What happens when the school bully tries to get everyone to love him? Ryanair’s famously confrontational CEO Michael O’Leary has had a shot at it. Gone are the days when O’Leary railed unabashed against the consumers who paid his wages. With a "new Ryanair experience" unveiled at an event at London’s Design Museum, O’Leary attempted to charm hacks into submission. It’s the latest in a series of recent attempts to swap the hardman image for a new, cuddly persona.
It seems someone at Ryanair has deemed it time for the brand to stop embracing its dark side. This is a colossal shame. O’Leary thinks he can steer his airline through its recent financial turbulence by wooing more business customers. I don’t think it’s possible to override an established narrative to that degree. Ryanair is a guilty secret, a down-low, dirty dive bar of a brand. You can’t whitewash that with a few glasses of free Prosecco.
Those who believe brands must paint on a smile to succeed should look at the rise of another brawler. UKIP leader Nigel Farage will have had a happy morning as he surveyed the coverage of his first debate with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in late March. Outlets varied in their verdicts, but for almost all the top line was the same. A YouGov snap poll for The Sun showed 57 per cent thought Farage performed better than Clegg. By contrast, a mere 36 per cent came out for the Cleggster.
Despite this, one comment of Farage’s is being touted as a faux pas. Farage proclaimed that the EU had "blood on its hands" for supporting the Ukranian revolution. There is only one other irreverent public figure who supports that viewpoint and his name is Vladimir Putin. The commentators seem to be united: this slip up will come back to bite Farage.
What nonsense. Farage succeeds because of the scandals that continue to dog his increasingly professionalised party. Former UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom was a regular source of these for a time, from thwacking Channel 4 hack Michael Crick with a party pamphlet to making references to "bongo bongo land". Eventually, the party leadership let him go, but before it did he only boosted it further into the mainstream. UKIP spinners played a clever game: Bloom would espouse a nasty opinion, probably secretly held by many of the party’s supporters. This would appear in the press, giving Farage a platform to express a more reasonable view. With his Putin-esque posturing, Farage played the same game, only without anyone else acting as foil. His debate risked positioning him as a member of the establishment, so he made sure he slipped in one taboo opinion. In short, he continued to embrace the darkness in his brand.
O’Leary and other brand managers should take note. The consumers who keep you going have darkness in them too. When you do something nasty, you might get stick in the short term. In the long term, however, you only get the kind of love UKIP has by showing your fans a mirror image of themselves. They identify far better with you when they see that you, like them, are troubled now and then by the rattling of bones in the closet.
Mark Borkowski is founder of Borkowski.do