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Nick Aster headshot

Can Positive Marketing Boost KLM in the U.S.?

By Nick Aster

KLM may be the world's oldest airline, but it's not quite a household name in the United States. The venerable baby-blue brand is making visible inroads this month with an attractive pop-up storefront in San Francisco's Union Square. The airline's hope is to attract the attention of Americans thinking about traveling abroad who may not yet be familiar with KLM and its understated Dutch hospitality.

From a sustainability standpoint, KLM is among aviation's leaders. The airline has an active biofuel program and has been experimenting with intercontinental biofuel flights for years. The latest development comes from Los Angeles where KLM is now flying daily to Amsterdam using a 30 percent biofuel mixture, resulting in a 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions per flight. In another clever move, worn-out flight attendant uniforms are being repurposed as carpeting onboard the aircraft. Customer service is efficient and well regarded. As great as these green gestures are, however, they may have a limited effect on a flying public whose first concern is usually cost -- especially among the infrequent travelers targeted by KLM's new marketing push.

Indeed cost has become a key market differentiator now that bare-bones budget airlines like WOW and Norwegian are entering the U.S. market and advertising ludicrously low fares while burying added fees in the fine print. Stories abound about inexperienced flyers being caught off-guard by luggage fees, fees for choosing seats, charges for food and more.

Though now common domestically, these fees are still rare occurrences on long-haul flights. A notorious story went viral last month about a passenger who found he couldn't even get free water on a WOW flight more than 10 hours long. It might be pushing it to call WOW and Norwegian dishonest in their marketing; perhaps sneaky might be a better word. It's easy to get attention and free press by advertising $299 flights to Europe even if the real price is closer to $1,000 once all is said and done. Such semi-legit, rock-bottom fares makes marketing a full-service legacy airline more difficult.

So, how can KLM differentiate itself as a more attractive choice?

The pop-up store in San Francisco is a hip and homey environment that attempts to win travelers over with excellent customer service and Dutch charm. It showcases new technology, sustainability, comfy seats for those fortunate enough to fly business class, attention to the needs of kids and families, and perhaps most delightfully -- fresh stroopwafels.

Yet I was surprised to see nothing in the pop-up emphasizing transparency in pricing, such as a mention that food and basic baggage fees are included in a ticket price -- and you can certainly have as much water as you like. It seemed logical to me that KLM could point out hidden fees that plague discount airlines in order to win favor from a curious public.

I raised this subject with Eric Caron, KLM's VP and general manger for the U.S."We really want to emphasize the positive," Caron told me. It's not that KLM intends to ignore the concurrent marketing blitz from discount airlines, but the airline hopes that its positive traits in the pop-up store will pay off in a way that simply shouting "we're cheap" won't.

Perhaps it's a way of channeling Michelle Obama's "When they go low, we go high". The strategy may pay off over time, as passengers find out for themselves the very different experience and final price tag of a less transparent discount airline.

The pop-up store will be open starting today until Oct. 22 at 455 Sutter St. in San Francisco. Drop in, and let us know what you think in the comments!

Nick Aster headshot

Nick Aster is the founder of TriplePundit. Prior to launching 3p, Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years, and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He also worked for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging. Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

Read more stories by Nick Aster