“Nothing is off the table”: the four freedoms of Ryanair’s disruptive social strategy
Ryanair is a brand that does social media right. Ironically, it does this by doing all the wrong things. ‘Wrong’ in this instance means all the things we think corporate brands shouldn’t do – like clapping back to haters, drawing attention to its biggest pain points, and going viral with tweets that make you do a double take.
Ryanair’s social accounts boast numbers any marketer would be proud of. Its TikToks alone have over 18 million likes. Where does a brand like that go from here?
Far from dominating social’s airline sector, Ryanair wants to be the most talked about brand full stop. Its head of social media Michael Corcoran joined the Social Minds podcast to tell us how it’s riding a wave of success through four key freedoms.
Freedom to be provocative.
Being a low-cost airline means Ryanair doesn’t have a huge ad budget to play with, underscoring social’s all-important role in grabbing attention – and boosting sales. Amid a sea of idyllic travel guides and plane wing holiday snaps, Ryanair stands out with provocative content that either pushes or outright oversteps the boundaries, depending on who you’re talking to.
If you’ve ever wondered how many C-Suite executives it took to approve a risky Ryanair tweet, you might be surprised. There are actually few approval processes when it comes to publishing riskier posts. In fact, approval stops at Michael himself. And with the exception of flight safety, “nothing is off the table” when it comes to what the social media team can put out.
Michael might moderate for legality, but without the constraints of clearing content with higher-ups, Ryanair’s social team has the trust, licence and support to publish reactive content fast in its signature tongue-in-cheek style – whether it be a jibe about a certain tennis player or memes about the government.
Freedom to build a team that works.
The purpose of Ryanair’s content is primarily to entertain, but it’s also part of a broader strategy around changing perceptions. Ryanair wants to make consumers reconsider not just flying low-cost, but the brand’s reputation specifically, generating sales by appealing primarily to its younger users.
The social team’s approach to hiring prioritises people who live and breathe social media in their day-to-day lives as opposed to solely industry credentials. The average experience of the team is three months, but that didn’t stop them reaching 111 million people organically across all of their channels in July.
“If we’re not getting some form of cease and desist, we’re probably not close enough to the line.”
Michael explains content is often tested in a live environment, a high-risk, high-reward strategy that sometimes means removing posts when necessary. It’s inevitable that things go wrong sometimes. Perhaps one piece of content doesn’t resonate, or they make a comment that really does go too far.
What’s important when building out a team, says Michael, is not to establish limitations from the outset. “If you tell people what you can’t do, you limit their creativity. First, let them create content in a safe space. Then make it appropriate to go public.”
Freedom to have fun on new channels.
It wouldn’t be a Ryanair interview without a mention of Plane Face: Ryanair’s TikTok mascot.
The personification of the Ryanair plane as embodying the brand’s playful, self-deprecating tone of voice (TOV) was devised during the pandemic, when the aviation industry faced significant challenges.
With little travel content to work with, Plane Face was partly a result of experimentation on a relatively new channel and partly a matter of great timing. A year later, Plane Face has generated some of the brand’s most viewed TikToks (the highest? 10 million).
Plane Face has sparked a trend among brands on the platform, using the same filter to animate a brand character from a hero product – whether it be a biscuit, a juice bottle or a university building.
There’s no doubt it works, but it shouldn’t be forced. Rather than using Ryanair as a copy-and-paste template for your TikTok strategy, brands should be thinking about how to make waves on the platform. As Michael says – “to grab attention, you have to be different”.
Freedom to rip up the rulebook.
Contrary to what most brands would say about customer comms, Ryanair isn’t afraid to make comments in jest, send witty comebacks to general complaints, or be sassy on social. When one person tweeted that Ryanair’s planes had less features than their local bus, Ryanair responded, “Let them drive you to Greece for a tenner.” Far from considering this unprofessional, audiences love it – the initial tweet in this thread received over 12k likes.
It’s even made light of its drawbacks, like christening the distance from the gate to the plane “the Ryanair 5k” complete with running video, or inspiring a Twitter account for 11A, the seat on every Ryanair plane without a window. Even though this kind of content emphasises the negatives of flying low-cost, it works because it lets customers know they’re in on the joke.
A brand with a few lingering negative perceptions thanks to previous PR might try to flip the script by rebranding as an entirely professional airline with a wholesome aura to win Gen Z over. But instead, Ryanair has taken its existing brand personality and ran with it – reframing itself using a self-deprecating and at times divisive TOV that mirrors the intricacies of Gen Z subculture.
During the episode’s closing moments, Michael leaves brands with a well-informed piece of advice. “Our success isn’t driven by throwing shade and a few well-placed bangers. It’s about having a strategy, structure, a team and buy-in from the business. Get this right and the rest will follow.”
How you can embrace a no-limits approach to social:
- Tell your team what they can do, not what they can’t – otherwise you hamper creativity. Let them brainstorm content in a safe space first.
- Embrace the idea of getting things wrong. There may be times where your content oversteps the line – but the fallout won’t last.
- A good outbound social strategy starts internally. Trust from the wider business lets you post reactive content fast and make your mark first.
- Standing out is always risky, but you’ll be rewarded highly if you do it right.
- Make light of some of your drawbacks through content that captures them in a positive or entertaining way.
- Mascots and brand characters can be a fun way to channel TOV, but it should feel natural. And be original – try not to use the same TikTok filters as every other brand account.