How the Seattle Kraken Became the NHL’s Best-Selling Expansion Team Overnight

League's newest franchise sifted through 1,200 names to pick a winner and develop its branding

Seattle Kraken
Headshot of Mónica Marie Zorrilla

After an excruciatingly thorough 18-month process, the highly-anticipated 32nd National Hockey League franchise’s name and branding finally dropped last week with a thunderous cinematic trailer. And within 24 hours, the Kraken became the NHL’s best-selling expansion team. Fanatics reported it sold 50% more in merchandise than the previous high set in 2017 by the Vegas Golden Knights.

That success took years of research, countless branding experts, consultants and thousands of fans. The franchise wanted to ensure its identity connected with locals but had the broad appeal to reach a global audience. And according to sports branding and marketing experts, the Kraken nailed its design and debut.

“[The team] created an extensive narrative to outline the why to casual fans, not just of hockey but of popular culture, that helped them gain a share of voice that launches of these type sometimes lack,” said Joseph Favorito, a longtime sports marketing consultant and professor at Columbia University.

Developing the lure of the Kraken

Katie Townsend, svp of marketing and communications, Seattle Kraken, said that to settle on a name, the franchise consulted a number of experts and figureheads, including majority owner David Bonderman, general manager and former Canadian professional hockey player Ron Francis Jr., fans, naming experts, historians, the NHL and local brand agencies and artists. They sifted through 1,200 names, eventually selecting the mythical deep-sea terror to represent the franchise.

“We wanted the name to connect to the powerful pull of nature here in the Pacific Northwest and resonate with the fervor for hockey in our city and region,” said Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke in a statement.

The team, Adidas and Seattle-based creative agency Perch Partners also reviewed about a hundred logo designs, as well as four color combinations, to come up with the final product: a beveled “S” with a slithering tentacle and a menacing red eye, shaded in and backdropped in a palette of Deep Sea, Ice Blue, Boundless Blue, Shadow Blue and Red Alert.

According to Heidi Dettmer, the Kraken’s vp of marketing, fans heavily influenced the naming process. The team’s leadership felt strongly that its supporters should be brought into the process. Because the team put out public requests for ideas in mid-2018, the Kraken’s marketing team was able to set up nearly 50 in-person fan forums. Fans could also take part in the selection via an online portal.

The team tapped naming experts to look at how suggestions that felt local would look on page, the imagery they evoked and how they would look carved on the Stanley Cup.

“We are a city built on the sea, and it’s something that Seattleites are really proud of,” Dettmer said. “So I think the mythology and the excitement of what is kind of in the deepest, darkest parts of the sea is just really relevant to this community. And then, the beast itself, the Kraken, really represents the kind of energy and tenacity of the game of hockey and how it’s played today.”

The Kraken wouldn’t disclose what the final five runner-up names were. Those choices have been put in a time capsule inside the Space Needle that will be opened in 50 years.

Releasing the Kraken in unprecedented times

Covid-19 slowed down the process, but the team had already completed the development and approval stages of the Kraken identity in early 2020. As the pandemic and later the Black Lives Matter protests unfolded, Dettmer said, the team had to find the right opportunity to make a splash without detracting from those more important conversations.

“We saw a window this week to make the announcement because sports are returning to play, and the NHL is being talked about,” she said. “But, we were also ready to pivot and suspend launch if affairs in our country had shifted.”

Adidas played a primary role in the design process of the Seattle Kraken’s identity, collaborating with the club, which provided ongoing feedback with the support of agency partners. “We leveraged our lessons of working with the NHL for three years and, for the first time, partnered with a professional sports team to create the marks, identity and logo from scratch,” said Nic Corbett, Adidas’ director of hockey.

While Adidas values the reports of positive sales, Corbett said, the biggest takeaway from those sales is the overwhelming and immediate support of Seattle fans.

“Such a strong response this early in the game confirms that our compass was pointing in the right direction,” Corbett said.

Bringing the might of the deep sea to the ice

“From a logo and name standpoint, it’s easy to play it safe, so the Kraken gets credit for taking some fun, creative risks,” Dan Lobring, vp of marketing and communications at Chicago-based sports marketing agency rEvolution, told Adweek. “The nontraditional name, maritime colors and subtle nod to the Space Needle in the anchor are all great details.”

Other Easter eggs embedded in the logo include the tentacle rising from the dark abyss of Puget Sound and slashing through the middle of the “S,” which drew inspiration from the first American team to lift the Stanley Cup, the Seattle Metropolitans. The beveled edges of the logo recall Seattle’s seafaring heritage, drawing from the tradition of hand-carved quarter boards.

As an expansion team still without a roster or a coach, Lobring noted, the team will rely heavily on its hockey roots and regional community to build up a fan base. (To show it intends to be an active part of the community, the team is also donating proceeds from merchandise sales on Aug. 21 to local nonprofits dedicated to ending youth homelessness.)

And building that fan base is important to drive broader awareness. “Fans who wear the gear, both in Seattle and throughout the world for that matter, will be walking billboards in the lead-up to the team’s launch,” Lobring said.

The debut of the Kraken was a crucial step toward building a core audience in the city and also generating global appeal, according to Favorito.

“The Kraken found a window before return to play took center stage and developed an effective social campaign that reached the global audience,” Favorito told Adweek. The Kraken, like other icons such as the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, the Basilisk and the Hydra, are familiar and evoke associations with fearsome and fearless imagery. Reeling in the enormous Norse squid for branding helps the Kraken’s launch stand out, Favorito said.

“One of the most important elements in brand launch in sports is to find the point in time … to develop the narrative around the look and the feel that cuts through the clutter of the audience you want to reach,” said Favorito, who believes the Seattle franchise has achieved this by providing a tangible item for fans to own and share and lifting the conversation around the NHL as teams return to play. “It solidifies in the mind of those on the fence that this team is coming and that they shouldn’t delay involvement much longer.”

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@monicroqueta Mónica is a breaking news reporter at Adweek.