Interview: Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannu — The Independent.

“The future is easy – and orange: He might have taken a slight knock with the too-bright colour of the easyCruise hull, but that won’t stop the irrepressible Stelios for long, finds James Silver.
Monday 19 June 2006”

It’s nearly 10pm by the time Stelios Haji-Ioannu – to give him his rarely-used full name – arrives on his orange cruise ship which is moored for the night in drizzly Cannes. There’s no mistaking easyCruise One. In a harbour full of sleek, white multimillionaire-owned vessels, its orange-branded eyesore of a hull – emblazoned with the giant easyCruise.com logo – can probably be seen from outer space. When he launched easyJet 10 years ago this summer, Stelios decided to turn his fleet of planes into “flying billboards”. At first, he was convinced the same idea would work for his cruise ship, but he has recently changed his mind. easyCruise, it seems, is simply rather too orange. The hull is poised to get a new toned-down livery and the on-board facilities a major overhaul.

Launched last year, easyCruise is serial entrepreneur Stelios’ attempt to bring the expensive and rarefied world of cruising to the masses, allowing “independently minded travellers in their 20s, 30s and 40s” to party in the “playground of the rich and famous” – namely, the French and Italian Rivieras. What this means in practice is a cruise ship seething with stag and hen parties, pumping house music and disco classics into the night air, while no doubt irritating its snooty Côte d’Azur yachting neighbours.

Stout and clad in a blazer and open-neck shirt, Stelios is charming and fizzes with childlike energy as he sits at a table in the ship’s restaurant, a glorified burger joint. His eyes dart about. You never quite have his full attention. With easyJet he created an instantly recognisable brand, growing the airline into Europe’s largest low-cost carrier – in terms of revenues – with a fleet of more than 100 jets. Now he oversees an orange empire and lives or dies by the “easy” brand itself, which is licensed or franchised to “reputable partners” in 15 industries, ranging from travel and internet cafés to wristwatches and pizza.

The brand’s origins lie in his first venture, Stelmar Shipping. “When I convinced my father back in 1992 to give me some money to start my own shipping company, I came up with a very egocentric branding proposition – the first four letters of my name,” he laughs. “EasyJet was originally going to be called Stel-air. But I decided that I’m better off choosing a name which conveys the characteristics of the brand values. I was in a bar one night scribbling on a napkin. ‘Cheap-Air’ didn’t sound right. I kept coming back to concepts like convenient, affordable and easy. Many of the brand values were inspired by [low-cost airline] South West in the States.”

He settled on the colour orange. “There was nothing scientific about it. Orange is vibrant, young, fun. I started by trying to design the colour of an aircraft’s tail-fin to make it stand out in an airport. We decided that we would not pay commission to travel agents which was a hugely risky proposition back then. The first livery on the aircraft was the telephone number. When the internet became more prevalent in 1998, we switched to the website address.”

In 1997, soon after easyJet took to the skies, BA – in a failed re-branding exercise – replaced its fleet’s traditional tail-fins with “ethnic” designs, famously disparaged by Margaret Thatcher. Stelios says the mistake convinced him that consistency was the key to developing a successful brand and name awareness. “Consistency in the way you depict a brand is very important. And that comes out of the font, the colour and the ‘easy’ name. That’s why we have this fixation with the colour orange. In effect, it’s legally weaved into our agreements. Before the flotation of easyJet on the London Stock Exchange [in 2000], I separated the airline from the brand – I floated the airline, but kept the brand private. What binds the ‘easy’ companies are brand-licensing agreements. One of the things they specify is that all the companies should use the same colour.”

He points to two developments in the late 1990s that turned “this obscure little airline into a Europe-wide brand”. First, British Airways launched its own budget carrier, Go, which, Stelios argues, lent credibility to his business model and gave him the platform to market his tussle with BA as David vs Goliath. The story he successfully sold to the media was that air travel didn’t have to be pricey and that easyJet would strike a blow for the cash-strapped flyer. “Taking on the big boys is now one of our brand values,” he says. “People like companies that are consumer champions on their behalf.”

Second was his shrewd gamble in 1999 to allow ITV to make a docusoap about easyJet. Airline pulled in ratings of up to nine million and helped to establish easyJet as a household name. “We decided that we basically had nothing to hide and we could open up our business to the scrutiny of the cameras. Not everything goes 100 per cent smoothly and nobody would believe us anyway if it did. It would be dismissed as an advert. People judge the company in the way it deals with problems.”

Stelios has adopted the same strategy with easyCruise. The moment we arrive on board, a camera crew from Sky lurches into view. The team is filming Cruising with Stelios for transmission – to a far smaller audience on Sky Three and Sky Travel – later in the year. They will be living on board for much of the summer, hoping for the standard drink-sodden reality fare of rows, things going wrong and, of course, sex. The Big Brother-style Jacuzzi on the upper deck proves to be of particular interest to the film crew. Some passengers were distinctly irritated at their presence, despite explicit warnings at the front desk that simply by being on the cruise ship they had consented to being filmed.

