Large steel wheels hiss and squeal as the S-Bahn passenger train lurches to a halt on the outskirts of Munich. Doug Hopkins looks out the window to the familiar pastoral setting where rural countryside meets suburban industrial buildings. He’s been here many times before and this trip is no different than any other; just another routine quarterly meeting. Doug, who runs the North American distribution for North Kiteboarding out of Hood River, Oregon, lifts his North-branded travel bag off of the train’s overhead rack and steps down onto the platform. Feeling the physical jetlag from his cross-Atlantic red-eye, he takes a moment to get his bearings and then sets off on foot towards the maze of white office buildings down the street.
The winter season in Bavaria is just beginning, but much like this time of year back at his Pacific Northwest home, it’s not quite cold enough to snow. The sky attempts to spit a soggy drizzle as Doug walks alongside the railroad and hangs a right into a neatly ordered grid of red-roofed office buildings. While most of the offices in the business park look remarkably similar, Doug needs no signage to find the headquarters of the small German company that designs, builds and sells the kites known to the outside world as North Kites.
Inside, the typical white office walls are plastered with posters of Aaron Hadlow and Airton Cozzolino and a quick survey reveals desks covered with color swatches and half-made ION harnesses, while a rack of prototype boards stands propped up in the corner. Philipp Becker, who heads up marketing and communications, is on the phone but beams Doug a grin and an enthusiastic arm wave. Across the office, Doug’s long-time friend, retired professional snowboarder and CEO of the German-based kiteboarding manufacturer, Till Eberle, looks up mid-email with Sky Solbach, their Maui-based shaper. Till takes a moment to fire off his message, then in his usual gregarious manner, wholeheartedly greets his American distributor and ushers him out the door and into his Audi for an early lunch at the Italian bistro down the street.
Doug is only a few bites into his pasta when Till drops a bomb—the kind of bomb that brings an experienced businessman to cold sweats—the same kind of bomb that makes you question the roof over your head; Doug’s got a wife and two daughters to support with more than just new kites. His jaw drops in bewilderment; How could North Kiteboarding, the brand which Doug has been building for the past 17 years, be forced into such a crippling corner? Having driven North Kiteboarding’s North American sales division since its inception, not only is this company his passion, it’s also the source of his paycheck. How does the market-leading company with the strongest worldwide distribution network just start over from scratch?
The sobering reality is that kites like the Rebel, Vegas and Evo, along with award-winning kiteboards like the Jaime and the Pro Wam, are complex products that are developed from start to finish by the kite-specific R&D engineers on Till’s team. However, at the very end of the manufacturing process, they slap on the brand’s logo, North Kiteboarding, which happens to be owned by a completely separate company. When you buy a Naish kite, you buy kites developed by Robby Naish’s team and Cabrinha is more or less the same. But when you buy a North kite, you are buying a kite built by Till’s small German outfit and printed with a North logo; little more than a historically licensed veneer. The company that owns the North Kiteboarding trademark is North Technology Group, a large multinational sailing corporation (North Sails) which licensed its five-letter name to Till’s company when kiteboarding was just getting started. Given how successful Till and his team have been in the kiteboarding industry and the worldwide brand equity in their name, the investors behind the North Technology Group have been working to bring all of the North Sails related licensees under one roof—kiteboarding included. They wanted to take the design, build, marketing and sales of North Kiteboarding equipment in-house, and with their trademark license, seemed to possess the leverage to do so.
Later that day, back in the corporate headquarters, 25 of the brand’s key distributors gather in the meeting room, sipping coffee from an instant pod-style espresso machine with the expectation of previewing product and talking strategy, the usual in these standard quarterly meetings. When Till unveiled the nuclear option, “Most people had the same reaction I did,” Doug recalls. “It blew our minds for a few minutes.” There were reservations at first, but by the end of that meeting, the distributors were all in favor of starting a new brand as it was the only way they felt they could retain their independence and ownership in their kiteboarding business.
