is a great example of choice architecture.

Pull-thinking rather than push-thinking.

Instead of running advertising constantly nagging people to use your product, show them something they’d love to do.

Something that doesn’t even involve mentioning your product.

Something fun.

And incidentally, without even mentioning it, you’ve created a need for more sales of your product.

And, if you get it right, you might create something that’s so good it takes on a life of its own.


In which case you’ve not only got a great piece of marketing, you’ve got a whole new business.