Special Report: ‘Ryanair’s aim is to be nice enough, not loved’

Special Report: ‘Ryanair’s aim is to be nice enough, not loved’

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Carrier has undergone a sea change in service. Chief marketing officer Kenny Jacobs explains how at a Travel Weekly Business Breakfast. Ian Taylor reports

Ryanair was looking to change when Kenny Jacobs joined as head of marketing in February 2013, but the extent of that change was unclear.

Jacobs said: “The airline had got to 12% market share [in Europe], focused on being brutally efficient.

“Michael [O’Leary] and the board wanted to make a big aircraft order, to get into primary airports, to get more business travellers, and to do that we had to flex the model.

“That meant catching up in areas we needed to and taking away some of the obvious things about Ryanair that antagonised customers like you couldn’t pick your own seat, you couldn’t bring two bags on board. It was about taking away reasons to say ‘no’.”

The carrier’s ‘Always Getting Better’ programme “started off with a list of things we could do on an A4 page”.

Jacobs said: “Ryanair did miss things, primarily digital. My first argument was ‘We need to have an app’. Now we have the most‑used airline app in Europe: more than 21 million people use it.

“Ryanair did push the brutal enforcement of the operation too far. I was living in Manchester and when I wanted to go Manchester- Dublin I would pay £30 more to go with Aer Lingus because I didn’t want to be told ‘Fit [that bag] in this box or pay me now’.

“We had immediate success with [the new strategy] and haven’t looked back, judging by the numbers. Now we’re in year four.”

Culture change

Jacobs insists it was easy to make the changes.

“There wasn’t an internal struggle in terms of ‘stay cheap and nasty’ or ‘be cheap and nice enough’,” he said.

“Everyone was open for change. The low-hanging fruit was that big and that low, and the business wanted to get on with it. They didn’t know exactly what to get on with, but they did want to get on and make changes.

“Looking back, the Ryanair knockers didn’t expect we would fix things so quickly and become innovators so quickly in the digital space.”

But Jacobs said: “The plan is to be nice enough, not to be loved. That is important. What we offer is more of a commodity product than a brand choice. If you’re heading to Barcelona, you’re excited first and foremost about Barcelona. The airline gets you there on time for the best price and doesn’t lose your bag.

“A lot of marketers say you should aspire to brand love. Tesco aspires to brand love; it wants people to say ‘I love walking into a Tesco with a trolley, filling it up on a Friday’. You might love what goes into the trolley.

“We’re not aspiring to brand love. Ryanair not being disliked the way it was, and respected for its consistency and making it simpler to do more of your travel with us, that is what I would like us to do.

“Consistency is the key. Just deliver the service. This time of year we have 350,000 people in the skies every day. You have to focus on the operation being consistent.”

He said: “‘Customer experience’ is a phrase I loathe – saying ‘it’s now all about the customer experience’. I’ve read you should now have a chief experience officer as well as a chief marketing officer. What the hell is that? It has always been about the customer experience. That’s why John Lewis is so good.

Growth plans

“You need to get the right level of experience for your brand. Should BA deliver a higher level of experience than Ryanair? Absolutely – it should be three or four times the Ryanair experience. Is the BA experience four times the Ryanair experience for short-haul? No, it’s not.

“Our average flight time is 75 minutes. People want to be on time. They maybe want a cup of coffee. They want to get off quickly. They don’t want Wi-Fi that much. We’re absolutely not chasing brand love. We just want people to say ‘Ryanair don’t get it wrong and they’re really cheap’.”

Ryanair’s growth plans remain staggering. The carrier will add 50 aircraft a year to its fleet over the next four years.

Jacobs said: “We’re 15% of the European market today. We’re in 34 markets. We’ve a fleet of 395 aircraft. We’ll grow 10% this year. We delivered more than €1.3 billion profit last year.

“By 2024 we’ll have 200 million annual passengers. That will give us 21%-22% of the market with a fleet of around 550.

“In Germany, we’re only 8% of the market. Germany could be a major chunk of our growth before we look at any other country.

“In Italy, I hope Alitalia keep doing what they’re doing because it’s great for our business.

“There are opportunities in Spain. We don’t fly to Turkey.

“That is just our flights business. Alongside that we’ll be doing all the stuff in digital that will open new opportunities.”

Despite the frenetic pace, he insists Ryanair “is a fun place to work”, saying: “It’s challenging. We have arguments – probably fiercer than I’ve seen anywhere. But we get over them quickly and get on.

“We implement things quicker than any other business I’ve been in. It’s a unique culture. It’s not for everybody. It moves incredibly fast. It’s quite unforgiving. It’s more focused than any business I’ve seen. But once you have momentum it’s great to be moving in the right direction at great speed.

“It’s a good, fun place to be. You get freedom to do stuff. We don’t get bogged down. We don’t spend time strategising. We don’t use external consultants. We take a bet on things. Sometimes we’ll get it wrong. If we do, we get over it and move on quickly.”

Ryanair’s GDS return was ‘symbolic’ but has not brought a lot of bookings, says Jacobs

Ryanair surprised the industry by returning to selling via global distribution systems in 2014.

“We don’t sell a lot through the GDSs,” said chief marketing officer Kenny Jacobs.

“When we said we were going back on GDSs, it was symbolic, because Ryanair had given two fingers to the GDS in the past. It meant we were open for business in a way we hadn’t been.

“It’s fine in terms of the volume of bookings we get. But it hasn’t been one of the biggest things we’ve done in terms of widening distribution. The app has brought more new customers.

“There isn’t a problem getting Ryanair product. You just need the internet. Over 95% of traffic comes direct to Ryanair. In June last year we became the world’s most-visited airline website.”

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