Four weeks into the decision to establish a new brand, the office lights in the German headquarters burn late into the night. The espresso machine pumps out shots on overtime while Till’s team toils against the clock to navigate both the legal and marketing pitfalls of abandoning their North Kiteboarding namesake for a brand name under which they can hang their industry-acclaimed products and technology. As they quickly learned, coming up with a brand name for which they would own all the rights to was an exhausting exercise and trying to do so in a four-month time frame seemed nearly inconceivable. The legalities of registering a trademark are extremely complex and in the process, Till’s team poured over 300 names and hired three different marketing agencies to aid in the task of researching and clearing viable options. If they were merely clearing a brand name for use in the sporting goods segment it would have been much easier, but to use that trademark in the accessories sector it becomes difficult, and to print that same trademark on apparel, it’s nearly impossible to do so worldwide.
If the team came to an agreement on a name and it wasn’t already registered in Germany, an expensive trademark search would typically reveal the same name was already taken in other large markets like Spain or England. They turned to ‘True Kiteboarding,’ a slogan which they previously used in marketing materials over the last few years. While they kept this phrase as the new brand’s slogan, they couldn’t acquire it as the company’s name as EU law prevents descriptive words like ‘True’ which serve to designate the kind, quality, quantity, intended purpose or value of a good or service, from being trademarked. The staff also debated folding the entire kite company under their accessory brand Ion, but it’s become commonplace for all the major kite brands to name their accessory companies differently in order to avoid the staunch lines of loyalty that surround kite branding.
Finally, the Latin word for wind surfaced as a potential brand name, but since Ventum was already a registered trademark they settled on the modern-looking acronym VNTM. Just as soon as the team had designed a VNTM logo for the company’s Christmas party, they learned of the French distributors’ objections. VNTM was too close to the famous French rap band Supreme NTM who’s acronym ‘NTM’, stands for ‘Nique Ta Mère’ which literally translates to ‘F*** Your Mother.’ If that offense could be overlooked, someone also pointed out the potential legal conflict with Vietnam’s Next Top Model (VNTM). The party was over and the name search continued.
The Sahara’s warm northeast tradewinds pump through the island nation of Cabo Verde, but without any northwest swell in the water, the reef under the famed Ponta Preta surf break shows no signs of turning on. On the other side of the island, Kite Beach is crowded with a group of international distributors from one of North’s biggest competitors. It’s the usual scene; distributors and brand staff mill about a massive pile of fresh-from-the-factory gear, testing new products, talking sales tactics and exchanging industry gossip. Amidst the chatter, one distributor unloads detailed information about North’s plan to create a new brand. Despite Till’s efforts to keep his company’s plan under wraps, the truth has leaked out and one piece of information in particular, hits the street: The new company is to be named Duotone.
Later that evening, the rough details discussed on the beach land on kiteboarding’s main online forum. In the reply posts that followed, every troll, hater and competing distributor jumped in with celebratory spirit in anticipation of all the market share they believed would be up for grabs amidst the transition. The typical forum debate is tempered by both cynics and supporters, but as Till and Doug anticipated, with little information about the brand’s new identity and details of the transition, even their most loyal customers would be caught off guard—and so the one-sided forum bashing continued as a speculative conversation full of skeptics.
When you travel 17 years back to the inception of North Kiteboarding, its start is anything but conventional. Doug recalls first working in the windsurfing industry back in the late 80s handling sales and distribution for North Sails Windsurfing with Dave Johnson in the small town of Hood River, Oregon. When kiteboarding initially showed signs of growth in Maui and then Hood River in the late 90s, it was windsurfing brands like Naish that took the early lead. According to Doug, “Kiteboarding hadn’t hit Europe yet, so we couldn’t convince the German company that produced North windsurfing sails to start a kite division.” However, starting in 2000, the German company allowed Dave and Doug to begin building the brand in the US. “We wanted to tie it to North windsurfing sails because they had a good image. The brand was known for high-quality and we wanted to bring a quality brand into kiteboarding because, at the time, all brands of kites were falling apart.”
Ken Winner was hired as a kite designer and the magnanimous Spaniard Jaime Herraiz came on board as a tester and team rider. Ken developed the Dacron leading edge, a tremendous improvement in construction and strength compared to the Mylar that was used at that time. Using their global network of distributors, the US-based North Kiteboarding brand brought their first run of kites to the market in 2001. “We didn’t know how big it would get,” says Doug of the plan to originally license the name under the North umbrella. Nor did they know the consequences. At the time, it made complete sense to license under the North brand much like the windsurfing sails, in order to take advantage of the brand recognition and established distribution network. The US crew ran North Kiteboarding out of the Gorge for less than a year when its market share grabbed the attention of the German company that distributed North windsurfing sails. Under the care of Till Eberle, the brand was brought back to Germany to be managed in-house, leaving Dave and Doug in charge of North American distribution.
