Social Media Influencer Marketing Marketing

Lessons from Ryanair on the art (and rules) of going gonzo on TikTok

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By David Ledstrup, Chief strategy officer

November 10, 2023 | 8 min read

David Juul Ledstrup, chief strategy officer of Kubbco, dissects what makes a seemingly ‘maverick’ social account like Ryanair’s tick on TikTok.

Ryan

Last week, Ryanair’s head of social media, Michael Corcoran, announced his resignation in a series of social media posts criticizing the culture at the low-cost airline. His exit is a blow for Ryanair, not just because of his claims but because Corcoran is behind the airline’s much-buzzed-about and extremely savage presence on social.

Ryanair’s unorthodox approach to social media has been part of a radical shift in marketing. It has seen brands ditch their corporate personas to engage in sarky, weird and even profane banter. Ryanair is more adept than most at making customers the butt of the joke. When a follower lambasted the airline for letting “20-something woke imbeciles” run its social media, Ryanair responded: “Admins new bio.” When another asked if its planes had USB charging outlets, Ryanair answered: “Yeah, they’re just under the seat massage function.”

To get traction on social media, particularly on TikTok, brands have been mimicking the informality and playfulness of influencers and creators on those platforms. Along with Ryanair, it’s a strategy embraced by the likes of Wendy’s, Innocent, Netflix and Burger King.

This type of marketing is what we at Kubbco call gonzo social media, the natural heir to the personality-led journalism pioneered by Hunter S. Thompson in the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s a tactic that appears to break all the rules and can feel wild and unleashed.

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The best gonzo social media accounts can be irreverent or rude, but they’re always funny and entertaining. This approach isn’t just the preserve of renegade brands like Ryanair or entertainment, fast food and snack companies chasing younger consumers. British luxury car brand Lotus has adopted a rather unhinged persona on TikTok, gaining 3 million followers in the process.

It all looks so easy, doesn’t it?

Tapping into popular culture, making wisecracks and sharing funny memes. But don’t be fooled by how rogue these accounts seem. To succeed at this, brands must adhere to strict guidelines on behavior and tone of voice.

@ryanair €19.99 or €136,000,000 your choice ‍♀️ #stairs #ryanair ♬ Let him cook x Imperius on all platforms - Caleb

Set the rules of engagement

There are many benefits to gonzo marketing, from boosting engagement to growing new audiences, but there are also dangers. For every hilarious tweet, many are simply tone-deaf. Brands are advised to avoid flippancy around hot-button issues like politics, sex and religion. Along with putting approval processes in place for social teams, there should be rules from the outset around what can and can’t be said - so that you avoid scenarios like Burger King’s infamous ‘Women belong in the kitchen’ tweet. The good news is that brands can recover from their mistakes if they own up and swiftly apologize, so always have a strategy to handle any potential backlash.

Burger

For consistency, you need teamwork

If a brand’s presence on social media is the sole purview of one person, then when that individual leaves, the brand’s tone of voice will change, and you risk losing your audience. The absurdity of Lotus’ TikTok is credited to the company’s former social media executive, Kai-To Li, who left the company earlier this year. Since his departure, Lotus’ social content seems a bit tamer. Many will now be watching to see how the absence of Michael Corcoran impacts Ryanair’s voice on social.

Be authentic and know your audience

Gonzo social media marketing isn’t for every brand. We know that brands don’t need a consistent tone across channels, but that doesn’t mean you must adopt an entirely new personality on TikTok. There’s a misconception that brand consistency is the same as brand staticity. Brand strategy, identity and guidelines are there to guide and inform - not constrict.

Having a more corporate brand persona works for certain companies and sectors, and a drastic departure from that can put off consumers.

Also, brands being edgy on social can easily come across as too try-hard. It’s critical that your social team is digitally native and fluent in the language of the platform the brand is on. You also need a point of difference and a distinct point of view. If every brand has the same personality on social, it’s no longer fun, and audiences will switch off.

Going gonzo is nothing new

Brands gone wild on social might seem like a recent trend, but it’s just an age-old form of marketing in a new guise. Advertisers have long resorted to unconventional tactics to drive publicity through guerrilla marketing, a strategy first identified in 1984 by author Jay Conrad Levinson. Brands need to keep pushing creative boundaries.

Gonzo social media marketing will be reinterpreted for new platforms and audiences in the future, but the fundamentals behind it will remain the same.

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