How To Suck As A Brand (With Grace)

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There are two trains of thought when it comes to brutal brands:

  1. They’re so bad that they don’t even know it.
  2. They have to work quite hard at being that bad.

This may surprise you:

In my experience, it’s mostly brands that fall into the latter selection from above. It’s true. Whether it’s structural, management-based or legacy team members, I’m often dumbfounded when I come across organizations that really struggle to get out of their own way to get the job done (well). When it comes to marketing departments, the problems usually arise from individuals who feel that their own desire to put a unique stamp on the work takes priority over ensuring that the brand is preserved and improved post their departure. You don’t need to review any data points to substantiate this claim. Great brands always outlast the individuals who serve them. And, even as the lifetime of the Chief Marketing Officer is improving from it’s twenty-four month lifespan – brands (even bad ones) typically outlast the CMO. So, if you have to work extra hard at being that bad, what kind of business do you really have?

How do you feel about the airlines?

In 2014, you would think – in a world of social media – that it’s simply impossible to be a misery of a brand. You would be wrong. When I ask people, anecdotally, about brands they despise the most, it’s usually an airline that comes top of mind. As a Super Elite frequent flyer, I can understand why. It’s easy to be hard on a business that is both complex, and at the mercy of many other hands (weather, government, etc…). No, I’m not doing a complimentary upgrade of all airlines to business class, but I also see how the airlines are often (wrongly) accused, just because of things like bad weather, stupid government regulations and consumers who simply don’t understand that taking a plane is not the same thing as dumping your luggage into the trunk of your car and driving off. With that, the Irish airline, Ryanair, has a dubious reputation.

Let’s not make nice.

This is a brand that has done a bunch of crazy things to keep the costs low (but the extra fees high). Don’t believe me? Just Google them. As pointed out today in The Economist: “Ryanair’s customer service is second to all. It once charged a family €300 ($393) to print out five online boarding passes, after they had been unable to do so at their hotel (for good measure, Michael O’Leary, the airline’s boss, publicly described them as ‘stupid’ when they complained). Its policing of the size of carry-on bags was once so ferocious it had to deny that check-in staff were given a bonus for each passenger they caught packing an extra centimetre — guilty flyers were charged £50 ($83) to check luggage into the hold. And Mr O’Leary once described the airline’s complaints procedure thus: ‘You’re not getting a refund so f**k off. We don’t want to hear your sob stories. What part of ‘no refund’ don’t you understand?'”

So… Umm… Yeah… That Bad.

You might argue that these are the types of things one should expect if we want to grab a flight for a couple of pounds. You should expect to pay for the extras (even if that means paying to use the bathroom). So, how are they still in business? For all of the haters (and media pundits like me who are quick to point out, laugh at and share their stories), there are plenty of people who don’t expect much, because they didn’t pay much. Simply arriving at the destination (even with delays) is well worth it. How much so? According to the article, Forgive And Forget, it is second only to Lufthansa in Europe when measured by passenger numbers. Yes, it’s 2014 and being that bad of a brand has been a successful business model.

Living the brand.

Whether you love Ryanair or not, is not important. Ryanair has been living their brand for a very long time (whether we respect them, as marketers, or not). According to this article, things are about to change… and this is where it’s getting really interesting. As Ryanair attempts to attract more business travelers, it has not only implemented more lenient policies and created more flexible options (premium seating, priority boarding, flexible tickets and more), but is attempting to change the overall corporate culture. This is where the rub lies. The airline has been known – for so long – for their cheap and miserable service that consumers don’t feel like they trust a nicer and fresher attitude. Trust is a funny thing, isn’t it? Consumers are fine shelling over money with extremely low expectations, but when the brand suddenly shifts and offers low prices with a kinder service, consumers are having a hard time adjusting.

It’s beyond marketing.

Changing culture is hard. Changing attitudes is hard. Ryanair did a great job of making people miserable by offering them cheap flights and not much more. Now, as it attempts to move up market, consumers are struggling to embrace the brand. You have to give this airline credit: consumers knew where they stood with the brand. Now, consumers are questioning the true motives of this airline being nice, and are trying to figure out what it’s up to.

The lesson seems obvious: you really have to live the brand (even when you’re not a very good brand).