Fast forward to the present as Till’s team faces a ticking clock with next year’s production deadlines looming and the licensing and trademark issues largely unresolved. Till and his team finally turn to the name Duotone. As it so happens, they already own the name of the retired snowboarding brand that originally fell under F2 Windsurfing, a division within Till’s company. After heavy debates the Duotone label is decided as the best option for building their new company, ensuring they won’t trip into the snare of worldwide trademark battles.
On the southern tip of Spain, in the small coastal town of Tarifa, heads turn as Doug walks down a red carpet and into a beachside restaurant on the opening evening of the 2019 Duotone dealer meeting. He’s surrounded by his entire US sales team dressed in full feather: turquoise-colored, tropical-inspired flamingo-printed suits equipped with matching miniskirts for the girls and ties for the men. Earlier that day on the beach of Valdevaqueros, the first Duotone kites were revealed and showcased to the public for the very first time.
The red carpet leads to the entrance where distributors pose for photos with Duotone-branded foam floats amidst trademarked flags and logo-splashed backdrops. Fresh kites hang from the ceiling while fired up distributors mingle over sangria and finally take their seats along farmhouse-style tables. Till steps onto the stage to begin a toast which escalates as he aggressively rips his shirt in half to reveal a full-sized Duotone chest tattoo.
Simultaneously, in a collective move, all in-house Duotone employees rise from their seats, removing their shirts to reveal inked tattoos of solidarity. Even if the fresh ink in the room isn’t permanent, the commitment to Duotone is palpable as everyone is devoted to leaving North Kiteboarding behind. Till admits, “With Duotone, we are all back in the line of fire, but if you look at the commitment and strength of our distribution network it really isn’t that big of a risk for us.” Till has been responsible for North’s growth and success since it relocated back to Germany in 2001, and in that time period he’s built Ion, North’s accessory brand, from the ground up and he expects Duotone will be no different.
Due to legal restrictions under their previous licensing agreement, they can’t say it but we can: North Kiteboarding is now Duotone, and while the logo is different, everything in the backend is the same, if not identical. All the same world-renowned product lines remain unchanged and the innovative team, with a proven track record of turning out both user-friendly and performance-oriented products, are all focused on Duotone’s future. Designers like Ken Winner and Ralf Grösel will continue to develop kites under the Duotone brand—what was the North Rebel is now the Duotone Rebel. Surfboard designer Sky Solbach, worked all year on refining the 2019 range of surfboards to include a new strapless freestyle specific model called the Pro Voke. Having been with North as a previous team rider and now designer, Sky recalls his initial thoughts on the transition, “At first it felt like we had the rug pulled out from under us, but to be honest, regarding the product development, we worked the same this year as we do every year; it doesn’t matter what logo goes on the boards. We put in the same work we always do—we improved the things that needed to be improved.” The marketing and sales departments remain the same as well; they’ve just got freshly branded email signatures and newly minted business cards.
Somewhere in the meandering cobblestone streets of downtown Tarifa, mid-meeting, a distributor walks into a crowded tapas bar wearing an old North Kiteboarding t-shirt. Scissors are obtained from the back room and quick work is made of the old ‘N’ logo, leaving a crudely cut circle and a gaping hole that reveals the distributor’s chest for the remainder of the evening. The message is clear; the first chapter in North Kiteboarding has come to an end, but its core products and innovative team are alive, well and ready to transcend the Duotone brand into a market leader. “I really loved North Kiteboarding. I loved the brand, what it stood for, the logo, everything,” Doug admits, “but after a week (in Tarifa), the new logo looks really cool to me, maybe even cooler.” By putting the Duotone branding on kites in the sky, on flags at the beach and on billboards around Tarifa’s downtown, in some sense, the distributor meeting was a small test for what is to come. When Duotone is everywhere it will no longer seem strange or weird because it is what it is—the team formerly known as North Kiteboarding marching to a different tune— and this time, it’s their own tone.