On Message: Vertical seats, tall tales – O’Leary has us sussed

On Message: PR Week editor Danny Rogers on marketing and branding

From ‘bar stool’ seating to fat taxes, the Ryanair boss’s wild ideas and publicity stunts show a fearsome talent for PR, says Danny Rogers

‘Ryanair offering vertical seats on their planes, akin to bar stools with seatbelts! It’ll never happen will it?’ the BBC journalist asked me last Friday.

‘Er, no’ I said.

‘Why is [Ryanair boss] Michael O’Leary talking about it then?’

‘Because he knows you’ll write about it anyway,’ I replied.

And it’s not only the BBC that is gullible enough to keep churning out this stuff. The story was covered in most of the British media last week, from the Financial Times to the tabloids.

It was just the latest PR wheeze from Ryanair, which has previously come up with the idea of charging customers to use the toilets and a surcharge on overweight passengers – a ‘fat tax’. None of which have ever happened, of course.

Indeed even on the day that O’Leary talked about it – along with allusions to safety testing and £4 fares – a spokesman for Boeing, manufacturer of Ryanair’s fleet of 737-800s, ruled out the concept.

‘Among other things, stringent regulatory requirements – including seats capable of withstanding a force of 16 Gs – pretty much preclude such an arrangement,’ he said.

The BBC journo still seemed baffled: ‘But don’t passengers get annoyed when they never get offered these things?’ she persisted.

The answer to this is that Ryanair’s customers are very much in on the joke.

Do they really want to stand up for several hours on a plane? They would be outraged to be charged to go to the loo. And they would certainly be offended if they were weighed prior to embarkation.

No, they recognise O’Leary’s unique approach to public relations: grab the headlines with outrageous suggestions but keep the fares rock-bottom low.

Despite O’Leary’s apparently eccentric outbursts, there is actually genius in the simplicity of his marketing strategy Ryanair spends little of advertising – you’ve seen the cheap, black and white press ads – and virtually ignores digital marketing.

Instead, it holds regular press conferences, at which O’Leary comes up with outrageous suggestions or is pictured doing stupid things.

The media love it, because he provides great headlines, story angles and photographs. It costs Ryanair virtually nothing, but generates massive brand awareness.

Underneath this the marketing message is actually incredibly consistent and focused: we are constantly striving to cut out any ‘frills’ in order to give our customers the lowest, lowest fares.

And, of course, ultimately it works. Ryanair overtook British Airways in terms of passengers numbers years ago, and the gap continues to widen. Even the PR-savvy Virgin and easyJet trail in its slipstream.

Last week O’Leary even had the temerity to turn up at a press conference in England wearing a German football shirt, just days after Germany ended its rivals World Cup dream.

He claimed he was just happy to see England out of the tournament because it meant travelers would be keener to take holidays now.

Despite a few catcalls on seeing the shirt, the English journalists lapped it up. The story ran, the pictures were taken.

And of course here I am writing about it all again now. Mr O’Leary: the truth is you have us sussed.

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