MARKETING FOCUS: No-frills airline no-frills culture - EasyJet prides itself on its no-nonsense values. We put it to the test, by going to see the airline in action. James Curtis reports

Six weeks ago, seven people from EasyJet dressed in orange boiler suits and boarded the inaugural flight of Go, British Airways’ new budget airline. Fearful that the EasyJet team would be the corporate equivalent of having Liam Gallagher, Gazza and Chris Evans on board, Go staff nervously ushered them to the back of the aircraft. In the end, the group, which included company founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou and marketing director Tony Anderson, limited their sabotage to handing out 148 free EasyJet flights to grateful Go passengers.

Six weeks ago, seven people from EasyJet dressed in orange boiler

suits and boarded the inaugural flight of Go, British Airways’ new

budget airline. Fearful that the EasyJet team would be the corporate

equivalent of having Liam Gallagher, Gazza and Chris Evans on board, Go

staff nervously ushered them to the back of the aircraft. In the end,

the group, which included company founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou and

marketing director Tony Anderson, limited their sabotage to handing out

148 free EasyJet flights to grateful Go passengers.



A Bransonesque PR stunt? Undoubtedly. But that doesn’t mean it was an

empty gesture. In fact, it said a lot about how EasyJet thinks and

operates - a very different type of company sitting at a crucial

juncture in its three-year life.



Not only is EasyJet embroiled in a court action against BA - accusing it

of illegally subsidising Go - but it is also expanding rapidly, and has

spent pounds 500m on 12 new aircraft. The airline plans to triple in

size by the end of next year, taking it from a small airline with 450

staff and ten routes (an 11th, Belfast, is about to be launched), to a

much weightier player. It also has plans for flotation.



All this is happening at a time when the budget airline concept is still

relatively new in the UK and when the long-term impact of Go on

competitors EasyJet, Debonair and Ryanair is still anybody’s guess.



From the start, EasyJet has set out to reflect the no-nonsense

transparent values of its brand in its internal culture. One of the

principal challenges facing the company is going to be maintaining this

culture as it gets bigger, when the hierarchies and power bases of

larger companies tend to creep into even the most committed

anti-establishment businesses.



Through the keyhole



To see how EasyJet lives up to its brand values, Marketing decided to go

and have a look for itself. To make the exercise more scientific, we

enlisted the help of Siamack Salari of ad agency BMP DDB - who is fast

gaining a reputation for being the David Attenborough of the marketing

world. In the same way as Attenborough studies gorillas from behind a

banana tree, Salari lurks in the corners of shops, supermarkets and

offices to observe Homo sapiens in his natural habitat.



BMP has formed a new division, called Culture Lab, from which Salari can

do this, and blue-chip clients ranging from B&Q and Esso to WH Smith are

using his findings to improve their customer-facing strategies, from

store design to staff training. His work is also proving popular outside

the marketing community, with Channel 4 using his

fly-on-the-supermarket-wall material in two series of the TV programme

Shop Til You Drop.



For this project we sent him and his camera to EasyJet’s Luton HQ -

called Easy Land - for a week. He man-marked marketing director Tony

Anderson, even driving into work with him and accompanying him on a

business trip to Amsterdam. The result? A unique study of a company

striving to keep its very different positioning and values consistent

while going through periods of great change.



Down-to-earth culture



Anderson, who worked for BA before helping to found EasyJet in 1995, has

set out to create a culture as diametrically opposed to BA’s as

possible.



The emphasis is on making the company live up to its no-nonsense values

by cutting out as much bureaucracy and internal hierarchies as

possible.



Luckily for Anderson, his boss Haji-Ioannou, like many other energetic

entrepreneurs, has a natural affinity with marketing and, from the

outset, he wanted EasyJet’s no-nonsense values reflected in the way it

worked.



The value of internal marketing is being widely recognised, and EasyJet

has fully embraced it.



This has created a system of working which is brutally transparent in

the way that information is shared between employees in all

departments.



Everybody knows what everyone else is doing, and, thanks to the nature

of the company, this means that marketing strategy is something in which

everyone has a say.



All documents have to be scanned and placed onto the computer system so

that they can be accessed by anybody in the company. This includes all

mail, internal memos, press cuttings, business plans and sales data -

the only confidential information is payroll. This open information

culture can be seen on the company’s web site, where visitors can read

all correspondence between EasyJet’s and BA’s lawyers about the Go

case.



Salari noted how the open culture not only helped everyone feel they

have a hand in company strategy but also prevented individuals

accumulating power. ’They don’t want people to have power based on

knowledge,’ he says.



But there are problems with this way of working, not least of which is

information overload. Shared knowledge means people have to process far

more information than they would normally have to, which can waste

time.



Another problem noticed by Salari is that staff feel they have to be

constantly informed about what other departments are doing in case they

are asked to chip in ideas.



For example, the chief pilot makes numerous marketing suggestions to

Anderson, such as making more reference to safety issues to counter any

consumer apprehension that the airline’s budget prices meant cutting

back on safety precautions.



Open policy



This accessible culture also means that Anderson was happy to let us see

how some of EasyJet’s marketing works.



