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Ryan Air and Michael O'Leary will continue to fly high, claims branding expert

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Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 12 October 2017 8:22

Ryan Air and Michael O'Leary will continue to fly high, claims branding expert

Ryanair’s cancelled flights debacle has been described as a “Ratner moment” but the airline is likely to come out the other side of the storm still flying high according to one branding expert.

And there are some lessons in there to learn for other firms who labour under the supposed adage the consumer is always right.

Boss of the Irish airline, Michael O'Leary admitted the crisis that engulfed his company, saw it axe 2,000-plus routes and cancel trips for an estimated 700,000 was “clearly a mess”.

Campaigning financial journalist, consumer campaigner and businessman Martin Lewis said the crisis could be “could be a Ratner moment”, a reference to Gerald Ratner who infamously described some of his jewellery firm’s products as ‘total crap’. It was to spell doom for his business.

James Ashe, a brand and marketing specialists who runs Alias in Cheltenham, said he doubted the flak would do Ryanair, or Michael O'Leary for that matter, much long term damage.

“The brand is almost unique. People use it because it is cheap and money talks. It almost gives him a get out of jail card. It is probably one of those brands that has defined how a generation acts, forcing people to conform and compromise to its way of doing business,” said Mr Ashe, who originates north of the border with Mr O’Leary’s republic.

“Will he go out of business? Probably not. Behind it all is a product people want and, in many cases, need to use.”

He had without doubt upset a lot of passengers, but there was also some incredible good fortune in the timing, said Mr Ashe.

“There will always be a whole lot of new customers coming along who will fly with the airline. I think one of the biggest problems was not engaging with customers early on. A lot of people were disappointed and angry before he started talking.

“Usually the way you handle a crisis usually is you identify the cause of the problem, you communicate and apologise and you explain how you are going to solve it.”

He added: “Would I want to be his PR man? Probably not. Part of his PR team’s job is to shape and control the message but he strikes me as a man who doesn’t like to be shaped. But on this occasion, given the scale of the crisis I would have said he would have had finally had to listen to limit adverse publicity.”

And the ‘good timing?

“Monarch has saved him. It had almost 200 pilots available immediately and he was in need of some. And there is something in there to do with his Irish-ness. He trades a little of being the cheeky Irish guy who will chance his arm.

“It is a bit like Paddy Power. The guy behind that is ready to have a laugh and push the boundaries – perhaps too far some people might say,” said Mr Ashe.

The online betting firm is no stranger to testing authority’s patience with its adverts. In the 2015 Ashes cricket test series it was forced to destroy its controversial billboard which showed a picture of a smiling Rolf Harris with the caption: “The only Aussie we don't want to get out”.

Mr Ashe’s point being the firm is prepared to ride out any controversy - its default setting was not to bow down and apologise every time it is criticised.

“What can other businesses learn? I think it is about having the courage of your convictions. And part of it is about understanding your audience. Knowing it so well that you are not jumping for cover every time they complain.

“It is the opposite of the Apple idea, that your customer is always right. And there is a nice lesson in there about just how fickle people are.

“Ryanair is one of those firms that has changed the way hundreds of thousands of us behave. Many of us now travel with only one carry-on piece of luggage, for example.

“But changing behaviour doesn’t have to come with near to the knuckle behaviour. Before Ikea came along we used to spend hundreds of pounds on beautifully made furniture, wait months for it to be made and then have it delivered to our homes. Millions of us are now prepared to travel miles to the nearest store, lift the heavy boxes off the shelves ourselves, squeeze them into our own cars and then spend hours building it.”

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