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.