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When it comes to marketing, few companies take as combative an approach as the budget airline Ryanair.

In fact, over the last couple of years, the company has challenged a rival brand to a ‘chariots of fire’ race around Trafalgar Square, referred to a large chunk of its online audience as the ‘idiot blogosphere’, threatened to introduce a surcharge for overweight passengers (a ‘fat tax’) and suggested it might make customers pay £1 to use its onboard toilets (the press have dubbed this ‘pay per pee’).

More recently, it revealed plans to install ‘standing seating’ onto some of its flights, and the irascible airline boss O’Leary attended a press conference wearing a Germany shirt just after England’s World Cup drubbing.

But is this un-customer-friendly approach the most short-sighted piece of brand suicide we’ve ever seen or a stroke of marketing brilliance?

Reputation madness

Google has become every brand’s new homepage. Run a search for Ryanair, what do you see? As you’d expect, its own pages take the top two spots, but then much of the rest of the SERP is negative. ‘I hate Ryanair’ and then a load of negative press stories (including ‘Police feed delayed Ryanair passangers’) particularly stand out.

Negative stories in the search results are more enticing to searchers, meaning they are more likely to be seen. The fact a lone campaigner’s ‘I hate Ryanair’ website is ranking so highly for such a major brand shows just how many online pages are linking to it.

So, the search results for Ryanair are full of negative stories, which people will click on. This will inevitably affect brand perception and must influence many people’s buying decisions.

According to Nielsen research, a huge 70% of people trust online reviews. That means angry rants and negative stories will hurt the brand.

Marketing genius

Of course, an upshot of the aggressive customer services approach is that the search volume for brand queries is much higher than it otherwise would be.

My SMX London presentation highlighted that there are in fact, there are an incredible 20,400,000 global monthly searches for Ryanair. Compare that to Virgin Atlantic’s mere 1,500,000 and you can instantly see that there’s a huge amount of brand awareness being generated.

That brand awareness might partly result from negative publicity being generated by the airline, but it’s got people searching.

It also means that when people think of a low-cost airline, Ryanair is very likely to be the one they mention because it’s the one they’ve seen last.

No frills. At all.

It seems obvious that the Ryanair approach is very deliberate and that, the airline at least, has faith that it will work.

After all, it’s a low-budget airline and all it does is get you from A to B cheaply. That message is reinforced every time you hear something unbelievable: only the cheapest of cheapskate airlines would consider making passengers stand.

In fact, Ryanair can’t do many of the more ridiculous claims it makes. It can’t boost seating numbers on its flights because its planes are only licensed to carry a set number of passengers. It can’t make customers stand because, in order to be safe, you’d end up strapped in like Hannibal Lecter.

Presumably, it can’t impose a ‘fat tax’ without encountering some pretty challenging legal issues too.

So the airline is actively pursuing negative publicity with spurious stories. Clearly it hopes that the brand you love to hate will be the first brand you think of when you want to fly.

Will it work?

At the moment, the airline must be seeing success from this weird anti-promotion, or you assume it would change tactics.

However, there’s a huge amount of debate over whether this will cause the brand to crash and burn in the long run, or if it will continue to work.

We marketers will be watching with interest but, personally, I wouldn’t recommend trying this kind of approach with your own brand. While it may be working wonders for Ryanair, I can’t help but think it would kill off most brands within 12 months.

Kevin Gibbons

Published 6 July, 2010 by Kevin Gibbons

Kevin Gibbons is UK Managing Director at digital marketing agency BlueGlass. He is also known as an SEO speaker and can be found on Twitter and Google+.

