Only the authentic brands will prevail...

By James Sanderson on Thursday, 18 June 2015

...providing we like what they stand for

One of the reasons I love social media is the unstoppable democratising effect it creates for us, the customers. I genuinely do think it puts us more in control as social media increasingly shines a devastating spotlight on brands and the promises they make (and break) and the philosophies they hold (and let go of).

A few years ago I worked with the head of a PR agency who used to love Ryanair purely because they were the real deal. They did what they said and they always delivered on it – ‘they’re cheap and honest about it’. His story about Ryanair telling him “what bit of ‘no refunds’ don’t you understand?” used to get audiences tittering.

We can all think of a brand that doesn't quite deliver on its promise though. A brand that has spent a lot of time and money weaving a yarn that it ‘puts customers first’ (but makes their tariffs or prices so complicated it needs a mathematician to work it out) or has ‘invented another way’ (but carries on doing it just as badly as everyone else but with a more modern logo). And the financial services world is no stranger to this.

In the olden days, if your ‘Customers First’ building society kept you waiting on the phone for 20 minutes you’d forgive them. But not today. A quick spin on Twitter whilst munching on your sushi, you realise that everyone’s on hold – some for up to an hour. Some are being offered the chance to queue jump for 50p (yes really) and many are getting very angry. We haven’t got time for this; we’re all moaning and the mob mentality is growing.

So in this super-connected world, brand storytelling only properly works if the stories are based on a truth. The brands needs to be more authentic, because in social media world, the truth will out. And out it does, fast. Ryanair didn't pretend it had a better way. Or say they put customers first. They were just authentic – they said they’re cheap, they behaved cheaply, and we loved cheap didn't we? This has been CEO Michael O’Leary's mantra for over 20 years. That they were openly hostile to the notion of investing in social media to engage with their audiences added to their position and they were comfortable with being the UK’s most hated airline.

But here’s the twist to this post: in the end it was the wrong strategy. It seems people want cheap AND customer service. Not only had popular opinion, driven inevitably by a vocal majority on social media, undermined the ‘no frills’ message, the conversation had escalated to Ryanair being voted the fourth most hated brand in the UK, allowing EasyJet to power ahead. So finally O’Leary had to listen and take action, and in September 2013 Ryanair launched on to social channels in an apparent volt-face to their customer-last philosophy as part of its first ever ‘charm offensive’.

Six days ago they announced their profits were up 66% to the year ending March 2015.

So brand success means being authentic. To be authentic you now have to base everything on truths or you’ll risk being exposed. But – and here’s the hard bit – if your truths aren't good enough your audiences will demand you change them or you’ll forever be held back. You can read all about it on social media.

-James Sanderson

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