To begin: here are some bad tweets:
In the same London restaurant as a well-known BBC presenter last night. Was half expecting them to stand up and shout “drinks all round!”— The MICHELIN Guide (@MichelinGuideUK) July 22, 2017
Pantomime season has started.— The MICHELIN Guide (@MichelinGuideUK) September 16, 2017
As I sat down for dinner I got a text from the restaurant asking where I was.
First things first: yes, that last one got 8 retweets and 61 (SIXTY ONE!) likes. Yes, they are bad tweets; yes, they are all from the @MichelinGuideUK account; yes, it has 65,000 followers. It is astonishingly easy — panning for gold in a California creek two hundred years ago easy — to find terrible tweets in Michelin’s feed: there are just so many of them. They’re eye-rollingly boring when they think they contain nuggets of interesting information; they are resolutely unfunny when they think they're hilarious. In sum: real bad tweets.
It only gets worse when you consider what they're supposed to be. There is a long and ignoble history of established brands looking to freshen themselves up to gain some traction among younger audiences by developing a social media presence. Just imagine the meeting in which it was decided that the best way to make Michelin relevant again was to take up some virtual real estate.
Not like this, though:
I can see lots of diners in the restaurant on voucher deals— The MICHELIN Guide (@MichelinGuideUK) August 11, 2017
Hope they go back and pay the ‘real’ menu price another time
Or this, surely:
Didn’t expect this: cheese course before dessert in a very British restaurant yesterday; today cheese came after dessert in a French one— The MICHELIN Guide (@MichelinGuideUK) June 28, 2017
Or — come on! — this:
Side dish of under-seasoned flageolet bean purée was no substitute for a butter-rich potato one— The MICHELIN Guide (@MichelinGuideUK) September 20, 2017
The issue, of course, is the social media illiteracy of the people given the keys to the castle — the password to the account. If you want to reassure your audience that your inspectors aren't all snobby petit-bourgeois estate drivers who delight in a trip to the local eatery; joyless box-ticking pedants who delight not in food that is delicious but in food that is correct; or ludicrously out-of-date Francophiles who delight in, uh, France: don’t let these people do the tweets. At times it seems that not even 280 characters could save them.
Like this year’s clunking, motoring-journalist-hosted, grievous-error-centric awards ceremony, Michelin UK's Twitter account is a comprehensive example of bad brand practice. Not only does it make something formerly aloof and self-assured look just as thirsty for millennial attention as any other moribund institution out there, but it yanks back the Wizard of Oz's curtain with such force that it becomes even harder to empathise with the soul of the guide. What is this little red book, and why should anyone care about what it has to say?
The wider restaurant-going public seems to be asking itself a similar question: Michelin has never looked less useful. This is not to underplay the primacy it still retains in the minds of chefs — they don’t sort-of joke about killing themselves if they don’t get a certain number of AA rosettes — or to overlook the rigorous quality control that ensures a star still means something (even if it's clear that only a specific kind of cooking in a specific kind of room will be rewarded.) It is to make a simple claim: all the veneration in the world doesn't mean a thing if no one is using you.
The world continues to change; an expert’s opinion has never mattered less. These days we have each other, whether as recommendation-touting friends or the wisdom-of-crowds hive mind. News moves faster than it once did: takes and counter-takes bubble up only to disappear into nothingness in mere hours. People travel further, too — making literal trips across Europe, America, the world, to pay homage at their high temples of gastronomy. What does the recommendation of somewhere worth a “detour” or “special trip” look like today?
Michelin faces two major structural problems that limit its ability to move with the times. First, the very process that ensures its reliability renders it fundamentally unsuited to keeping up. Restaurant culture prizes novelty, while the major city Guides come out once a year. This is testament to the exacting, painstaking labour that goes into writing them, but is also ludicrously slow-moving for the current age. Secondly, Michelin cannot — or acts like it cannot — reverse prior decisions for fear of undermining its credibility. If a French giant like Alain Ducasse is garlanded with stars in his home country, he must also be garlanded with them wherever his name is on the door; if a chef wins a star one year, it reflects more severely on the guide than it does the chef if it is relinquished the next.
Michelin needs an online presence to help address the shortcomings inherent to its print output. It needs a way of inserting itself into the great ongoing conversation about food that allows it to be more nimble and responsive — showing sensitivity to changing trends rather than rewarding the same places ad infinitum. Unfortunately, when it has tried to move online — even overlooking the ongoing Twitter debacle — it has botched the execution: the functionality of the guides made available on the web is awkward at best.
Perhaps the recent Le Fooding investment is indicative of a slightly more nuanced online strategy than previous directions of travel: certainly, it suggests that at an executive level, the #thirst for a younger audience is very much real. Le Fooding has a semi-functional website, and social media feeds offering content that isn’t actively risible. It’s a start, but Michelin needs a lot more than that. It needs to look accessible, and responsive, and attuned to the way we eat in 2017. It’s never going to look that way with the online personality it has today.
To riff on an old, old Twitter meme: Michelin, it’s time to delete your account.