Brand Health Check: EasyJet

The innovator that brought cheap air travel to the masses nine years ago is struggling to maintain its pull in the face of fierce competition. Daniel Rogers asks how it can fight back Most people have an opinion about easyJet. This is one of its strengths.

Because the budget airline liberated us to travel more frequently around Europe, with prices more akin to domestic train travel than the traditionally high prices charged by European flag carriers, it has become both high-profile and accessible.

It has also developed as one of the UK's most distinctive brands under the guidance of Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the Greek entrepreneur whose bombastic, anti-establishment attitude became inextricably linked with easyJet's public image.

But since Stelios stood down as chairman in 2002, some feel easyJet's brand has lost its punch. Though it has continued its trademark controversial advertising, the recent 'Weapons of mass distraction' poster, showing a woman's cleavage, and the current 'Tell the boss to stick it where the sun don't shine' execution have attracted dozens of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority for being 'tasteless'.

Positive news about growth emanating from easyJet has been tempered with negative financial statements. Annual profits tailed off last year, and easyJet's share price at the time of publication was 146p, compared with 550p in 2002. In the past two months the company has had to issue two profits warnings.

The sector has seen growing competition from domestic entrants such as Thomsonfly and Continental start-ups such as Wizz, from Eastern Europe.

Higher fuel prices are also hitting profits. In positioning terms, some feel easyJet has been squeezed between airlines such as British Airways and the ultra low-cost Ryanair.

We asked Chris Woodbridge-Cox, UK and Ireland director of Club Med, for a travel industry view, and Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy's planning director Andy Nairn for an advertising perspective. Nairn currently plans advertising for Travelocity and P&O Cruises, and has previously worked on Virgin Atlantic's business at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R.

DIAGNOSIS 1 - CHRIS WOODBRIDGE-COX Director UK and Ireland, Club Med

When I think of easyJet, the expression 'between a rock and a hard place' springs to mind. British Airways' implementation of a low-cost strategy on its European network has put easyJet under pressure from a 'full-service' airline on one side and Ryanair, the 'no-service' airline, on the other. Tumbling share prices have made the City jittery and it needs reassurance that easyJet knows where it is going.

BA reserves a seat for you, gives you a meal and an industry standard luggage allowance on a flight that lands somewhere you've heard of. At the other end of the spectrum, Ryanair will let you fight your fellow travellers for a seat and then possibly sell you a sandwich and coffee for the same money as the flight. Luggage is not encouraged and the arrival airport could be miles from civilisation.

EasyJet's position is muddled. There is no reserved seat and a charge for drinks and snacks, but you will land somewhere familiar and can bring as much luggage as you like - as long as you can lift it into the overhead bins.

REMEDY

- Find a USP and capitalise on it.

- Bring back Stelios - the 'face' works for Virgin with Branson.

- Create a loyalty scheme to encourage repeat business.

- Embrace the travel trade - 'dynamic packaging' will be many travel agents' survival route as people demand more flexibility from holidays.

- On business routes an allocated seat and a cup of coffee could make all the difference.

DIAGNOSIS 2 - ANDY NAIRN, Planning director, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

Ryanair started the low-cost travel revolution, but easyJet led the way. Opening up the European cities and making traditional holiday destinations more accessible, the low-cost brigade upset a complacent marketplace, championing independent travellers and bargain city breaks.

EasyJet's values were simple - a cheap, no-frills offering. Flights to Spain for a fiver were hard to knock.But, nine years on from easyJet's launch, the market has matured. So many competitors exist that low prices are now ubiquitous, and the brand itself is being scrutinised.

Flying with easyJet and other budget carriers, is a case of 'grin and bear it'. Lengthy delays, pricey food, surly service and the dreaded scrum for seats are common features. Add in price issues (that £5 flight can be more like £30 with taxes), and trust between brand and customer diminishes.

Once figurehead Stelios stepped down, the company's clever use of PR was replaced by shoddily conceived advertising, which has made it appear even more downmarket.

REMEDY

- Recapture the entrepreneurial 'challenger brand' spirit that characterised easyJet in its early years.

- Evolve the easyJet brand by focusing on simplicity and accessibility, rather than price alone.

- Focus on service innovations to move the brand ahead of competitors.

- Rethink the advertising approach. The in-house work has done little for the brand, and resonates cheapness, rather than value.

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