KLM has created and developed an effective corporate identity.

Gunter Endres/LONDON

KLM ROYAL DUTCH Airlines is the world's oldest continuously operating airline, having been founded in October 1919. While the retention of the same name for 76 years has perpetuated an important element of stability, it has, at the same time, severely challenged designers' ingenuity in sustaining the "freshness" of its identity through a developing programme of change and modernisation.

In a case study to be published in a new book, The Quest for Identity (edited by Klaus Schmidt, and published by Cassell), KLM's corporate-identity director Ies Hoogland describes the reasons behind KLM's approach to distinctiveness in the face of the huge growth in traffic and competition. He outlines the airline's consistent identity policy since the late 1950s, when KLM started to focus on "house style", or visual identity, to encapsulate, communicate and differentiate its competitive position.

Following extensive market research, a basic positioning statement, The Reliable Airline, was introduced and retained for many years. In spite of criticism, KLM confirmed and expanded on the theme in 1984, reformulating the statement into four words: "reliable, punctual, caring and friendly".


Like many visual identities, KLM's house style has evolved over the years, with changes occurring periodically in response to various stimuli -both internal and external. The KLM logo eventually came to include the Royal crown, a decision, which was to prove particularly controversial.

This design had been the responsibility of an UK consultant, who presented a geometrical design where the figurative crown was reduced to a bar, four dots and a cross. Once emotional barriers had been overcome, the decision to adopt it proved to have been correct, however, apart from associations of technical competence, modernity and reliability, this design was demonstrated to be highly practical in terms of legibility, an important consideration when viewing it at speed or under conditions of poor visibility.

Great attention was paid at the same time to co-ordination of all elements of the visual identity. Specific shades of blue were stipulated for the first time, and colour, often underestimated, became an essential element of the house style.

Constant research and monitoring activities have led the way to both major and minor developments, aimed at simplification and, therefore, strengthening of the identity. The first of these, concerned removal of the light and dark blue stripes, while freeing the logo from its enclosing circle. This affected the aircraft livery, which was later modified to include a light blue fuselage top.

Other developments included the creation of related, systemised, sub-identities, such as for KLM's commuter airline, KLM City-hopper. Each is distinguishable from, but clearly a part of, the core KLM identity. The basic positioning is thus reinforced, while perceptions of the range of competence are expanded. Subtle changes, simplifications and adaptations to suit contemporary tastes and conditions and to cut production costs were effected in the 1990s through the "Consistency Plus" fine-tuning exercise.

In 1981, KLM took a major step forward along the marketing communications track, when the management decided that the airline should present a uniform face through all its communications worldwide, including advertising. An advertising agency was commissioned to develop a core campaign, the basic message of which was that KLM was a reliable, no-nonsense, airline, with the emphasis to be placed on its strengths of all-round professionalism and expertise.

The theme, as it emerged, was as obvious as it was ingenious: that of blue skies. The concept combined uniformity of copy and visuals - one worldwide identity - with flexibility. It could be used to put across a wide variety of messages in different countries. This so-called "umbrella advertising" allows KLM establishments to adapt the message to suit the requirements of the local market. Distinctive new approaches have been conceived through creative cross-fertilisation between countries, underscoring the positive effects of a uniform global approach to marketing and communications.


To gain an insight into the state of KLM's corporate image, a market monitor was launched in 1993, to run continuous surveys to enable inconsistencies between identity and image to be quantified and remedied. After KLM and Northwest Airlines entered into a now thriving partnership, a "Seal of Partnership" was created, establishing an initial link between the corporate identities of the two carriers and expressing the reality and ideals of the collaboration, both internally and externally. A marketing communications concept is being developed for this nascent global airline system, which will determine the shape of all future joint ventures.

KLM's identity story is remarkable in its clear demonstration of the value of long-term, strategic, consideration of all aspects, and one, which provides a firm foundation for an increasingly uncertain future.

The Quest For Identity, edited by Klaus Schmidt and published by Cassell, price £45 ($70).



Source: Flight International