‘Building character’ always sounds painful, doesn’t it? It tends to mean wet camping trips or going on a French exchange at school.

In the world of online marketing, building character can be equally painful, but the benefits are far more tangible.

This blog post has been inspired by Ryanair. Normally when that’s the case, I am criticising a brand that has become notorious for its belligerence. Referring to the ‘idiot blogosphere’, for example, wasn’t a move calculated to win hearts and minds.

Yet this week, Ryanair’s CEO Michael ‘Usain Bolt’ O’Leary challenged easyJet’s boss Stelios Haji-Ioannou to a Chariots of Fire race around Trafalgar Square. Brilliant.

This funny and attention-grabbing move is a response to a legal challenge easyJet has brought to Ryanair. Instead of just whingeing about the development, it’s been characteristically belligerent.

Maybe belligerence is a genuine marketing ploy. The airline has even published the letters from easyJet’s lawyers, despite them being ‘strictly private and confidential and not for publication’.

Read Ryanair’s response – as a legal letter, it’s pretty unbelievable. Here’s an excerpt: “We’ll bring lots of sexy cheerleaders and the ‘Chariots of Fire’ music, and all Stelios needs to do is bring himself and his expensive lawyers, who can either carry him or hold the tracksuits.”

The benefits

Whenever Ryanair do something unexpected – perhaps its staff bitch at a blogger or O’Leary confesses that he’d charge people to use the toilets onboard if he could get away with it – they get coverage they’d never get without such extremes.

The BBC puts out a story (and links to the airline’s site!), Which? the consumer champion declares its outrage, Twitter erupts into a storm of protest, and thousands of people trying to book a flight think: ‘Wow, that must be an incredibly cheap airline if they want to charge you to pee.’ So they book.

Airlines have astute PR teams and many spend thousands of pounds conducting studies and putting out articulate but unsurprising press releases.

For example, a recent release from bmibaby outlined the top destinations for Valentine’s Day, while Flybe revealed it was going to make it easy for expectant mothers living on the Channel Islands to fly to the mainland, even after they were 34 weeks pregnant.

Good stories both, but have you seen them reported anywhere?

The dangers

It seems safe to say that Ryanair is knowingly cultivating its business persona and doesn’t mind upsetting people. Perhaps its marketers have faith that this tactic will score them plenty of coverage without turning people off the brand.

However, this is an undeniably risky tactic. Much of the online buzz about the brand is negative and blogs, reviews, Tweets and all the rest do have a considerable influence on readers.

Of course, much of the belligerence is associated with the CEO, so if it did prove problematic, it wouldn’t be too hard for the company to distance itself from the image.

The conclusion

I don’t know how successful Ryanair’s corporate persona will be. It certainly gets the brand mentioned far more than any tactful PR campaign could manage.

However, it also undeniably alienating some would-be customers: run a Twitter search for ‘Ryanair’ and you’ll see what I mean.

It will be interesting to watch Ryanair’s success as a business and decide whether its corporate character is a success or a gamble that costs them their reputation. In the meantime, I certainly won’t be following its lead!