Aviation Marketing: Ryanair, the marketing brilliance behind the commodity-priced airfare

Call it what you may, Ryanair’s marketing is shrewd and laser focused

Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary recently called his customer “idiots.” Having never had the pleasure to fly Europe’s largest low cost carrier, I was glad not to be classified as one of the above. Yet from the decidedly colloquial North American viewpoint, it is a revealing look into Ryanair’s branding strategy.

Ryanair at a glance:

  • Founded: 1985
  • Current fleet: 294 Boeing 737-800
  • Passenger traffic: 75.8 million
  • Revenue: €4,325m
  • Profit after tax: €503m
  • Number of routes: 1,500+ per day operating from 51 bases in 28 countries

Ryanair practices marketing known by such names as gotcha marketing and aggression marketing. Gotcha marketing is based on pushing the boundaries of acceptable advertising in both truthfulness and taste, and penalizing customers that don’t follow the rules.

The penalties for not following the rules come in the form of additional fees such as:

  • Administration fee,  €6
  • Boarding pass fee,  €6
  • Reserved seating fee, €10
  • Airport boarding card re-issue fee, €60
  • Infant equipment fee, €20
  • Sports equipment fee, €60
  • Musical instrument fee, €60
  • Flight change fee – based on season, €30 – €90
  • Name change fee, €110 – €160
  • Government tax refund administration fee, €20
  • Oxygen reservation fee, €100
  • Checked bag fee, €15 – €150
  • Missed departure fee, €110

Advertising plays a critical role in these forms of marketing, starting with media placement. One-color ads are placed in tabloid newspapers. The fare prices are misleading because they don’t include the multitude of gotcha fees and usually include provocative imagery that is associated with tabloid journalism.

Because the ads are offensive to some, what follows is a formal complaint to the British Office of Fair Trading or the European Commission for Mobility and Transport. Interestingly enough, O’Leary has called the commission an evil empire populated by morons.

Which leads us back to the brilliance of Ryanair’s marketing. The formula starts with aggressive advertising, which leads to a complaint. Then CEO Michael O’Leary, stokes the fire with an inflammatory remark, escalating the pitch of the conversation while gaining free PR in the press and attention for the low cost carrier. This ultimately turns a $30,000 ad campaign into a million dollar public relations bonanza.

Ryanair understands its customers – price sensitive travelers. Ryanair’s brand promise is cheap fares and on-time service. Their customers understand the value proposition – do it yourself, follow the rules, and get from point A to B for as little as possible.

Ryanair and O’Leary are comfortable in their own skin. Each knows what they are –  the premier low cost carrier with a master marketer who knows how to differentiate his product and turn a profit in a super-competitive business.

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