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Skift CMO Interviews: Ryanair CMO on Becoming Friendly and Mastering Mobile

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Skift Take

Kenny Jacob’s vision of the Ryanair friendly/edgy hybrid is walking a fine line on brand, but he seems to have a very grounded perspective of how to manage it. When we think of Ryanair, “uninteresting” is not an adjective that comes to mind.

— Marisa Garcia

Editor’s Note: Following our previous CEO interview series in online travelhospitality, and destinations, Skift has launched a new series, this time focused on Chief Marketing Officers.

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To better understand the big marketing challenges facing travel brands in an age when consumers are in control, Skift’s What Keeps CMOs Up at Night will talk with the leading voices in global marketing from across all the industry’s sectors.

These interviews with leaders of hotels, airlines, tourism boards, digital players, agents, tour operators and more will explore both shared and unique challenges they are facing, where they get insights, and how they best leverage digital insights to make smarter decisions.

This is the latest interview in the series.

Few airlines have developed a brand definition as sharp-edged as Ryanair has over its 30 year history. The bad-boy of the European low-cost sector has become nicer, but it hasn’t lost its north.

Ryanair’s CMO, Kenny Jacobs, explains the effectiveness of the airline’s ongoing five-year Always Getting Better campaign. He shares his thoughts on brand positioning, digital, social, and consumer trends. He explains how Ryanair refines its image without losing its low-cost mojo.

Skift: Are you happy with the effects of Always Getting Better on the Ryanair brand?

Kenny Jacobs: I’m very happy with the progress that we’ve made. I’m very happy with the difference it has made in load factors and in demand, and in the softer measures of what people think of Ryanair. We’ve made real change and we’ve made it quickly where it matters: in the customer experience.

The proof of that is the load factor. Three years ago, our average load factor was just over 80% and this year it will be just over 92%.

I don’t think it was that hard. I think we were pushing an open door on a lot of things: letting people pick their own seat and bring two bags onboard, having a better website and a better mobile app.

This isn’t marketing genius. This is just doing the basics, doing them quickly, and doing them well.

But I think we’ve moved very quickly with a CEO who wants to change, a Board Room who want the business to change, bring in better customers, and innovate.

I think we’ve done a better job, but the work isn’t complete. That’s why we’re about to launch year three of Always Getting Better.

For me, entering year three of Always Getting Better, it’s really interesting to compare it to the list of initiatives we had in year one.

We had a list of initiatives for Always Getting Better in year one that was about 60% was stuff we needed to fix and 40% was change and innovation. When I look at the list for this year, it’s about 80% innovation. A lot of those innovations aren’t just innovations for Ryanair they’re things that no other airline in Europe of the world has done, for several of them.

Skift: What failures did you identify in 2015? What would you do differently?

Kenny Jacobs: I think we could have done more on mobile, and we tried to move faster on mobile.

The trend that we see there is incredible. If I had my time again, I would have doubled our efforts in this area. I think that’s the same for everyone because everyone under-calls the move to mobile across the European market. Other things I would do would be in the content and social area.

I think having our own mobile, having more content and social would be something that I would like to have made more progress on in 2015. We will in 2016.

But over all we’re not looking back at a year that wasn’t successful, where we didn’t meet our objectives. We continue to make great progress.

You can never say, in any year–we will double our efforts on some these things in 2016–but I’ll still be saying if I’m talking to you at this time next year, I wish we had done more.

The move to mobile and the changing behavior driven by our different devices is incredible and every CMO needs to be absolutely all over that.

Skift: How did you tackle challenges of brand definition as Ryanair gets friendlier?

Kenny Jacobs: Look, we are a functional brand. Short-haul travel in Europe is a functional thing.

I want it to be a very efficient functional brand that does a better job than anyone else in terms of getting you there on time, charging you the lowest fare and being Europe’s most reliable, best, low-cost airline with the best choice for customers.

I always come back to Ryanair and Virgin. If you take Virgin, as an airline, Virgin is a great brand. Richard Branson is has created a brand that can do so many things. If you look at Virgin’s ads they are very lush, very sexy, very, very cool. But then, if you fly with Virgin, it’s a good product but their ads are communicating a product that is somewhat removed from the actual flying experience.

They’re going for ‘let’s be an emotional brand’ that makes a connection with people.

Ryanair is a functional brand—because the emotional place is for you at the destination.

I’m a great believer in the phrase that no one gets from London to Barcelona saying, “Oh, I love the airport I’m flying from. I love the airline I’m flying.” What they’re saying and thinking is: “I love Barcelona. It’s about what I want to do in Barcelona.”

So, for me, the ethos is: spend it when you get there. Don’t spend it getting there.

I think the shortie airline—who does short-haul, like we do—is a functional part of that equation. The emotion happens for the consumer at the destination, not at the airport, and not with the airline.

That’s going to keep us grounded somewhat. That’s the philosophy I believe in, and I think it’s the right philosophy for the Ryanair brand forever.

Skift: Where do you believe market trends in digital marketing campaigns are headed for the airline industry? How is Ryanair positioning itself to be ahead of or match competitors as digital media grows?

I think all airlines have done the token effort. They’ve launched updates. They’ve launched on Facebook. They’ve launched on a few other social media. They’ve integrated some more of the sales content.

That’s kind of the basic stuff to say, “We’re on social and we’re doing content.”

In terms of how you make it different, and have your content be different, that’s something that I wish I had done that last year: having more user-generated content, turning content to mobile.

