When “Continental-Caoutchouc- und Gutta-Percha Compagnie” was founded in Hanover on October 8, 1871, probably nobody at that time knew that the company would be one of the largest high-tech corporations in the automotive industry 150 years later. From Vahrenwalder Strasse, Continental developed from a small factory into a global player with around 561 locations in 58 countries and markets.
We Are Keeping the World Moving
In 2021, Continental is celebrating a special anniversary and can look back on a turbulent company history. Over time, the company has reinvented itself again and again without being left at a standstill. Nevertheless, there was always a certain degree of continuity and security that continues to support the company to this day. Between challenges, bold ventures and successes, Continental has an impressive timeline that, with its many interesting facets, produces a kind of large mosaic that is constantly evolving and being re-composed – a success story that has been around for 150 years.
for 150 Years
Mobility is an expression of the Freedom To Act. For Continental, this means above all change and progress. Looking back at 150 eventful years of company history, various transformation phases can be seen that have been and still are crucial to the company’s development.
In the first 25 years after its founding, Continental developed from a small start-up business into an established company. At an early stage, the focus was on innovative technologies. As early as 1874, a company-owned laboratory was set up in which scientific research was advanced. With the chemist Adolf Prinzhorn, we succeeded in winning over an innovative head and visionary for the company. He put rubber production on a scientific basis, and his ideas essentially ensured that Continental was able to establish itself on the market as a renowned company at the end of the 19th century.
In doing so, Continental took a decisive step into the science-based high-tech industry. The breakthrough ultimately came with the production of tires – but in 1892 these were not auto tires, but bicycle tires. Continental was the first German company to present pneumatic tires for bicycles, and as early as 1894, the “Continental Pneumatic” had already captured a dominant position on the market.
From car races to
shoe soles and Zeppelins
In the next transformation phase, which lasted from the mid-1890s to just before the outbreak of World War I in 1913, Continental excelled with numerous innovations. During these years, the company took the bold step of becoming an automotive tire manufacturer by beginning production of pneumatic car tires in 1898. Later, production of the world’s first tire with patterned tread for cars started in 1904. The tires quickly became popular in motorsport and demonstrated their quality: In Europe, all well-known racing drivers took the checkered flag with tires from Hanover. This has shaped Continental’s image over the long term in large parts of the public’s consciousness.
However, the focus was not only on manufacturing tires; innovations in technical rubber and consumer goods also made a significant contribution to the company’s success. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century, the production of shoe supplies was also started and a rubber sole developed in 1912 initiated a revolution in shoe manufacturing. This was not the only step toward the fashion industry: State-of-the-art garments were tailored in the company’s own raincoat sewing hall. Taking into account the perfume sprayer and other cosmetic items such as combs and hair clips, Continental was also a fashion company of sorts at the time.
On the Way to a Global Corporation
However, the Continental universe encompassed an even broader range of activities. Even the aviation industry has been tapped into as a lucrative branch of business. Back then, not a single Zeppelin took to the air without gas cells from Continental. The company was also indirectly involved in historical events: In 1909, the Frenchman Louis Blériot was the first person to cross the English Channel in an airplane, which was covered with Continental airplane fabric. The success of this transformation phase was also clear in the number of employees, with the 500-strong workforce of the early 1890s increasing to over 7,000 by 1913. This was due not only to the expansion of the product range, but also to the internationalization and globalization of its business: Continental was already a global company in 1913.
Two world wars and a global economic crisis presented the company with major challenges in the first half of the 20th Century, and ensured a “reinventing” of its strategy and orientation. The “New Continental” was reflected in the spirit of the new mobility of the 1950s and 1960s, when cars had become a product for the masses. As early as November 1950, for example, Continental’s production capacity reached the same level as before the outbreak of the Second World War. This phase was characterized by a strong positive impetus from post-war reconstruction and the “economic miracle,” as well as the oil crisis in the 1970s. The “New Continental” of the 1980s gave itself not only a new look, but also a new name. The company was renamed “Continental Aktiengesellschaft” in 1987, losing the supplement “Gummi-Werke.” This was a signal of the stronger international stance.
