03 Mar 2015

…and behold there was Customer Service & Marketing too!

Ryanair's aggressive underdog brand strategy was harming growth and profitability, says Lucia Di Stazio. With a total about-face, the airline everyone loves to hate has staged a comeback with a new more appealing face, better manners and a new business model.

Not long ago, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary didn’t care who he offended. Infamous for calling a customer ‘stupid’ for forgetting her boarding pass, he charged her €60 to print another. Even when half a million people on Facebook thought the customer deserved a refund and the airline took a public battering, his line was ‘at least everyone’s talking about it’. With massive profits and ever-rising passenger numbers, Ryanair turned the saying ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ into an art form. CEO O’Leary was a caricature of the anti-marketing anti-hero.

Which? readers voted Ryanair ‘the worst brand for customer service’. Last year it won Siegel & Gale’s ‘second worst brand in the world’ accolade. The airline was criticised for its very unfriendly CEO, terrible customer service, over-strict luggage rules and an appallingly hard to use website. O’Leary’s response was typical: “If we’re the worst performing brand in the world,” he told the Daily Mail, “why are we the biggest international airline in the world? Why are we the most profitable?” With the passenger numbers he was commanding, he seemed to be turning accepted wisdom on its head.

But times changed. Passengers who could, booked with any airline but Ryanair. They even paid more to do so. Ryanair’s profits wobbled and suddenly there wasn’t so much to be smug about.

The airline ‘everyone loves to hate’ took a look at itself and came out fighting with a new more appealing face, better manners and a new business model. In a complete about-face Ryanair is now on a charm offensive. Recognising his abrasive manner was harming his brand, O’Leary has stepped back as the public face of Ryanair and brought in smooth-talking marketing frontman Kenny Jacobs, ex- Moneysupermarket.com and Tesco.

Jacobs knows about customer service, and marketing. It’s not simply being nice to your customers; you have to give them what they need and want. And you need a strategy that works in today’s market. Ryanair’s new marketing chief is using unfamiliar marketing channels, with the airline’s first TV ad for 25 years and a social media plan under the new and equally unfamiliar ‘Always getting better’ strapline.

Ryanair is living up to its new image with a revamped, customer-friendly website. Out go those hated luggage rules and plans to charge customers to use the on-board loo. The new strategy is working. The airline had a 22% increase in passenger numbers in November and it raised its profit forecasts twice in December.

Cynics might suspect this ‘rebrand’ might have more to do with Ryanair’s ambitions for the much more demanding transatlantic market than a desire to play nice. But O’Leary hasn’t gone soft. He’s a ruthless pragmatist with a lot of money invested in the brand. Ryanair is market leader and no longer a challenger brand. Its aggressive underdog brand strategy was harming growth and profitability. As brand leader investing in good customer service and smart marketing to communicate it is just good business. Ryanair needed a personality transplant, and just as ruthlessly as before he’s implementing it. It will take time to reach the core, because brand personality is built on the personality of people. All of its people, not just the CEO. But keep watching. “As I said myself,” O’Leary told the Daily Mail in an interview last October. “If I’d known being nicer to our customers was going to work so well I would have done it years ago.”

Need to build up or turn your brand around? Talk to us. Call Tom Rigby, Business Development Manager, on 01453 521621 or email tom@mra-marketing.com


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