Choosing the name “Kraken’’ last summer allowed our city’s incoming NHL team to treat itself to a built-in slogan that didn’t require focus groups to create.
Within hours of the naming announcement, the team was selling “Release the Kraken’’ merchandise through an online store, with plans to no doubt incorporate the slogan for in-game entertainment and other possibilities. Widely popularized by actor Liam Neeson during a 2010 remake of the “Clash of the Titans’’ movie, the phrase became an enduring hit that Kraken-partial local hockey fans repeated endlessly throughout the build-up to the naming announcement.
Unfortunately, all good things sometimes get misused. Which brings us to present-day, when “Release the Kraken’’ has become a rallying cry for those spreading conspiracy theories that our recent presidential election was somehow stolen.
A random “Kraken’’ internet search these days will more likely yield headlines of one of President Donald Trump’s former lawyers trying to convince you that he won the election than news about our city’s hockey team.
A former key component of Trump’s legal team, Sidney Powell, started the fuss by claiming she was a “Kraken’’ gathering evidentiary steam that would soon be unleashed to derail Joe Biden’s claim to the presidency. Before long, the #ReleaseTheKraken hashtag had been picked up by conspiracy theorists, including QAnon, and used online to spread the false claim of an illegitimate result.
Trump later distanced himself from Powell after she claimed that long-dead Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez somehow helped rig the vote-counting machines. So far, various court judges, government-appointed election overseers and vote monitors from both main political parties have affirmed there was no evidence of widespread fraud capable of swaying the election outcome.
“Release the Kraken’’ now is generating T-shirts of a very different kind being sold online alongside NHL versions and leaving one to wonder what this means for the hockey team.
Kraken vice president Katie Townsend said the team won’t comment on the co-opting of its slogan. But the conspiracy movement behind “Release the Kraken” has already generated stories in The New York Times, VICE and the BBC, among others, and gained widespread social media usage.
The hockey team’s online “Release the Kraken” store had been planned as only a one-month venture with proceeds going to charity. But a small amount of leftover “Release the Kraken’’ merchandise remains for sale at the official team store while league-licensed items bearing the slogan – everything from T-shirts, to laptop stickers to coffee mugs – is offered by any number of online vendors.
Dustin York, a branding and marketing specialist who worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign — and conducted media relations training back then for now President-elect Biden — has helped companies in this type of co-opted predicament. He said the team’s wait-and-see approach is the correct initial move, until a “tipping point” is reached where movements like these either evolve more permanently or fade away.
“If we get to that tipping point where there are now profile pictures of this, and it’s a slogan for the movement,” he said, “then it’s an opportunity for the Kraken hockey team to specifically express their values.”
York, an associate professor of communications at Maryville University in St. Louis and director of the school’s graduate and undergraduate communications programs, said he once was contracted by Indiana University to help with a situation where its Hoosiers logo was being co-opted by street gangs. They leaned on a similar strategy, where Hoosier values were expressed without mentioning the gangs.
Likewise, he said, any Kraken response doesn’t need to reference the political controversy.
“They don’t have to connect the two,” he said. “People will connect it themselves. But say upfront: ‘This is what we believe as the Kraken.’ So, then they can say, ‘This is what we mean when we say ‘Release the Kraken.’ It can be a small campaign of a couple of weeks. You say, ‘Here’s our value. Here’s our brand value. This is what we value in the Seattle community. This is what we’re driven by.’ ”
Such a strategy, he added, can be “win-win” because it affirms something positive about the team while also defining the slogan’s meaning for hockey fans so they feel comfortable relating to it.
The team doesn’t own the slogan’s trademark. That honor belongs to the Kraken rum company, which reached a deal for the NHL squad to use the slogan in exchange for becoming an official team sponsor.
But it’s certainly the newly named team, not the longstanding rum, that’s fueled a surge of popularity behind the word “Kraken” — as evidenced Monday when Merriam-Webster included it on its shortlist for word of the year along with “pandemic” and the Biden-favored “malarkey.”
As mentioned by York, such mainstream popularity can attract unwanted attention from those looking to capitalize and grow more fringe ideas.
Fred Perry polo shirts in London became choice items for skinheads and neo-Nazis in the 1960s. So-called “Aryan Rock” gained traction in this country in the early 1990s by re-writing popular songs, as the right-wing RAHOWA band notoriously did with an altered, racist cover version of Nancy Sinatra’s hit “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.”
After Trump’s election in 2016, prominent right-wing blogger Andrew Anglin declared New Balance the “official shoes of white people’’ after the company supported the president’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
It’s tough to say whether the latest “Release the Kraken” movement already has hit the tipping point referenced by York.
The good news for the team is it might not need a marketing campaign yet to prove its slogan isn’t part of the conspiratorial fringes. After all, the Kraken won’t begin playing until sometime late next year and by then, we’ll know whether this post-election chaos has staying power. In the past week, some of the rhetoric has slowed, and it might continue to abate once Biden takes office.
As the team — awarded the Kraken franchise two long years ago this Friday — knows all too well, a year can feel like an eternity in pro sports. And this seemingly endless wait to finally release its version of the Kraken can prove beneficial if it buys time for unwanted impostors to sink to the ocean’s floor.