102 more posts from this author

Comments (12)

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You are right - it is genius! as for its long term success - does it really matter? Ryanair works in the now. What happens next year is irrelevant for today's customers. More importantly, Ryanair really knows its customers - anyone who would still fly with a cheapskate airline, it not going to be put off with the bad stories - and those that are, wouldn't fly Ryanair anyway! Besides, anyone who can actively work the PR machine like they do could easily turn the message for nasty Ryanair, to nice Ryanair in a matter of months - or just rebrand!

over 6 years ago


Caroline Wylie

It's a clever marketing ploy because it truly is the "no frills of no frills". As a passenger, I want the very cheapest and I realise that providing non-essential extras costs money for the business and pushes their prices up. In fact, for every person horrified by the prospect of paying £1 to pee, there will be 10 going "I never use the loos anyway, and I'm paying hidden charges for others who do use them". Me? I'll take the no frills happily.

over 6 years ago



Its fantastic PR as it means that RyanAir are never out of the news. It also happens that stories like this are often reported just as summer is creeping up on us... great timing!

What amazes me is that so many people actually buy in to "we offer no frills" argument... and the "£1 pee fee" is prime example.

RyanAir say they'll charge anyone who uses the toilet £1. So can we expect that the price of every ticket will therefore be reduced by £1... I think not! It's a hidden price hike, which for some reason, others can't see.

Me? As a passanger I want comfort when I travel, and if it means paying for it, then I'm happy to. I'll take no frills if there's no other alternative, but it would be a last resort!

over 6 years ago

Edward Cowell

Edward Cowell, SEO Director at Guava UK

O'Leary is a genius. Coincidentally the saying "There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary." is also attributable to an Irishman :-)

over 6 years ago


Chris Eden

Great post Kevin, you've made some really good points. They have an unrelenting focus on banging home the message that they are the cheapest of the cheap and it seems to be working pretty well! I do wonder if this was part of their marketing teams thought process or perhaps they just landed on their feet by being so bad!

over 6 years ago



I heard they're charging £6 a pint for pure genius. Seriously though, it's clever. After all is said and done by and large what the customer wants is the cheapest price. if Ryanair can afford to be brash AND competitive then fair play to them. It's only when you do a Gerald Ratner that it starts to go pear shaped.

over 6 years ago


Stanislav Lokhnev, Director at Internet marketing agency i-SMAQ.ru

Very nice. They know what is it's brand about and tell about it again and again. Some risk but i believe it's a nice branding...

over 6 years ago

Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis, Head of Business Development at Harvest Digital

It's not just a marketing ploy it is a business model.  All there communications are around lowering the cost of flying.  There are no lies you know what you are going to get. 

The business model & marketing works.  Ryan Air is the European version of South West Airlines.  They have constantly outperformed the aviation market which typically loses investors money.  We may hate them but we still fly with them because we are willing to put up with the hardship because we know that the premium carriers aren't much better unless you are willing to pay for business/first class. 

over 6 years ago

Ed Stivala

Ed Stivala, Managing Director at n3w media

Have to agree with everyone else here O'Leary is an absolute genius. As a marketing strategy it works brilliantly (for them) in my view on many levels. The fact that Google lists so many negative comments is irrelevant. I would find it hard to imagine that there are many people that need to do an online search in order to form an opinion on them prior to booking, and those that might probably aren't in their target audience. You already know what they are about - which is part of the genius of course! 

Bottom line for me is that people keep hearing the name and find the outrageous stories engaging, entertaining and worth talking about. Front of mind, simple. 

over 6 years ago


Niels Mekenkamp

I agree that the marketing is good, but the main reason I don't like flying Ryanair is the ethics and potential issues. I first of all think it is ridiculous that O'Leary makes his staff pay for uniforms and training (around £2000). People might say: "you agree to those terms when you take the job" are right and that might be the reason why the staff is as it is...Young, uneducated and uninterested. One thing that shocked me was a conversation that some Ryanair hosteses where having on the Stansted Express, where they mentioned that they really did not have time to carry out all checks during the 15 minute turn-around between arrival and departure and they specifically mentioned life vests. After that incident I checked the few times I took a R-air flight. Have a look, you will often find life vests missing. That is just the tip of the iceberg...

over 6 years ago



O'Leary is a genius. Coincidentally the saying "There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary." is also attributable to an Irishman :-)

over 6 years ago



I would like to agree with the last comment and highlight that Ryanair marketing strategy can be called genius. It shows how to make something out of nothing. Hope it will stay succesful for may more years. :D:D:D:D

over 5 years ago

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