Can deliberately irritating your customer be a successful brand strategy?

[pb_lay_raw] airplane Last year, in response to shareholder complaints about the airline’s image, a drop in profits and a fall in the share price, Michael O’Leary, the controversial chief executive of Ryanair, famously said that the airline would “stop unnecessarily pissing people off”. Customer service seemed to be an anathema to the airline the flying public loved to hate (perhaps just hated), but all the same Ryanair and O’Leary claimed to have had some sort of ‘road to Damascus’ conversion in the hope of stemming the loss of customers who would rather pay more to fly on any other carrier than endure Ryanair’s cattle-car approach to air travel.

After the launch of the airline’s new touchy-feely online strategy, O’Leary asked us to “Separate the weirdo, cranky, pantomime publicity-generating hound that I am from what is a phenomenally successful airline delivering a phenomenal customer service”. ‘Phenomenal customer service’ is not a phrase that sits comfortably with the Ryanair brand after years of deliberately sticking up two fingers to anyone who questioned their approach, and dismissing criticism as “the unrepresentative one in 100,000 sob stories” that make their way into the media. What this probably fails to appreciate is that the ‘one in 100,000 sob stories’ is the tip of the iceberg, with most passengers resigned to ‘putting up with it’, or vowing to consciously avoid Ryanair in the future.

“People say the customer is always right, but you know what – they’re not. Sometimes they are wrong and they need to be told so.”Michael O’Leary

This belated focus on the customer and the brand comes as other airlines, with (slightly) more customer-centric approaches have aggressively targeted Ryanair’s lower cost, short-haul, market.

Airline analysts have said that Ryanair has little choice but to find ways to increase average ticket prices by attracting higher-paying passengers, which in effect means attracting business travellers, and this week, Ryanair unveiled its business class offer  … a flexible ticket, a fast track through airport security, a 20kg luggage allowance and a ‘premium’ seat, whatever that means.  The question is … will this be enough to attract business class travellers who don’t want to put up with the hassle and stress of the Ryanair experience just to save €100 (and the vast majority won’t)? You want to fly into the most convenient airports, you want the process of getting you to whatever meeting you are going to, to be as painless as possible.  If the 90 minutes you will spend on that plane is your time to work or think or just chill out, do you really want to be sold scratch cards and all the other ‘stuff’ that Ryanair is hawking.

“Anyone who thinks Ryanair flights are some sort of bastion of sanctity where you can contemplate your navel is wrong. We already bombard you with as many in-flight announcements and trolleys as we can. Anyone who looks like sleeping, we wake them up to sell them things.” Michael O’Leary

Let’s make no mistake, Ryanair has been phenomenally successful – it carries more passengers than any other European airline and if you don’t have to fly on it, Michael O’Leary’s comments can be quite entertaining. As a brand, it has a very clear position – getting from A to B as cheaply as possible, that suits a clear market segment. Willie Walsh, the boss of IAG, which owns British Airways, has described the customer’s relationship with the brand as “You don’t expect anything and you don’t get anything. [The Ryanair] business model is so simple. It’s an exceptionally well managed business and Michael O’Leary had done a brilliant job of managing customer expectations”.

But can this really extend into business travel? Can a leopard change its brand spots? I suspect a brand that seemed to celebrate irritating its customers with an almost willfully off-hand attitude to customer service will not be ‘trusted’ to deliver for business class passengers – the brand proposition will just not stretch that far. [/pb_lay_raw]