Earlier this week, Ryanair’s longtime chief marketing officer Kenny Jacobs decided to step down to “pursue other challenges”. The architect of the airline’s ‘Always Getting Better’ strategy has transformed its online presence and customer service, but whoever steps into his shoes will face a fresh challenge: cumulating brand love in a market where being cheap is no longer a compelling selling point.
In his six years overseeing Ryanair’s marketing, Jacobs effectively served as number two to its unpredictable and unapologetic chief executive Michael O’Leary – who had cemented it as the antimatter of brands with his off-the-cuff responses to any criticism (including but not limited to “all flights are fuelled with Leprechaun wee and my bullshit”).
Jacobs’ remit quickly expanded well beyond the traditional expectations of a senior marketer and he would frequently find himself the spokesman for corporate issues like airline strikes and Brexit. When Ryanair’s reputation lay in tatters after a decision to cancel hundreds of flights in late 2017, a lot of the responsibility to rebuild it “fell into his lap”.
Until now, Ryanair has revelled in its low-frills, low-fares proposition, focusing on making it extremely easy for customers to book online or via its app and upping the number of destinations it flies to in Europe, rather than building brand equity.
However, with increasing competition coming from rail operators in Europe, the uncertainty of what Brexit will mean for flight costs and higher expectations from customers around purpose and experience, Ryanair’s next chief marketing officer may have to consider a fresh approach.
“If we're really honest, no one wants to spend a second longer than they need to on a Ryanair flight,” argues Chris Tyas, chief strategy officer for clients like 7up and Primark at creative agency Impero.
“It will be important for Ryanair to provide little luxuries to experience-seeking consumers that won’t mind paying if they are of real value. The brand needs to move on from the base-line of reserving a seat and little extra luggage.
“With real competition it will soon face with high-speed rail across Europe opening up and consumers awareness to reduce carbon footprint, Ryanair needs to up its game.”
Always getting better?
Former MoneySupermarket exec Jacobs has helped Ryanair double in size and move away from its aggressive stance on customers service, marketing and PR. The first ever marketing officer to take reigns of the Irish airline, he set about the role with vigour and made it his own with the launch of its ‘Always Getting Better’ initiative in 2014.
Digital has been a huge part of this strategy. Jacobs’ first move was to overhaul Ryanair’s website to adapt to individual customer preferences, reducing the number of clicks required to make a booking from 17 to five. In the process he boosted the proportion of its revenue earned from optional extras such like assigned seating and additional baggage from just over 20% to just over 30%.
On the branding front, he communicated improvements to customer experience first by working with London-based Dare. He then brought in Oliver to assist in building an in-house agency out of Ryanair’s Dublin HQ, but activations remained primarily focused on email and digital rather than big-budget TV ads. Price, has also remained its USP.
Until now, its an approach that has worked. Ryanair’s profits have consistently improved under Jacobs’ watch and In 2019, traffic grew 9% to 142 million passengers, while revenues rose 6% and revenue per customer by 11%.
Though the product is moving, its name is no good.
Ryanair is a constant feature on UK consumers’ ‘most hated’ brand lists. For customer service, Europe’s biggest airline was recently rated the lowest out of 100 leading companies in a poll by consumer champion Which. Its YouGov BrandIndex score (which ranks whether consumers have heard anything positive or negative about a brand in the past two weeks) has been in the minus since 2014. At its lowest ebb during the mass cancellations of 2017 following an error in its pilot rota system its score dropped to -70, its since recovered to around -10; but still in the red.
Purpose or price?
Yes the brand is known for fast, cheap, no-frills travel, and for creating publicity through controversy – and ultimately for being reliable. “But what if it thought beyond that?,” asks Laurent Simon, chief creative officer at VMLY&R UK.
Tyas agrees: “Like many brands, Ryanair has pursued a strategy of uberisation. The practice of improving the customer experience and removing unnecessary friction while improving profit. And there is clearly a need in travel to make flying a pleasant experience.
“Jacobs has achieved this and raised profits so clearly understands this dynamic. However, there is also a long way to go to get to a frictionless point-to-point travel experience that people will not just pay for, but enjoy, that would give the brand a greater purpose.”
As for what this purpose could look like, Simon says the airline should see the reshuffle as an opportunity to attach itself to one of the biggest issues facing airlines right now.
“The world increasingly wants and expects brands to behave like activists – Ryanair could push towards doing good and helping customers do good in the world,” he adds, arguing that the next chief marketer could leverage Ryanair’s influence to enact social and environmental change within an industry he says faces “continued disruption – if not total extinction”.
Simon suggests Ryanair could democratise its processes around carbon offsetting and make it possible for customers to round up the price of their flight to contribute to making a change.
Jacobs had long been a pioneer of creating a frictionless experience for customers instead of engaging in CSR “nonsense”.
“Customers don’t want us to be lovely guys, they want to trust us to give them what we promise,” he once argued. However in a world where air travel’s contribution to the climate crisis is under increasing scrutiny it’s something his replacement will no doubt have to tackle.
Indeed, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) only last week banned a series of Ryanair ads for falsely claiming that the Irish airline has the lowest emissions in Europe; showing it needs to fine-tune its eco-credentials.
For Will Lion, managing partner of strategy at BBH, Ryanair shouldn’t pivot from Jacobs’ well-laid plans, instead it should embrace its reputation – because that, after all, is what has made it the success it is today.
“Some have accused Ryanair of not investing in its brand but it does, just not with the nice stuff we all like to spend our days investing brands with - emotional ads about positive things. It invests it with cheapness.
“Those 'stories you read about how it’s going to start charging for oxygen on the planes, the stories that never happen - those are the ads. That is the brand.
“Keep reinforcing the cheapness of the brand and set your price 10% above the nearest competitor and win. Just like Foxtons have with 'Movers need shakers', they should embrace the negative in their brand. It's Ryanair’s difference. It may be hated but it works. Until that stops, keep going.”
However, he recognises that the firm’s move towards a group structure, which will see a senior management team oversee the four airline subsidiaries – Ryanair, Laudamotion, Ryanair Sun and Ryanair UK – presents a unique opportunity for any new marketer.
“That’s an insurance policy," Lion explains. “In TV series The Wire the drugs kingpin Stringer Bell attends a class on macroeconomics and gets some advice on what to do when your brand name 'ain't no good'. He is advised to change the name and the colour of his caps from red to blue. Ryanair is already doing this with Lauda, Buzz and Malta Air.
“They are Ryanair planes with different paint. What it could do next is build individual brands around these carriers, something more local, more authentic and wrapped in service design that properly loves its destinations and helps passengers get the most out of those places. It could even go full Microsoft and go Carbon Negative as an add on.
“This way the brand overall can continue its growth streak and to stand for the lowest price in the market, even if it isn't, right up until passengers have had enough, if they ever do.
"And if it all falls over, they'll have Europe's biggest fleet of local carriers to keep flying people about, just with a little more love."