Ryanair, the brand we love to hate, is changing

Apparently, Ryanair is changing. The brand we love to hate has recognised that cheap fares are not enough and in the face of enduring its toughest year in history, it has gone on a charm offensive to woo disgruntled customers that have switched to other airlines.

Last weekend, I got to test first hand Ryanair’s claim that 'we are changing’.

Our first surprise was to notice that baggage rules had been relaxed, we then checked in without having printed our own tickets at no extra charge. Unimaginable before the ‘new’ Ryanair.

As we settled into our allocated seats we noticed there were no noisy sales announcements or jingly music, peace at last! What a difference it makes, even my 2-year-old started to relax and enjoy the flight! How much pain have we had to endure as passengers with Ryanair’s couldn’t-care-less approach, where the customer service ethos amounted to mantras such as ‘no fucking refunds, you fuckers’.

Consumers today are wise to the world of marketing and branding. Are we going to buy this turnaround? Ryanair has ambitious plans to increase passengers from 80 million to 110 million over the next five years. They want to target the business travellers too.

Michael O’Leary, the infamous CEO, has always made it clear that he did not believe in branding and claimed Ryanair would never use branding/advertising agencies. And while profits were flowing it seems this wasn’t questioned.

Ryanair currently languishes at the bottom of almost every metric on YouGov’s brand index and comes last in Which?’s customer service survey, performing the worst out of the UK’s 100 biggest brands.

Customer service is an entry stake even for low cost ‘no frills’ airlines and while no doubt the changes will positively impact on the brand image, I can’t imagine customer service being a differentiator for the brand. To do this it would have to be driven from the essence of what the brand believes in.

So what will Ryanair now stand for as a brand? In today’s world, you don’t own your brand, and the story that has been shaped by the countless disgruntled passengers has a lot of baggage associated with it. When you consider the growing influence of word of mouth, Ryanair now more than ever needs a positive brand story.

"The two biggest influences on purchase decisions are people we know and people we don’t know - 90% of people trust people they know and 70% trust people’s opinion published online." Nielsen’s 2012 Global Online Consumer Survey.

Will the recently-appointed chief marketing officer Kenny Jacobs succeed in making the brand as "liked as it is useful"? This would certainly help with positive word of mouth. An experienced marketer, and former Moneysupermarket marketing chief, is looking to put in place the "full breadth of modern marketing". This includes their 1st ever pan-European brand ad campaign, a focus on content, data-driven marketing and "owned, earned and paid media working together to develop one Ryanair brand across Europe". He goes on to say: "Content is really powerful, people like to consume it, they like to create it themselves and they like to share it. That is one of the trends that we’ll follow."

Brands that are thriving are successfully turning to new models of marketing that leverage the power of content, while aligning their brands with cultural ideals, to better harness word of mouth.

Coca-Cola is one of the companies leading the way with its much talked about ‘Content 2020’ approach which has a clear goal: to move to content excellence in earning a disproportionate share of popular culture. The finance sector is also pioneering the new marketing approach with brands such as American Express with Open Forum and Citi with Women & Co successfully creating useful and engaging brand stories that people want to become part of and share.

So what brand story will Ryanair tell? Ryanair sees itself as a challenger brand, a pretty functional and straightforward brand. And its first focus on this u-turn will be ‘more functional than emotional to begin with’, focusing on the changes to its services.

We cannot separate the brand from the product and whether Ryanair has less clicks to book (down from 17 to 5), more carry-on bags or refunds to hand, to truly change, the brand must start standing for something meaningful and create a brand story beyond its current centre of gravity of lowest fares.

A great brand story is true; it is authentic and comes from the heart of the brand. It comes from understanding the connections that make us who we are and the ever-changing truth about people’s worlds.

At Truth, we help brands create truth.

It’s truth that stimulates new ideas and brand territories, and tells emotionally engaging brand stories. Stories that resonate; stories that connect with people, move them and get shared and retold.

While Ryanair may be changing. and I look forward to seeing how their story unfolds, it seems Michael O’Leary still has a way to go as you can see in his recent post on #GrillMOL, their new Twitter Q&A handle.