As a reputation strategist, I find Ryanair fascinating. Judging by the response to my first post here and on Linked-in’s PR Group discussion pages, I’m not alone.
First off, Steve Hartman of Creativille, Inc., explained how his Harvard Executive Education course discussed Rynair as a case study in branding success. Toni Falconi Muzi wrote to say that when senior public officials in Italy were asked, “which organisation, in your view, is more aware of and uses with most intelligence the power of conscious public relationships”, Ryanair came out in the first three choices.
David Brain commented that it’s difficult to argue with success, but wondered how many lost slots, delays and loss of partners were caused by people disliking Michael O’Leary’s approach. Then Heather Yaxley posted an incisive comment (see both here). I’m now answering their points:
(1) Ryanair does care about its customers and reputation, up to a point Lord Copper. The carrier cares to get the customers’ business (good routes, good fares). It cares and needs to get the customers’ repeat business: Ryanair stresses repeatedly its relative reliability (a feature you need in order to lure people on a second time).
(2) Ryanair is playing several PR and brand-defining games. The airline invites its fans to be “in” on the secret of being a beneficiary of its service. It shares a complicity with its fans that they know how to game its offer. It invites its fans to relish the way namby-pambies aren’t up to gaming or enjoying Ryanair’s offer.
Ryanair has indulged its customers’ instinctive contempt for a class of passenger weened on a level of schmooze most people could never afford. It’s a bit like The Sun implying that the broadsheet readers are snobbish about The Sun because they don’t get the joke.
Ryanair does not offer a PR presence to produce a virtual brand. That is, it is not manufacturing a corporate image as an umbrella that’s not directly linked to the service the airline provides.
Hence, Heather Yaxley is correct: Ryanair’s brand is a marketing machine and performance is the brand promise.
I would add that the value of any particular brand is measured by the extent to which the promise it symbolizes is trusted. And in Ryanair’s case, a certain level of distrust, or a health warning, comes as part of the bargain.
Ryanair understands that the key to brand management lies in setting realistic expectations and in being consistent (that’s a text book strategy, well executed).
Michael O’Leary’s PR strategy, and we should note here how PR is his trump card, is to shoot the opponents’ fox. “Customer: ‘You’re brutal’. Ryanair: ‘We’ve always said as much!’”.
Meanwhile, the more BA and the other airlines struggle to play a higher moral game (call it with-frills and added values) the more they set themselves up to be exposed as untrustworthy.
(3) It isn’t obvious that Ryanair has a bad complaints policy merely because it makes people go to the trouble of faxing or mailing a letter. Point being, Ryanair gets to hear about those complaints from customers who go to some bother to make them. Of course, Ryanair may be awful in its response to complaints, though I imagine there’s some regulation surrounding just how awful it can be.
(4) It is unclear to me the degree to which Ryanair can afford to be casual because it has a monopoly on some routes. That is, I don’t know if Ryanair has a monopoly, or how that would play if it had (perhaps somebody with more knowledge of the airline business could answer this point).
(5) It is not my impression that Ryanair is any worse than any other airline, or even that it is necessarily the cheapest. My impression is that its behaviour is quite similar to that of other similar airlines in its class, but that it has an aggressive, loud-mouthed boss and great PR. If he was less loud, and left less rows and havoc in his wake, would Ryanair’s behaviour – even the Ryanair effect – be all that different?
So when I make point (2) (that its pre-emptive PR keeps the firm safe) I may be overstating things. It is possible and likable that Ryanair’s PR is as it is because that is how the boss likes it.
In short, perhaps we have to like Ryanair’s PR because it is authentic.