Air France-KLM is the leading aviation Group in terms of international traffic on departure from Europe. For the first time in 2018 it transported over 100 million passengers, covering 314 destinations in 116 countries. This was thanks to its three brands: Air France, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Transavia.

Holly Wilson spoke with Fatima da Gloria de Sousa, Global Brand Director of the Air France-KLM Group, about why the Group’s brands have been so successful, why partnerships are so important to the Air France brand purpose, and how KLM, the world’s oldest airline, is taking on the challenge of staying competitive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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One of the Groups brands, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines will turn 100 in 2019. What makes the KLM brand thrive over its competitors?

Fatima da Gloria de Sousa: If you look at the heritage of KLM, what has made us different is the fact that the Netherlands is a very small country. Dutch people have always been very aware of this and have made adaptions because of it. For example, non-Dutch nationals rarely speak the language, which means that the Dutch learn the languages of the countries they do business with. This attitude can be multiplied on many levels. It means that the Dutch have traditionally always looked at their wider environment and been quick to embrace opportunities.

In fact, the Netherlands were the first to make an open skies agreement with the United States, even before the European Union did. This allowed KLM to thrive due to the first transatlantic joint venture with Northwest Airlines.

Holly Wilson: Does that mean that KLM had the very first partnership in aviation?

Fatima da Gloria de Sousa: Yes, partnerships at this level didn’t exist before that. It was years later that the three branded global airline alliances were launched. The Dutch have this outward-looking attitude because they have a strong awareness that their home market isn’t very big, so companies like KLM can’t just rely on customers from their home country.

“Agility is something that every company needs, it’s essential to survive in the long term.”

Another thing which has made a difference stems from the motto of the Founder of KLM: “the ocean of the air connects us all”. This conviction that aviation brings people together has always remained as a philosophy of the company. This gives it a very strong family feeling and I think it really helps KLM weather the ups and downs which any company goes through.

Holly Wilson: How has the KLM brand changed since you started with the company?

FDS: I started working for the KLM brand in 1988, and it’s really incomparable. When I arrived at the company they said that it was a turbulent time (liberalisation of the airline industry had just started) and it might take a few years to settle down again. It never did! But it’s normal for things to be constantly changing because agility is something that every company needs, it’s essential to survive in the long term. From a brand perspective, we repositioned KLM to become even more customer oriented, fostering the human connection that was always in its core DNA and not just its long-standing reliability and aviation expertise. This is when we replaced our slogan “The Reliable Airline” for “Journeys of Inspiration’ and the current “Moving your World”.

What are the biggest brand management challenges for the Air France-KLM Group and how do you ensure that all branded assets are managed coherently?

FDS: Actually, the challenges haven’t changed that much. Brand management on the one hand is easy because all employees are extremely proud of the brand they represent and love to make sure that it is expressed in the right way. Everyone is very willing to cooperate, and that is a big gift for anyone who is in brand management.

On the other hand, we run an extremely sophisticated logistics business with all the technical needs and talents that come with it. So at times when you’re introducing a brand or marketing term you have lots of engineers confused about what you’re talking about. Managing a brand cannot come from one person and everyone needs to understand how the Group’s brands are different from each other. I would say that is the biggest challenge we have. With the arrival of Ben Smith as the new Group CEO there is a renewed focus on brand positioning and simplification of the brand portfolio, that certainly helps.

One of the things we have created is a model for brand positioning and a programme for brand performance. These help people better understand the differences between the brands and, for example, choose marketing partnerships for them on an individual basis.

"Everyone needs to understand how the Group’s brands are different. I would say that is the biggest challenge we have."

The one aspect that every single business of the Group shares is that it wants to be the number one when it comes to customer intimacy.

How do you think the Group’s brands will evolve through the Fourth Industrial Revolution and remain future-proof?

FDS: Technology is important, and you always need to be aware of the latest developments, however I do think brand has something much more important to guide it through any technological development, and that is its purpose. Whatever technological revolution is going on, your purpose will always be leading you and your brand. Technology is only a way to support you in reaching that purpose.

When you look at the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a very interesting innovation is virtual reality. Imagine a virtual tour that allows you to have the full sensorial experience of Machu Picchu without the crowds, visa and vaccinations. That would be a real disruptor for the entire travel industry. For now, we are using it as a source of inspiration for customers before their travel, but also as training material for our travel and service agents all around the world.

"Whatever technological revolution is going on, what will always be leading you and your brand is ultimately your purpose."

Our research is extremely important and allows us to stay close to the market. This is something that we have invested a lot of time in so that we don’t become this ivory tower and work from a purely theoretical point of view.

