Kilian Jornet is the greatest athlete you’ve never heard of. He competes in niche sports that require enormous effort and endurance: ski mountaineering, sky running, and ultramarathons. When I say “competes in”, I mean he acquires championships the way you and I acquire gas bills: so regularly and with such certainty that they become almost boring. Kilian has also broken time records in everything from the “vertical kilometer” (exactly as torturous as it sounds) to climbing Mount Everest without fixed ropes or extra oxygen. If it’s not obvious that I’m a fan, know that when Kilian attempted the 24-hour distance record, I tuned into the YouTube livestream, watching him run lap after lap after lap around a dark track.
So when Kilian announced a split from his longtime sponsor Salomon to launch a new brand of outdoor athletic gear, you can imagine how excited I was. But I’m pretty discouraged by what I’ve seen so far.
Make Your Brand Easy To Say, Hear and See
Kilian’s new brand, co-developed with footwear maker Camper, is called NNormal. (The name comes from the beginning letters of “Norway” where Kilian lives, and “Mallorca” where Camper is based.) My first two rules for any new brand name are that it should be easy to say, i.e. pronounceable when first seen; and easy to hear, i.e. spellable when first heard. NNormal fails both tests miserably. I assume it’s pronounced “normal” because “n-normal” is very strange and jarring, but why the extra N? Good brands communicate well, not puzzle customers.
Unfortunately, NNormal’s logo isn’t doing the brand any favors. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in my opinion this is… not. More important, I’m unconvinced that consumers will get the spelling right from this logo. A brand should be also be easy to see.
Evoke Your Brand’s Intended Meaning
You might suppose that the best brand names should simply describe what they do. Some do, like 1-800-Flowers, but names like this tend to be boring, and in any case they’re probably already taken. You should also resist the temptation to explain your brand’s meaning by mashing together broad, sweeping terms as is too often seen with ClunkyTechNames.
If not descriptive, what should a name be? One really good approach is to choose something evocative. This means that the name naturally suggests the associations you want customers to make to your brand. The first time you heard of the brand Mustang, it probably made you think things like fast and untamed — even if you didn’t know it’s a car.
According to NNormal’s website and launch press coverage, its key brand attributes are a love of the outdoors, a commitment to the environment, authenticity and simplicity. Ask yourself: does the brand name help you make these connections? I say no: the word “normal” suggests things like typical, ordinary, even boring.
By the way, great (as opposed to really good) brand names might not be evocative at all. They might instead seem random or even fanciful. This way, they begin as empty vessels to be filled with meaning over time as customer relationships (and advertising dollars!) grow. But this approach is risky, and it requires thick skin: prepare for everyone you know to shoot down your idea. (You want to name your coffeehouse chain after… a minor character from Moby Dick? That makes zero sense. Actually less than zero: Seattle is about the only place in the world Ahab never sails to. It’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.)
Avoid Confusion with Existing Brands
Breaking through the media and advertising clutter is incredibly difficult and expensive. Make things as easy as possible by avoiding names and imagery that overlap confusingly with existing brands.
I initially thought NNormal might be connected to the NN Running Team (it’s not). While not exactly a household name, the NN Running Team is a group of some of the world’s best road and track athletes including marathon great Eliud Kipchoge, so some running fans will know it. Maybe more concerning is The Normal Brand, an upscale casual clothing maker. I’d never heard of this brand until I Googled “NNormal brand” (!), but obviously there’s some overlap.
Two separate issues matter here. First, does your new brand legally infringe on something already in the marketplace? This is complicated, but intellectual property lawyers can perform searches at a reasonable cost, and applying for a formal trademark registration will eliminate most of the uncertainty. Second, watch out for unnecessary confusion as a practical matter: you might legally be permitted to name your new cosmetics company Kellogg’s, but who wants that headache?
Position Your Launch for Success
Launching a new brand is a daunting task. Asking any new identity — a couple of words, a logo, a font, a color palette, maybe a tagline — to communicate everything you want your brand to stand for is impossible. And our interconnected world means many brands need to be “global ready” from the start. But following the guidelines I’ve laid out will position your launch for success, not create obstacles that can hamstring it:
- Consider only names and logos that are easy to say hear and see.
- Choose a name that evokes your brand’s key attributes.
- Both legally and practically, avoid unnecessary confusion with existing brands.
As you generate, refine and filter ideas, always think about things from the perspective of potential customers (who by definition know nothing about a new brand). Will it make sense to them? Will they think the things you want them to think? Will they care enough to learn more?
So what’ll it be, Kilian? It’s not too late to make some changes. Let’s go for a trail run and talk it over — just keep the pace manageable.