The Ryanair effect

September 22, 2008

I flew Ryanair last week for the first time in a few years and must say I was impressed. Not so much by the quality of the service, but more by the story Ryanair manage to tell, which hand-in-hand with low prices explains the airline’s massive success. Flying Ryanair still involves airports in god-forsaken towns miles outside of town, limited legroom, miserable looking cabin crew, threats that one’s reservation may be cancelled for any number of reasons, the furious chase for a seat once the doors are opened, and so on.

But once on-board, Ryanair start telling their story (but which in hindsight has already begun on their website), and it’s oddly compelling. Every overhead compartment has a short phrase on it punctuated by an exclamation mark, remarking on how Ryanair are always on time, are always the cheapest, are the airline of choice for an increasing number of people. The Ryanair magazine then repeats these messages, and in addition, takes swipes at competitors through numerous comparisons in which Ryanair comes out on top e.g. price, fewer complaints, being on time. Then there’s the rest of the content. It’s all pictures, big headlines, bright colours, competitions, numerous anecdotes that might as well appear in a lad’s mag, the airline CEO, Michael O’Leary pulling a funny face and doing something silly and definitely not wearing a suit.

So what’s the essence of the story? Turning Ryanair into the airline equivalent of a tabloid newspaper. An airline that appears to many to be a little more like you and me, a little less stuffy, or more youthful if you will, and a lot more fun. How? Simple messaging – we’re cheap, we’re on time, and fun to boot. Playful messaging – the bright colours, the exclamation marks, the puns. Then amplifying it with a good dose of anti-elitism, the elites being national carriers who try to out-muscle Ryanair, but to no avail, and charge extortionate prices for poor service!

In truth? I don’t hit 180cm and was really struggling with the legroom, the air hostess was upset with me because my suitcase must have been over 55cm long seeing as it did not fit in the overhead compartment lengthwise, and an hour and a half’s drive before sunrise! And it wasn’t even that cheap. But hats off to Ryanair: their business model does not just work because they are cheaper than average. It also does so because they’ve created brand loyalty through a story despite all the many drawbacks.

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