Ryan Air: A tale of trustworthiness

ryanairTrust. The word holds considerable weight and can make or break the companies that spend millions of pounds on building trust with customers. But what is trust and what does it mean to consumers?

Ryan Air is a brand that is doggedly trying to rebuild trust with its customers. As part of a major image overhaul, the brand – once known for its less-than-reasonable baggage allowances and its downright rude chief executive – has just launched a Family Extra service in an attempt to position itself as a family friendly airline. The service – which includes discounts for children and on-board bottle warming – is just one of the steps Ryan Air has taken to begin rebuilding trust with consumers now that Michael O’Leary finally seems to be keeping his promise to step out of the public eye. But is it really consumer trust that Ryan air has lost or something else altogether?

We recently undertook research into the question of trust in which Ryan Air came top of a list of brands ‘we don’t trust’. However, there is no stronger indication of trust than taking a Ryan Air flight, which 81.5 million passengers do each year. With this contradiction in mind, we began to dig deeper into the idea of brand trust to help understand its relevance to today’s consumer.

Years ago, a brand or marque was ALL about trust. Consumers only had limited information about a brand and their key concern was product quality so trust was essential. Brands we trusted tended to be long established and part of the fabric of our lives. Importantly, this included brands that had never put a foot wrong.

Today we can access seemingly unlimited information about brands, including suppliers, production, quality, profits, and staffing. In this age of intense consumer scrutiny, never putting a foot wrong seems less and less likely.

Mistakes and gaffes are amplified through social media – think British Gas inviting questions, the England team’s passport numbers tweeted by Vauxhall, US Airways’ explicit porn photos, and Ryan Air’s very own #GrillMOL disaster last year. And most of these gaffes are not even about the product or service.

In theory we can now evaluate every detail of every choice we make, but for the sake of our sanity we still need a shortcut. But a shortcut to what? Is it still trust?

In reality today’s consumers want a brand to be trustworthy, rather than to trust it. It might sound like a nuance, but trustworthiness is part and parcel of a brand having a human side, and of striving for something other than just increasing profit margins. We expect brands to be open to dialogue, to have integrity, to be transparent, and to care.

It’s hard for brands to consistently live up to these expectations but most consumers are open to believing that a brand is trustworthy and will try to maintain an ethical code. This means it is possible for brands to make a mistake and – by dealing quickly and fairly with the issue – to restore a sense of trustworthiness. Brands might even gain consumers’ affection for facing up to the situation and finding a way forward with integrity. Much like celebrities, brands can come out of difficult times well – think Nigella.

Unlike trust, which is based on personal experience, consumers can form an impression of whether a brand is trustworthy without having direct dealings with it. Trustworthiness can be created, won, and lost, through media coverage and peer reviews – just look at the way Tesco turned around the horsemeat scandal.

Returning to Ryan Air, it’s likely that people don’t consider the budget airline trustworthy because they have no respect for the outspoken Michael O’Leary, or because stories of a £1 charge to use the bathroom undermine any sense of a purpose higher than pure profit. Most of us would say we don’t trust Ryan Air yet would still board its planes, so the issue with Ryan Air is clearly a broader sense of not being trustworthy.

The airline’s recent full-scale PR charm offensive has included a new website, TV ad, and tagline, as well as allocated seating, improved customer service, and of course the Family Extra scheme. Perhaps it has taken on board the importance of being trustworthy in its bid to match the success that other budget airlines (namely Easyjet) have had in lifting their offering above just price.

Our findings have helped re-frame the question around consumer trust and to understand that being trustworthy is a far more relevant brand attribute for today’s consumer. Trustworthiness involves having a higher purpose and developing human qualities for the brand, as well as understanding that putting a mistake right is just as important, if not more important, than not making it in the first place.

Caroline Noon is co-founder of Vivid Research