Opinion: Ryanair's current problems may be costing the "Tony Soprano of the skies" a lot of money, but can its brand recover in the long-term from this damage to its reputation?

Watching the Ryanair crisis unfold this week made a Rhett Butler quote spring to mind: "with enough courage you can do without a reputation". Brand reputation is a measure of how people react to a brand. A good brand reputation means that customers have confidence, trust and have positive feelings about your brand. A bad one has the opposite effects. 

However, regardless of the benefits, it is often the case that many brands treat the management of reputation as an afterthought, usually precipitated by a crisis of some sort. As Ryanair struggles to cope with its ongoing reputational crisis, YouGov BrandIndex data suggests that customers are already reconsidering booking flights with Ryanair as its Buzz score (a measurement of whether someone hasn’t heard anything positive about the brand over a two week period) falls back close to 2013 levels. Other YouGov metrics such as impression scores and recommendation scores, are now at their lowest level for the last twelve months. 

Is this surprising? Absolutely not. Is this a permanent shift in customer sentiment? Probably not. The silver lining in the data is that the Ryanair purchase reconsideration score, which has also taken a hit, still remains high. This suggests that if Ryanair can successfully navigate the brand through this crisis, they can and will recover.

Fortunately for Ryanair the vista is not all bleak. From a low point in 2013 where the brand was ranked as the worst service brand in the UK by Which?, they have been making efforts to improve their public perception. This means that the current crisis is being cushioned by increased positive sentiment since embarking on their 2014 ‘be nicer’ strategy

Of course, all these recent gains will be undoubtedly severely damaged by what has happened. However, with the right public gestures and an empathetic response, Ryanair can rebound. After all British Airways recovered after their colossal IT crisis which saw chaos reign across the globe and outraged customers lambaste the company. It also pales in comparison to the United Airlines footage of a respectable doctor being dragged off one of their planes only to be followed by a bungled response from UA’s CEO who, in his wisdom, decided it was a good idea to blame the customer. And Aer Lingus, ironically the butt of some social media jokes by Ryanair at the time, recovered from the people smuggling scandal. These airlines suffered but survived. What this tells us is that comebacks are, more often than not, possible. 

But why might we forgive Ryanair? Simple. As customers we are complicit in the Ryanair antihero narrative. It is a flawed brand, lacking the heroic qualities of courage, morality and nobility. It is our Tony Soprano of the skies, the brand we love to hate, and that is its key marketplace differentiator. That is what will make passengers return to the brand. We accept the flaws. We admire the straight talk, even if it infuriates us. We don’t expect courage or nobility. Nor do we expect them to be nice to us, although it is a bonus. And we certainly don’t love the brand. But we do understand it. We know where we stand with Ryanair, even if it’s nowhere, and that in itself has influence. 

While Ryanair have been trying to be nicer to us recently, and with some success it must be said, they remain a brand true to its core values of low cost with no frills and an on time service. In saying that, this crisis represents a crucial juncture in Ryanair’s strategy. They are in a place where the brand is in danger of unravelling before our very eyes. Where, in their attempts to salvage the situation, they miscalculate and misjudge public sentiment. The coming days will be critical in determining if this will be the case. 

Like the all-powerful Oz, the curtain has been pulled back on the operations of Ryanair and reveals a new narrative of considerable dysfunction and mismanagement. To borrow another Rhett Butler quote, will Michael O’Leary and his self-confessed bad boy of marketing Kenny Jacobs, revert to the usual "frankly my dear I don’t give a damn" attitude? Or will they really and honestly have the courage to step up and do the right thing?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