KLM recently launched ‘Take-Off Tips’ – an interactive booth which connects customers by hologram. Can you tell me a bit more about how this activation has been implemented?

FDS: Using new technology is important because it shows we’re a modern and innovative company, but in the end it is used to bring about a human connection which is what the KLM brand is all about. You’re coming to my city, I’m coming to your city, sharing that excitement creates a small moment of magic and a sense of belonging. KLM was also the first airline to allow customers to get in contact via WhatsApp and change their boarding card through Messenger. Reaching out and being where the customer is, instead of the customer having to find us in our channels, that is technology fitting our higher purpose.

HW: How do you think customers perceptions will change as you integrate more digital features into your airlines?

FDS: During the flight, there won’t be a lot of change. The biggest behavioural change will be before the flight takes place. There are different types of technology which keep developing and we are applying and learning from them. We have started doing some tests with buying tickets on Alexa as we think that voice marketing and search is going to become more important in the future.

How do your sponsorships contribute to making the Air France brand stronger?

FDS: Many people want to be healthy nowadays, wherever they are around the world. Our focus on sports like running makes us more appealing to them. Most of Air France’s sponsoring defines the positioning and purpose of the brand. The DNA of Air France is that it’s is a premium airline and shows the French lifestyle, the French savoir faire, and it’s something that people aspire to. If you think of Air France as an icon of France, then logically we want to show the best of France: the elegance, the fashion, the gastronomy. Sponsorships are a way to share the French heritage and allow our customers to experience a little bit of France when they are flying.

"Most of Air France’s sponsoring defines the positioning and purpose of the brand."

Air France has new travellers who are looking for a more modern interpretation of France. The good thing is that there is so much innovation in France that it allows us to interpret it for our customers. When the Paris marathon was taking place we had staff in specially designed Air France sportswear videoing and pre-running it so that they could give tips to runners coming after them. This was about achieving top performance but also about displaying elegance, it’s a sponsorship which also reflects a lifestyle. At the Group we say that KLM is your friend, and Air France is an enchantress.

What are the thoughts behind rebranding HOP! To Air France HOP?

FDS: HOP! was created to compete in the domestic French market. It was difficult for Air France to compete with trains, so the HOP! brand was created as a more approachable brand with more of a low-cost feel.  But when you end up with five brands in one market, Air France, KLM, Transavia, HOP! and JOON, it’s hard to give each of them the resources they need to grow.

Taking that into consideration and knowing that Air France had evolved as a brand as well, coming closer to people’s lives, the question was: do we still need the HOP! brand or could we simplify the portfolio in France? We chose simplification and focusing on strengthening the Air France brand. When people are flying into France and using the HOP! operation to continue on their journey, for them it’s logical that they stay with Air France for the next part of the journey.

What tips can you share about brand management?

FDS: Working at SkyTeam was like working at a mini United Nations with 20 member airlines from every corner of the world. It was a challenge getting things done, without any hierarchical power, like the SkyPriority branding program that we deployed in over 1,000 airports. From early on in my career I knew I didn’t want to be seen as the ‘brand police’ and that I wanted a role where I could inspire people. If you spend more time bringing your stakeholders together you’re getting the opportunity to inspire them.

It’s really amazed me over the years that there is so much consensus in a group of where a brand should go. As they live the brand day by day, they seem to know and feel where a brand is heading. By having everyone involved from the start of the process, they become part of and committed to the solution. I have found that this has been the key to success on all the projects I have worked on. As soon as I started at the Group, I introduced a Brand Circle where all brand managers meet on a regular basis. It’s called a Circle on purpose, and it’s proven a great platform to guide our strategies, exchange best practices, and build relationships.

HW: Have you learned different challenges, managing the whole portfolio compared to a previous role of yours where you just managed the KLM brand?

FDS: You need to get people to work together and move in a certain direction by getting them to buy into a vision. We bring people together, sometimes from different companies, departments, and with different needs, and make them part of the process. This makes them excited to be involved.

"I think the strongest brands are the ones which are constantly going through evolutions rather than revolutions."

When you manage a project this way, what comes out of it is truly better than anything I could have imagined. Being a good brand manager is about knowing when to change, if you change too early that’s throwing away money, and if you change too late then customers think it’s not a brand with momentum. I think the strongest brands are the ones which are constantly going through evolutions rather than revolutions. This means you need enough time to reflect on the health and challenges of a brand and that is one of the advantages that I have working for the Group as every brand has its own Brand Manager.

Fatima da Gloria de Sousa is the Global Brand Director at Air France-KLM Group.

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