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Billboards in the Sky - Why Ryanair Needs to Change the Mood Music

27/11/2013 12:56 GMT | Updated 27/01/2014 10:59 GMT

Ryanair, one of the most successful brands in the last 25 years, has always taken an uncompromising approach when dealing with its customers - follow the rules to the letter and get a cheap fare - any deviation and costs will escalate. No excuses, no quarter given.

That was until recently, in an unexpected change of heart Michael O'Leary began to question the rigid principles upon which the airline's reputation has been built. He admitted that a more conciliatory and flexible approach needed to be adopted and accepted responsibility for a rather 'macho' attitude with customers, suggesting that his personal management style may have seeped into the culture of the company.

To many, hearing O'Leary utter these words was totally perplexing. The common view being, love it or loathe it, you knew where you stood with Ryanair. It retained one of the most desirable of all brand traits - absolute clarity on what it stood for. It didn't actually want to be loved, it was far more important to be successful by delivering on the promises it made.

The next reaction was of course to ask why the change of heart? What was driving this new found desire to listen to customers?

The obvious answer would seem to be that the company had issued a profits warning that highlighted difficult trading conditions and falling revenue. This created a narrative in the media that the birds had finally come home to roost and a company that has revelled in its reputation for controversy was beginning to pay the price.

This may be part of the answer but I think if one looks to another recent Ryanair story another important piece on the jigsaw falls into place. The airline is exploring the option of carrying advertising on its planes - becoming billboards in the sky (and of course more importantly on the tarmac). This development could provide Ryanair with a valuable new revenue stream, particularly when one considers it has a fleet of 300 planes with the potential for each plane to generate say £100,000 annually in advertising sales (a figure of £20,000 for branding on the wing tips has been mentioned by some in the media). £30m won't fundamentally change Ryanair's business model but given most of it should hit the bottom line it is a pretty handy contribution to profitability

However the company's ability to attract advertising on its planes is inextricably linked to its corporate image and reputation. Advertisers are looking for positive associations from a 'host' brand - just think of advertising at football grounds. They want to enjoy a halo effect - where positive perception of the host spills into their advertising message, reinforcing their own brand strength.

In the case of Ryanair potential advertisers would have to balance the uniqueness (and therefore impact) of the advertising medium with the strong feelings (not always positive) that the brand can evoke. However given Michael O'Leary's pronouncements it's clear the company wants to make that decision a lot easier for advertisers to take. The logic being that a better customer experience delivered by a 'nicer' Ryanair will translate into a more positive reputation and advertising environment.

The key question of course is can O'Leary pull it off? Can he radically reposition the airline and alter its reputation? Experience shows that reputations can be changed over time but for any change to take root in people's minds it has to be authentic and consistently delivered. So in many ways to have any chance of success O'Leary has to apply the same cast iron discipline to the new Ryanair as he did with the original.

Once he does that we will have taken one step closer to the prospect of billboards in the sky.

Milorad Ajder is Managing Director of the Ipsos MORI Reputation Centre