It’s Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary’s biggest PR gaffe – he wants us to like him

It’s Michael O’Leary’s biggest PR gaffe – he wants us to like him

The self-loathing British public respond more to companies that show them disdain than those who suck up to them

David Mitchell

The Observer, Sunday 10 November 2013

As a big fan of Ryanair‘s marketing strategy, I was shocked to hear that it’s being abandoned. The villainous airline is trying to change its image. It’s going to spend money improving its website, it’s slashing charges for not printing your boarding card, it’s even allowing people to reserve seats. As chief executive Michael O’Learyput it: “I want to be loved by my customers as much as I love them… Boy, are we listening and responding.” It was as if JR Ewing was making the case for renewable energy – I was devastated.Ryanair’s public relations, until now, has been a work of rare clarity. The underlying principle was that, when it comes to air travel, it isn’t necessary to make your customers like you. As O’Leary said in response to a survey naming Ryanair the worst brand for customer service: “99% of people don’t think, what’s my favourite brand, they look for the cheapest fares.”

Exactly. Most customers of airlines want to get to distant places cheaply, quickly and safely and that’s all they care about. Armed with that insight, the company was able to harness the awesome power of negative publicity. It could refuse to provide wheelchairs for disabled passengers, it could impose surcharges for the slightest infringements of its terms of travel, it could accept complaints only via a premium rate phone line, it could float the idea of offering pay-per-view porn films on flights.

Negative publicity is always free and, as long as it didn’t seriously undermine any of the three pillars of cheapness, speed and safety, it did no appreciable harm. Reports that Ryanair was expensive, that it didn’t have jet aircraft but used prewar biplanes, or that its flights were prone to crash, would have been disastrous. But the thousands of column inches reporting how nasty, amoral or penny-pinching the company was not only kept up its profile, but also repeatedly subliminally associated it with value. “They will do anything to keep costs down” was the perpetual subtext. So, members of the public disgusted by Ryanair’s treatment of the disabled one day, became customers checking its website for bargain flights the next.

Many people hate this but I find it as aesthetically pleasing as a perfectly executed jewel heist. The most elegant of O’Leary’s publicity-garnering ploys was when, in 2009, he told the BBC: “One thing we have looked at in the past, and are looking at again, is the possibility of maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door, so that people might actually have to spend a pound to spend a penny in future.” He then enjoyed eight days of infuriated headlines about how cheap his company was before he said: “It is not likely to happen, but it makes for interesting and very cheap PR.” And there’s that word “cheap” again. Without having spent a penny, let alone a pound, on advertising, he had all the media chorusing “Ryanair is cheap” and driving more budget travellers to its website.

Those were the days. But now, in the wake of two profits warnings, the company seems to have lost its nerve and is starting to market itself like everyone else. Before you know it, they’ll be sponsoring a season at the National. I don’t know whether O’Leary’s heart is really in this new caring approach though: “We’re listening to you. We’re responding to your needs, God help me,” he pleaded. It’s as sad as when Citroën stopped making such weird-looking cars.

But the logic of the old strategy is still undeniable: customers will buy your stuff if they want it, whatever they think of you and however you treat them. In fact, the cynical self-loathing British probably respond more positively to companies that show them disdain than those who try and suck up to them. So here are three case studies of how other firms and products could use this strategy now that Ryanair has decided to cook its own golden-egg-laying goose.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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