For Stelios, the benefits of inviting the cameras on board outweigh the pitfalls. “As long as they are honest about what they film – that they depict something that actually happens and not a fabrication and that you are seen making an effort to solve problems as they arise, then it’s worthwhile for me.”

From the outset of his career, he was quick to grasp that he could use the media for free publicity. “I realised that if you are going to run a consumer-facing organisation you’d better understand how the media work, what makes good or bad copy. I believe in being accessible to journalists – there’s nothing worse than an information vacuum. I also make a conscious effort to read all the papers whenever I can, from the FT through to The Sun. The first thing I learned was that bad news is news – and I’ll never complain about that. It would be like a sea captain complaining about the sea.”

We return to the vexed question of why the bargain-basement orange brand isn’t working for easyCruise One. “Ten years ago we won brownie points for making our planes flying billboards,” says Stelios. He points out a large white cruise ship several hundred yards away. It’s opulent, yet characterless, a floating Hilton. “Just look at that ship. It looks like any other cruise ship. Can you tell who it belongs to?” I reply that I can’t. “In a sea of identical ships you can’t tell who runs or owns that ship. It doesn’t tell you anything about the brand values of the owner or whether it’s any different to the next white ship. Apart from white, there’s only one other look which is the dark imperial blue on the hulls of Cunard.

“So without a designer, I started by slapping a lot of orange paint on the hull and put the easyCruise logo on the side. While people do not object now to travelling on a flying billboard I have learned that in the surroundings of a cruise, people were a bit put off that this ship could be referred to as ‘the orange ship’. In theory the colour of the hull should not affect your experience. But if it’s something people can use to put the concept down, then you might as well change it. What we’ve decided to do is use a third colour which has always been on the brand’s colour palette – grey, the colour of easyJet’s seats. The new easyCruise livery will have less orange, more grey and white.”

Stelios Haji-Ioannou was born in Greece in 1967. He went to school in Athens before studying at the London School of Economics and City University Business School, from where he graduated with an MSc in shipping trade and economics. He founded oil-tanker company Stelmar Shipping at 25 – with money lent by his Greek-Cypriot shipping-magnate father – selling it 13 years later to OSG Shipping Group for $1.3bn. He has since established “easy” branded ventures in travel, leisure, telecoms and personal finance. Having pledged to “paint the world orange”, Stelios sees himself as the custodian of the “easy” brand rather than the manager of the various companies within it. He says that entrepreneurs are best placed to practise brand extension, rather than risk-averse big corporations with twitchy shareholders. “The shareholders of Coca-Cola would be terrified if the management said they were going to start an airline called Coca-Cola Airways. Brand extension is very risky as you are constantly starting new businesses. It’s the privilege of entrepreneurs like Branson or myself.”

EasyGroup’s mantra is its eight brand values, which Stelios can reel off like the Lord’s prayer. “Number one is value for money. If we don’t stand for that then we are not worthy of the brand. The second most important is taking on the big boys because of our origins and our battle with BA or Carnival in the cruise sector – there’s always someone to pick a fight with.” He hurries through the others. “We are for the many and not the few. We are entrepreneurial and innovative. We are open and describe our products honestly – the three room sizes in easyHotel are ‘small’, ‘very small’ and ‘tiny’. We need to make a difference in people’s lives and be fun, which rules out drilling for oil in Siberia or running a chain of funeral homes, both of which might be profitable, but they don’t fit the brand.”

In fact, he rejects 90 per cent of the ideas he comes up with. “The easy brand is not very elastic,” he says. “If you stick within the brand values, surprisingly few things fit.” How come watches fit, I ask. He’s wearing an (orange, of course) easyWatch, which seems a touch perverse when he could afford a top-of-the-range Rolex. “With easyWatch we offer what Swatch used to offer for under a tenner.” And pizza? “I realised I was too focused on travel. After 9/11 that made me a bit nervous. So I asked myself how I could make a difference in people’s homes. Now you can stay in and order a DVD from easyCinema and a pizza from easyPizza. It’s innovative – you can order it online and a day in advance. It’s less than half the price of Domino, so it’s value for money. It’s for the many and not the few. And we’re taking on the big boys – Domino is a $4bn business.”

In November, he will appear in the High Court in London as a defendant in a case with Orange mobile phones, a subsidiary of France Telecom. The telecoms giant is suing Stelios’ easyMobile over its use of the colour orange in its marketing. “We believe that because we already have a strong reputation with the colour orange that people will not confuse us with Orange, the company, and that they should not have a monopoly. It’s unlikely easyMobile will be shut down, but the judge may insist that we use less orange [in our marketing].” He adds proudly: “I’ll be there in court wearing an orange boilersuit defending our right to use orange.”

This article was first published in The Independent on 19th June 2006.