People Behind the Brand
When we look back on Continental’s 150-year history, we have to look above all at the personalities that accompanied the company during its various phases and shaped it in the long term.
The Friendly Company Patriarch
Siegmund Seligmann is certainly one of the most important people, as he was the first Director General of Continental to make a significant contribution to the company’s rise. However, all his life, he refused to adopt the title of Director General. Nevertheless, when he was appointed commercial director and member of the Executive Board of the former “Gummiwerke Continental AG” in 1879 at the age of just 26, he set the course for development into a large, modern company.
Seligmann developed a whole package of corporate strategy and political measures, in which he advanced Continental’s export business and thus the internationalization at an early stage. Despite the booming tire business, Seligmann always ensured that the other business sectors were not neglected. His company policy was modern and ahead of his time in many decisions. Although the Continental Group was confronted by some adverse economic and political events under his leadership, the company continued to grow. When Seligmann took over the management in 1879, Continental had just 261 employees, ten years later it was almost twice as big with 500; by 1913, the workforce had about 7,700 and, when he died in 1925, there were as many as 14,500 employees, more or less. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of him joining the company, he was given the title of “Director of the Global Company Continental,” and when he died, the entire company stopped work for 24 hours.
The Second Father of the Ascent: Willy Tischbein
When one considers Seligmann’s contribution to the company, Willy Tischbein must be mentioned in the same breath, because he has also had a lasting impact on Continental’s history. When Tischbein was appointed chairman of the Executive Board in 1926, he – unlike Seligmann – deliberately took the title of Director General. This underlines a crucial difference between the two personalities: While Seligmann enjoyed the reputation as a friendly and modest company patriarch, Tischbein liked to present himself confidently to the public, which meant that he did not always meet with approval from his employees. Nevertheless, Tischbein also had to deal with quite different political challenges compared to Seligmann. The changes in sociopolitical conditions at the end of the 1920s, the growing emancipation of the workers’ movement, and finally the global economic crisis presented the company with major upheavals. The consequence was that Seligmann’s approach of establishing Continental as a multinational corporation by establishing further foreign factories stagnated for the time being.
Tischbein focused much more on modernizing the corporate structure, which he designed according to the American model. He separated the tire business from the technical products and ensured that the bicycle and car businesses were each based in their own branches.
He also proved to be an extremely skilled marketing genius. As a former professional racing cyclist, it was above all Tischbein who established sports sponsorship at the company, thereby sustainably shaping Continental’s image in the public eye. He relied on sponsorship of motorsports events and was the first to use the sportspersons’ jerseys for advertising by having the company’s printed name on them. This connection between sports and advertising became a pioneering approach in early sports marketing in Germany.
Under Tischbein’s direction, Continental also launched a communications strategy aimed at broad customer and buyer segments. He quickly realized that the countless products aimed at the rapidly developing leisure, sports and consumer society of the Weimar Republic would have to be skillfully marketed in order to stand out from the competition.
Backing the Right Horse
Continuity and change – two terms that best define Continental’s brand image over the 150 years. The horse in particular plays an important role as a trademark. Why a horse, particularly? There are no explanations of this in the business documents which have come down to us, which is why we can now only make assumptions in this regard. The origin could be the production of hoof buffers made from soft rubber, or it was due to the role that horses still played in mobility at that time. In Hanover, there is also a long tradition of horse breeding. Whatever the reason, the fact is that Continental used the symbol of the horse specifically for advertising, promoting its products by association with properties such as strength and endurance.
Images of Women in Advertising
Around the turn of the century, advertising and a targeted approach to communicating with customers became increasingly important for an expanding company like Continental. This was especially the case in the 1920s, when the car first transitioned from being a luxury item to one of daily use, and a skillfully wielded advertising strategy could be decisive for the success of a product. The main aim was to position ourselves skillfully on the market in order to stand out from the competition. Continental used countless media and formats: Newspaper articles, building facades, sports jerseys, postcards, and even animated films. Even a customer magazine called “Echo Continental” was launched in 1913. The circulation increased from an initial 241 copies to 100,000 in the 1930s. The female audience in particular was specifically addressed there: Titles such as “Women in Sports” or “Women at the Wheel” reflected a change not only in society but also in the areas previously dominated by men. The image presented of women was extremely progressive for the time, especially with regard to women’s relationship with their vehicles. This was a connection that, at the time, was more in line with a male ideal.
