EasyJet's Peter Duffy on rebooting the airline

The easyJet marketing director tells Alex Brownsell how he revitalised a brand that was not realising its potential.

EasyJet's Peter Duffy on rebooting the airline

The challenge

Low-cost airlines democratised travel. In a world in which it used to cost hundreds of pounds to get to Europe, [Sir] Stelios [Haji-Ioannou] made it cost tens of pounds. It changed people’s lives. But the practices of the industry over the past few years wouldn’t have been recognised in that spirit.

When I joined easyJet, we had one of the worst on-time performances in Europe. We were nowhere near as profitable as we should be, and our approach to customers wasn’t as it ought to be. The company was stuck in an approach of regular discounts every three to four weeks. That was the primary way in which we spoke to our customers.

The brand didn’t have a content-management system; we couldn’t see what did well and what did not. We didn’t have a CRM system, so we sent the same email to every customer, with only the language changed.

In terms of what the airline could be, it felt as if the brand was not realising its opportunity on any level. So what really attracted me to join was [chief executive] Carolyn McCall coming in to reinvigorate the company and make it deliver in the way in which it should.

I wanted to get to a situation where people were happy to say they flew easyJet – that it was a smart choice, rather than just cheap.

I had always admired easyJet as a fantastic brand, pioneering and entrepreneurial, with a have-a-go, cheeky culture. But I wanted to get to a situation where people were happy to say they flew easyJet – that it was a smart choice, rather than just cheap.

We also needed marketing that resonated across Europe. There had been some synergies in creative across markets, but we had never thought about a common positioning for the airline. In the UK, everyone has flown easyJet and knows what it is, but that is not the case in all our markets.

We needed to drive consumer consideration in those markets, and there was a lot to do in terms of getting that in place.

The plan

We started off with a lot of brand-definition work. The management board went away and spent two days working through what easyJet was all about and what the agenda should be. It came up with what now seem simplistic concepts, but, at the time, were fundamental for us.

As a result, we were able to define a cause: why are we here and why do we get out of bed in the morning? The answer is to make travel easy and affordable for customers. EasyJet has always had a strong heritage in affordable travel, but a number of customers might have challenged us on how easy we made it for them.

We worked out what our difference is – and it’s our people. We are also on the customers’ side. We set an ambition for ourselves to become the leading short-haul airline in Europe.

Marketing was fragmented across the organ­isation, so we had to bring it together under one roof, including marketing communications, digital, CRM, contact centres and ancillary services. Our priority was to hire new people and build that capability to run a modern, Europe-wide marketing programme.

The action

Having started on the new positioning from the first week after I joined in February 2011, it took the best part of six months to ensure we had something that works. The result, ‘Europe by easyJet’, is about how we connect and pull the people of Europe together. Price will always be central to that, but we asked how we could focus on what our customers do, how we bring them together and how we provide that connectivity.

We wanted to roll it out inside the organisation first, to get everybody to buy into it. The campaign was loaded up to intranet sites and employees were invited to give feedback. It was so well received. Some staff even made their own versions of the TV ad by VCCP. There was an appetite among staff for the brand to be positioned in the way we described, which I think has been a core part of our success.

I also put in place a big drive for efficiency – we’ve taken 15% off the marketing budget. As we looked to focus investment on things that added more value, we were ruthless about anything that didn’t, such as some digital media spend. If it isn’t good for the customer and isn’t driving a commercial return, what is the point of that activity?

We moved to one media agency across Europe [OMD] and now measure everything in a standardised way. If something is working well in Milan, can we get it to Paris and Berlin quickly? We ensure that cross-learning is happening, and we keep it simple. Take our head office: there are no plants, you bring in your own stationery and everyone sits on the same banks of desks, even Carolyn. We try to steer away from complexity and, in doing so, keep a clear line of sight on what is valuable.

The results (so far)

Across the various metrics, it shows that the airline’s revival is starting to come together.

The company has had strong profit growth, the share price has done well and our brand position is improving. We’ve gone from having the worst on-time record in Europe to the best. Currently, 98% of UK customers who fly with us say that they would seriously consider flying with us again; that figure is at 96% in Italy and France.

The brand has done a huge amount digitally. With 400m people coming to our website, it struck me that if we could make a small improvement to our conversion rates, that would make a massive difference commercially. That conversion rate is now improving at double-digit rates.

Mobile services are also proving tremendously popular, with 4.6m downloads of the app. Earlier this month, we went into trial with mobile boarding cards and 1m customers had downloaded the latest version of the app in 24 hours. The engagement around it and desire for these services has been amazing.

Customer-satisfaction statistics are crucial to that. I see a lot of customer complaints, and there has been a sea-change in terms of people starting to write positive stories about easyJet, rather than just the negative things people complain about.

That trend of hearing individual customer anecdotes, with people saying ‘that was great’, is one we haven’t seen before. The business-traveller market is a great example of change: we now have 10m business customers. Who would have thought, four or five years ago, that easyJet would be winning a share of the business market against national flag-carriers?

We are now in the process of rolling out a customer charter, asking our people to behave in a certain way with customers. It’s about keeping the energy up with a stream of good stuff that is customer-orientated and positions the airline in the right way.