Being a 100% direct-sell operation, the marketing department is able to

gauge the effectiveness of every sales route it uses. Every day,

Anderson checks sales per route and per sales channel. Different phone

numbers are placed on tactical ads to test the relative effectiveness of

each.



For example, in the week that we were there, Anderson told us that the

main 0990 29 29 29 number attracted 17,000 calls, compared with 15,000

from the number given out by directory enquiries. The response from

directory enquiries tells Anderson how effective his radio and poster

ads have been, as by the time people get home they have often forgotten

the number on the ad. He measured a further 3000 calls from the number

printed on timetables and 1000 from the number on the web site.



’This is the advantage of being direct sell,’ says Anderson. ’You can

tell the relative effects of different media and react very quickly if

you want to change things. You can move ads around sites in a paper and

measure the results daily to see which works best.’



However, not all of EasyJet’s marketing is so scientific. Some of it is

not far from being knocked up on the back of a fag packet.



Anderson explains an occasion - which he says is not that unusual - when

he, the PR manager James Rothnie and the managing director, Ray Webster,

thought of a press ad attacking Go in the back of a taxi. The ad used

the line Beauty and the Beast to suggest that behind Go and its

marketing director Barbara Cassani, lurked the sinister presence of Bob

Ayling and BA. The ad was designed that afternoon by the in-house design

team and sent to The Times, The Independent and Evening Standard, where

it appeared the next day.



Finding a voice



While this episode demonstrates EasyJet’s sense of bureaucracy-free

can-do, it also highlights some of the problems of a semi-chaotic

culture.



According to Salari, Anderson and Rothnie both took the credit for the

Beauty and the Beast idea before backtracking to say it was a group

decision.



’This flat hierarchy means that it’s very difficult for individuals to

have a voice,’ says Salari. ’The fact that everyone has a say means that

people often find it hard to be recognised for what they personally have

done. It’s the kind of company where you could get easily steam-rollered

if you don’t have a voice.’



EasyJet only employs one agency - Matters Media - which has bought its

media since it launched. All creative work, including the design of the

aircraft livery and ads, is done in-house. Anderson claims that when the

airline first started they approached a design company to create an

identity, but decided to do it themselves when they saw how much they

were going to have to pay.



Efforts like this clearly help to keep costs down, but, as with many

things at EasyJet, being seen to be saving money is as important as

actually doing it. It is part of the company’s culture to show consumers

that it works hard to stay cheap.



This is why cabin crew clean the aircraft interiors themselves at the

end of flights and why, on occasion, Anderson and other senior staff

also do a share of the cleaning. A big picture of said executives

cleaning - bin bags in hand - hangs on the wall for everyone to see.



Another element of being seen to keep costs down is a culture of being

stretched to the limit. Anderson, for example, has no secretary and a

direct line, so he finds himself continually fielding calls. These range

from stranded customers berating him from airport lounges to - on

average 50 times a month - people calling him directly to book

flights.



After one day away from the office Anderson came back to find 55

messages on his voice-mail, of which 30 were from people trying to sell

him something, fifteen from journalists and ten from charities.



’Because all the necessary information is open to me I have no excuse

not to deal with problems and enquiries over the phone,’ he says,

stoically adding that ’it’s very therapeutic and good for the soul.’



Anderson is quick to admit that many parts of the company’s culture and

practices have been learned and adopted from other companies, both

inside and out of the airline industry.



’We’re not afraid to learn from anyone, whether it’s Virgin, Direct Line

or First Direct,’ he says, adding that much of the airline’s open

communications strategy was learned directly from Richard Branson.

Haji-Ioannou and Anderson have met Branson and Sir Freddy Laker to

consult them on how best to tackle BA in their dealings over Go.



Key influences



But the biggest single influence comes from another budget airline:

Southwest Airlines in the US. In the 21 years since it started,

Southwest has become one of the ten biggest airlines in the US. It has

been consistently profitable and is frequently voted the most popular

airline for customers and employees.



EasyJet sees in it a company that has grown big without losing the

values it had when it was small and that is what it wants to achieve

too.



Anderson says: ’The key to success at Southwest is the culture of

participation and responsibility. It’s a great model for people

power.’



There is a semi-formal programme at EasyJet whereby employees spend time

at Southwest’s offices in Dallas, Texas, to see how the culture

works.



Information about the company is dotted all around EasyJet’s offices,

including a mini-shrine in the boardroom in which Southwest’s mission

statements are framed on the wall.



Salari says he can see why people at EasyJet use Southwest as an

emotional crutch: ’They want to stick close to it because it makes them

feel they are doing things right. It gives them confidence.’



To ensure that it stays true to its founding principles as it grows,

EasyJet has formed a culture committee to oversee and shepherd its brand

values. The idea is to maintain its small-company energy as it expands,

a problem that many entrepreneurial start-ups have faced over the

years.



EasyJet would do well to study closely how other unconventional brands,

such as Virgin and The Body Shop, have dealt with getting bigger,

although its own growth is unlikely to be as dramatic.



The difficulty is adjusting to life as a big player without squeezing

the life out of the company in the process. Many a rebel brand has been

tamed by growth, especially those that find themselves answerable to the

City.



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