That consumer with the mobile app in hand they want 90 second video content, 200 90-second video destination guides.

Skift: Is Facebook marketing dead, or is it working well for Ryanair? What about Twitter or Instagram? Are you considering Snapchat?

Kenny Jacobs: We’re absolutely looking at Snapchat, we’re also looking at Tinder and WhatsApp.

Skift: Tinder?

Kenny Jacobs: Tinder is one of the mobile experience that we look at. There are a few features that we’re introducing this year that we’ve leveraged from Tinder. We like the way they serve up content. The whole left to right piece is interesting. We’re looking at elements of that functionality.

If you look at young people when they’re booking flights—take young people in London..two or three guys book a flight London to Barcelona.

They’ve just booked a flight and they want to share that on Facebook. They can let their friends know that they’re going to Barcelona; to know whether anyone has been there who knows some interesting bars to meet girls, or where to do some shopping, or do whatever they want to do.

That’s one way we’re going to integrate social into the booking flow.

If they’ve booked, let’s say, two months in advance, that’s going to be on their Facebook timeline. Various friends of theirs on Facebook will say, “Oh why don’t you try this, or, I’m going to be there at the same time.”

You’ll get different things happening in the booking flow, and on the active trip stage. Now, can I see that those three guys are single? Is there a dating bit going to happen?

Can there be a Ryanair network, where if you’re traveling with us you can put that on Facebook that part of the reason you’re going to Barcelona is to meet members of the opposite sex?

Is that something that happens naturally on Facebook? Yes, it is. Can we get parts of that conversation? I don’t know yet, but that’s part of the things we’re looking at.

What are the top Ryanair destinations for singles? Where are singletons booking at various times of the year? We’re probably bringing them there anyway.

We’ve done a few surveys and I always love the one that comes back of couples who say they’ve met on their way to a destination from Ryanair, or one the way back, or they met at the airport. You know, air travel and airlines do play a role in connecting people romantically from around Europe. That’s an interesting area. It’s happening informally already. Will it happen formally on our website or on our social pages in future? Perhaps more might happen. But in terms of functionality there are a few things we’re going to pinch from Tinder as well.

We’re interested in Snapchat and the reason we should be interested in Snapchat is simply that, if you talk to a certain generation of customer, they’re like, “Wow..Facebook is so yesterday.”

Today it’s all about Snapchat, Whatsapp and these other platforms to come.

We need to be sure that we’re not doing the classic thing of saying our social platform is Facebook or Twitter.

For a certain generation of customer, Facebook and Twitter are yesterday’s social media.

Snapchat is on the list because it’s what our customers use, and as Snapchat evolves its functionality, and it becomes less restricted in the way they handle content, that’s where we’ll look to be integrated as a destination content channel.

That’s mostly what people are doing on Snapchat capturing content while they’re at the destination and sharing it within that app.

Is there Snapchat inspiration on our mobile app on our website? Potentially, at a point in time. It’s on the list of the kind of things we’re saying what will we do.

Instagram is higher up the list, if I’m honest. More integration with Facebook and Twitter is higher up the list. Whatsapp is higher up the list today.

Skift: You had a bit of an altercation with Aer Lingus on Twitter last year, which was genuine, spontaneous, and, frankly, funny. But do you think that helped or hindered the brand image? Do you encourage this sort of free-form rapid-fire expression on Twitter or are you trying to tone that down a bit?

Kenny Jacobs: I’m not coming out of my office going “guys, guys, you can’t say that about Aer Lingus.” If anything, I’m coming out and doing the opposite. I’m saying, “Let’s do this. Let’s do that.” I’m trying to get my social team to be a little bit more edgy and ballsy so they do more stuff like that. It makes us interesting and we’ve never been uninteresting as a brand and we won’t become uninteresting as a brand.

Ryanair listening to customers and Ryanair being digital and smart doesn’t mean that we want to become uninteresting.

We do want to keep a bit of the bad boy, a bit of the Sex Pistols within the brand DNA. So we are outspoken. You know Michael will always be like that. It suits us to be outspoken and opinionated and to call a spade a spade; but to create a bit of fun in an industry which at times is men in grey suits being fairly boring.

We want to be the guys who bring a bit of fun, have a bit of a poke and aren’t afraid to try things.

Skift: Would you say you have aligned Ryanair’s brand to respond to easyJet, Norwegian, Vueling brands, etc.?

Kenny Jacobs: Is it that we’re now like the others? I always get asked that but the answer is that we’re absolutely not like the others.

I’m very proud that our marketing investments are tiny compared to our competitors.

Our cost advantage across all the key lines is as strong as it always was. We’re still obsessed about costs, about fares, and doing the right changes, but we’re not following the playbook of other airlines—be they low cost or not—that have made a transition to having a broader appeal over the past number of years.

Skift: At what point is branding development at odds with your low-fares model? What’s the stopping point for you?

Kenny Jacobs: I don’t think it is, not the way we’re doing it. I think it fits well with the low-cost model. I would point to the German discounters Lidl and Aldi, who have a lot of what we’re doing. It’s similar to what they’ve done over the past five years. They used to be just cheap food at low-cost but they now sell lobster and champagne. I think low-cost marketing, and positioning a brand as a low-fares work well together.

This series is presented by Boxever. The Skift content team maintains complete editorial control over these interviews and the selection of subjects.

For more insights from Boxever, please see the following reports:

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