In case you’re not familiar with European budget airline Ryanair, it started in 1984 and after some turbulent times, eventually became the largest airline in Europe. Its CEO is an Irishman called Michael O’Leary, who started at the airline in 1987 as its tax and finance adviser. He was tasked with a turnaround plan to profitability in 1991. O’Leary went to the U.S., studied Southwest Airlines, and came back to Europe with a strategy that copied many of Southwest’s success components.
The results were evident. What also became evident was that O’Leary adopted a personal positioning as the man every airline passenger and every airline/airport executive loved to hate.
It seemed O’Leary relished his role as villain, taunting the industry and Ryanair’s customers by saying things like that they’d consider charging passengers for the use of the toilet, or that pilots were instructed to “create” turbulence to increase onboard alcohol sales. About his staff, he said: “Staff is usually your biggest cost. We all employ some lazy bastards who need a kick up the backside, but no one can bring themselves to admit it."
Ryanair’s focus on the bottom line at all costs, and O’Leary’s brashness, translated into Ryanair’s staff being downright rude and terrible to their customers as well. A U.K. consumer advocacy group reported that Ryanair was the least liked short-haul airline in Europe, six years in a row. To which O’Leary posited: "I don't give a shit if no one likes me. I'm not a cloud bunny or an aerosexual. I don't like aeroplanes."
In the end, though, it all started to catch up with Ryanair’s business. Not only were there viable ultra low-cost carrier competitors like EasyJet and Wizz Air, but the negativity surrounding the Ryanair brand became such an obstacle that it started to hurt the bottom line.
You can say many things about Michael O’Leary, but he ultimately will do anything to drive the business forward. He understood that Ryanair’s reputation, largely driven by him, had become an obstacle to growth. And so, in 2014, he did the unthinkable: He stated that Ryanair was “going to stop publicly pissing off people,” and he hired Ryanair’s first ever CMO in Kenny Jacobs.
Jacobs set out to position the airline as family-friendly, as the numbers showed that only 20% of its passengers were family groups, and Ryanair saw this as a growth opportunity. By 2018 it had turned around to become one of the fastest-growing airlines in the world.
Why do I share this story with you? Well, because there appears to be an similar avalanche (turning point?) happening with Facebook.
For too long, it appears Facebook had simply not cared about -- and in many cases purposefully gone against -- what consumers, marketers, politicians, shareholders and everybody else said they expected of a company of its size and importance.
Zuckerberg is perhaps no O’Leary in using colorful language to offend and belittle anybody that has different ideas than his. But the clear lack of recognition and downright derision for the values and expectations of Facebook’s complete ecosystem is finally beginning to catch up with the company.
Advertisers like Patagonia, North Face, REI and Verizon have publicly jointed a monthly boycott. And Dentsu-owned agency 360i is recommending its clients do the same. More could follow. Zuckerberg has reached his “O’Leary 2014” moment. Let’s see if he has the same business-driven humility to turn the ship around.