The development of advertising figures has also played a role in the marketing strategy time and again. From the character “Pneumos,” a kind of protective spirit for motorists in need, to “Mr. Conti,” a tire that has come to life with a face, arms and legs, various testimonials for use in advertising emerged time and again. Even though the attempts were always creative, no advertising figure prevailed in the long term. Nevertheless, this shows how openly Continental used different marketing methods and was always willing to try something new.
The highly diverse advertising campaigns are another example of the various impressions that Continental has made time and time again over the 150 years. The style and type of media do more than simply reflect the company’s self-image. They have always been and remain a mirror of technical and social developments, since advertising ideally gets started precisely in this area.
The Name Speaks for Itself
The [Continental] name, which has been the same since 1871, was at its time intended to be an absolutely international one that would allow us to give us the same name to our agencies everywhere, be it in France, Italy, Russia or overseas.Siegmund Seligmann, former chairman board Continental
It’s not without reason that the company is called “Continental,” because it conveys the feeling of internationality without the need for further explanations. Between 1879 and 1925, Siegmund Seligmann laid the foundations for Continental’s rise from a small Hanover rubber factory to an international company. And at a time when this was by no means the norm, especially during the First World War. There were even voices calling for a “Germanization” of the company name. But the name “Continental” stuck, as did the focus on exports and international orientation. In the heated climate, such tendencies were not unusual and prompted other companies to adapt the brand names of their products accordingly.
Although Continental was not able to gain a foothold in the markets of various European countries due to high import duties, the management continued to drive the company’s international expansion. In just a few years, subsidiaries were founded in New York, Paris, London, Melbourne, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Bucharest between 1904 and 1911. The location in Paris in particular represented a considerable economic factor at that time. Thanks to Michelin as the “local hero,” the French market was fiercely competitive, making it all the more important to establish the company’s first foreign factory in the municipality of Clichy, to the north-west of Paris.
The Continental factory in Clichy near Paris
The consequences of the First World War were far-reaching for the company, especially for Continental representatives abroad. A representative in Australia, Eduard Eichengrün, suffered particularly tragic consequences. In 1905, he set up the subsidiary in Melbourne out of nothing and had developed it into a lucrative business by 1913. Without any trial, he was imprisoned at the outbreak of the war and ultimately held for five years, before being stripped of his citizenship and deported to Germany together with his children. His wife had died during his term in prison.
At the end of the war, Continental had to deal with considerable setbacks, despite being much better placed than many other companies. Although two devastating world wars resulted in a significant step backwards in the internationalization process, the company continued to pursue a clear course: Expanding Continental as a global brand.
New Times –
In an era of digitalization, Continental is currently undergoing a phase of transformation that could prove to be one of the biggest tests it has yet had to overcome. The technological change from internal combustion engines to electric mobility, a new company focus on greater sustainability, and digital product and process innovations are the major topics of the transformation and will shape the company’s history in the coming years.
The past 150 years show how a company can experience continuous development between continuity and change, despite all the political and economic events, while at the same time always staying true to itself. From a manufacturer of bicycle tires, raincoats and rubber soles to a tire pioneer and an automotive supplier, Continental has today tapped into a completely new market as a leading manufacturer of technologies and mobility services. Continental was the only international tire company to venture into digitalization around 30 years ago, once again proving that it is worth having the courage to innovate.
Over the course of its history, the “New Continental” has often found itself facing a “new world” and will continue to react to the upcoming transformation in the future. So it remains exciting to see what the next anniversary will hold in store in 2046, when Continental will be celebrating its 175th anniversary.
If you would like to learn more about Continental’s history, you can already look forward to the publication of the company timeline as a book in September 2021!
You can find the current Annual Report on the major developments in the company here.