CoolBrands Meeting KLM

KLM Journeys of Inspiration

Still flying high

Competition is fierce everywhere nowadays. This is especially true in the high-stake, high-value airline industry. Where in the past there was just a handful of major players, strict monopolies on routes and, quite simply, not that much to worry about as long as you did your job relatively well, today’s market is cut-throat with a deep, quick fall towards posting a ‘closed for business sign’ on your company headquarters’ door. While KLM is in no such trouble – in fact the airline is doing remarkably well and is the oldest airline in the world to retain its original name – this does not mean it can rest on its laurels. Constant market and client satisfaction evaluations, seemingly everlasting modernizations and repositioning are essential if it is to retain its market share. We spoke to Fatima da Gloria de Sousa, Director of Communications and Corporate Identity, to find out what the company is currently doing to keep the Royal Dutch flying high.

Fatima: “In a recent client satisfaction survey, customers spontaneously suggested that ‘it was time for a change’. What is more, the overall values that emerged to describe KLM were quite functional: KLM is seen as very friendly but also a bit traditional. While these denominators are in no sense overly negative, they are a recipe for non-sustainability in the modern-day airline sector. Every now and then you have to rejuvenate your brand to keep your clients satisfied and on your side. Add the merger with Air France, and the time was right to reposition the company for the coming years.”

CoolBrands Meeting KLM

From here to where?

Fatima: “The first thing we did was to look at the current situation. Two main points had to be addressed: first we had to define our position within the group. Following the merger with Air France, there was the danger that KLM could lose its identity. We therefore had to define exactly what we stand for. Secondly, there was the above mentioned danger of stagnation if we didn’t rejuvenate on time. In the airline sector, as is in most others, standing still is deadly.”

“There were other points to be taken into consideration, underpinning the need to readdress the brand position. KLM is also part of the Sky Team alliance, as a result of which we fly to far more destinations – choosing a position here is important. Moreover, around every seven years there is something of an economic downturn, which pulls the airline industry down with it. We had to take this into consideration and build a solid base. Finally, following the merger, it was decided to keep the KLM brand, proffering the perfect opportunity to give the brand something of a boost.” Question is – a boost to where?

Research then go go

Since the Netherlands has a small domestic market, KLM has always had to be smarter than its competition. Together with its partners, KLM offers access to the world, with a competitive product and a good price. KLM’s resourceful pioneering spirit continues to contribute to KLM’s position as a smart leader. Yet at KLM ‘smart’ not only applies to vision, practical innovation and a competitive product – it is also a reliable and committed partner that is committed towards people and the environment.

So how do you maintain that edge? KLM performs a great deal of research into its brand, both on the attitude side and on the client side; on-board amongst frequent flyers and ad hoc research. Recent research pointed to a need for action: KLM is solid yet unremarkable and losing its edge. There was therefore a need to move away from the danger of slipping into Smart Follower, and strike out towards being a Smart Leader.

Four issues were getting in the way:

• Competitive pressures for high yield (long-haul) business traffic and low-cost carriers in the EU are putting pressure on market share
• The formerly unique ‘staff experience’ is being cloned by competitors
• Operational excellence alone (image based on functional values) is not a sufficient preference driver to stay ahead
• The new ownership structure was threatening the belief in the KLM brand: KLM needs a new identity versus Air France in the holding portfolio.

First, smart leadership is not related to mass but to speed of adaptability (away from the solid image). Second, KLM needed to create relevant differentiation. Third, it had to maintain the positive side to the image, namely its classy leadership: class, style, allure, confidence. What was needed, however, was additional energy: more open, pragmatic, progressive, lively and fresh and with a female touch. Finally, this energy had to be driven through to the customer journey at all points of contact.

These drivers are now being implemented in four important areas in order to effectively reposition KLM: the Brand Identity, the Brand Personality, the Brand Promise and the Brand Beliefs. The overall objective: to energize KLM.

A new me

This new approach is introduced both internally and externally. It can best be summarised as follows in the new brand promise: “A re-energised KLM delivers a refreshing customer experience which has its roots in the pragmatic Dutch spirit and friendly open approach ensuring the experience of the KLM brand is welcoming, positive and memorable.”

In creating this new brand promise, five aspects were selected whereby the new positioning of the KLM values had to be translated to all parts of the company. Expression, whereby the visual identity is addressed such as the house style, images and the look and feel. Using this identity, the new brand values are communicated through internal and external integrated campaigns. In order to keep the brand promise, the customer experience (products and services) is also addressed with new products and innovation. This includes advanced self-service features such as check-in by mobile phone and the internet, whereby passengers are able to choose their own seat. Through change management and brand guidelines, the new KLM is introduced throughout the organisation. Finally, through a campaign to promote brand engagement and employee/frontline staff engagement, they make sure the customer really will feel the change.

Functional out – personal recognition in

The personal recognition is cascaded throughout the organisation. This needs to be credible so that the positioning is seen as different and distinct from other airlines. It has to revive and refresh the brand yet preserve what is strong. The new positioning represents KLM as being modern, fresh, dynamic yet relaxed and human (personal recognition and caring).

Fatima: “We defined exactly why KLM is different and defined specific points where we could be distinct from others. In a market characterised by passengers who see air travel as a duty and not a pleasure, who tend to default to their national carrier, and where service is at best servile, only KLM can claim to be the refreshingly human alternative. KLM staff expresses empathy with passengers’ needs and invest the energy to deliver on this understanding. This is because KLM, by its nature, delivers the pragmatic Dutch spirit through reliable service based on an enterprising history and world-renowned Dutch tolerance. This has the benefit of treating passengers like people and putting them at ease through being open, friendly, down-to-earth and intelligent. In the end, the objective is to deliver a genuine and memorable experience.”


The exercise took one year, and KLM has now been busy for six months implementing it. For a brand like KLM, with 33,000 staff, such a change is hard work. The implementation of intelligent service, for example, demands more than just an order from above – it also involves a certain amount of staff empowerment and the necessary shift from functional to personal. Adapting the house style has proven trick too, as every hour a plane spends on the ground is costly. Nevertheless, the shift seems to be paying off.
Blue skies ahead!


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