Budget airline Ryanair has a history of courting controversy and thumbing its nose at received branding wisdom. Founder Michael O’Leary’s business strategy has always been to go on the offensive, mock critics and brazen out problems, and he’s been highly successful. So Ryanair’s latest crisis – around the sudden cancellation of hundreds of flights this autumn and winter – hasn’t been accompanied by many predictions of doom. Ryanair has survived worse, it’s generally assumed. The brand has backed this perception up by posting a bullish set of positive results – though the period covered doesn’t actually include the scandal.

But what do our behavioural science methods of Brand Tracking tell us about Ryanair’s potential woes? Might things be different this time? We have been conducting a self-funded tracking study on the airline market and it happened to coincide with the cancellation crisis. What we found is very interesting – it sheds light not just on the crisis and its likely outcome, but on what – if anything – can really damage a brand.

Our model assumes that people’s decisions about brands are driven by their fast, intuitive System 1 minds. People look for choices that are familiar, easy to pick and feel good. We describe the heuristics behind branding as Fame (does it come readily to mind?), Feeling (does it feel good?) and Fluency (can you recognise it quickly?). Taken together, the 3 Fs not only describe current brand strength very well, but they also predict future growth or decline for brands.

So what do they say about Ryanair and its competition?

Fame, Feeling and Fluency percentiles

As you might expect, Ryanair does very poorly on Feeling in the wake of the cancellation crisis. Negative emotion towards the brand has roughly doubled, with Contempt – a corrosive emotion for business – particularly strong. This is a comparable effect to what we’ve seen with other scandal-struck brands, like VW during its emissions scandal, and may actually be even more severe. The VW scandal made people angry – but there was a sense that the brand was being dishonest to regulators rather than making life worse for customers. The cancellations crisis has a greater human impact.

Even so, most of the jump in negative emotion comes from people who were previously Neutral to Ryanair. Positive emotion does drop, but only by 5 percentiles. This is enough to signal future decline for Ryanair, but not as dramatic as its critics might expect.

The crucial thing Ryanair needs to watch is how its competitors perform. Our model suggests that fellow budget airline Easyjet will be the big benefactor, becoming stronger as Ryanair weakens. So the relative gap between the two budget giants will widen considerably. Easyjet have in fact already posted an excellent set of results, so this outcome seems very likely.

The other big question is – if it does lose ground relative to Easyjet, can Ryanair bounce back? In other studies, we’ve seen scandal-struck brands like Tesco and VW recover over time. What’s the difference between a fast and slow recovery?

The answer may be Fame. Ryanair’s Fame – how rapidly it comes to mind – has actually risen since the cancellation crisis. This happens with almost every scandal-hit brand, and it’s a lifeline for them. While it’s clearly not true to say “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”, the original Oscar Wilde version of that thought has plenty of truth to it.

 

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

- Oscar Wilde

 

It works like this. A scandal makes a brand more prominent in people’s minds, but it makes them feel worse about it. If the brand can resolve that negative emotion without losing much Fame, it is well set for recovery. If the brand’s Fame boost dies away but the negative emotion lingers, the stain on its reputation is lasting and it may be in deeper trouble. Britain’s banking brands, for instance, found it very difficult to recover from the 2008 financial crisis, which meant they were vulnerable to having market share stolen by an entrant like Santander.

So we expect Ryanair will take a hit from the cancellation crisis, and is particularly vulnerable to Easyjet. But if it can resolve the bad feelings quickly and restore some happiness, it will thrive again. Resolving negative emotion hasn’t been Ryanair’s style in the past – but this time it needs to be different.

Written by Tom Ewing, Head of Communications, System1

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