Maybe you've heard of Norrøna, but it's probably not your first choice when it comes to outdoor apparel. At least not yet. The Norwegian brand is in its 90th year of making technical outerwear for a wide range of mountain athletes—from polar explorers to downhill mountain bikers. It's a market leader in Europe, but the story isn't the same in the U.S., even though select styles are available on Backcountry.com and at REI. With a new distribution center in Chicago and a team based in Denver, Colorado, Norrøna is making a real push in the U.S.
When did you first lay eyes on a Norrøna product?
Adam Chamberlain: I was traveling over to Europe with Black Diamond. I saw people skiing and outside riding bikes in the brand. At the time, Norrøna held a fashion show at trade shows, so you’d be going through the halls and you’d see the brands. It was such a sea of newness. But then you’d actually hear Norrøna before you got to the booth. They were playing great hip hop music and I saw models dancing in the clothes and having a really good time. That left a really strong impression on me. I thought, this brand is about bright colors and very technical beautiful products, but they also like to have a really good time. It felt really refreshing, compared to some of the more serious brands I'd worked with.
The brand is already a household name in Europe, so why grow it in an unfamiliar market?
AC: In the same way L.L.Bean is so well known as a heritage brand, Norrøna is very much everywhere in Scandinavia. I think many brands from Europe and Scandinavia look at the U.S. as the last great frontier in some ways. There are so many people here and there's a really strong culture of being outdoors, and certainly the Norrøna team and athletes have spent time here. There’s a lot of mutual admiration with the U.S. As a right of passage, the CEO of our retail operation—like many people in Europe—spent a ski season here in the states when he was younger, similar to how people here go to Chamomix, France. Instead, they spend a ski season hitting Sun Valley, Squaw Valley, Park City, and perhaps Aspen. There’s been that familiarity and also mystique with the U.S. market.
How are you going to convince retailers to bring in a largely unknown brand with a funny name?
I think we’ve got a lot going for us and a lot going against us. One thing I’ve learned about the Norrøna team is it’s a very honest and transparent group. We know that it’s a great challenge. I think what keeps us going and what excites us is our belief in the power of the brand: to minimize our impact and to bring the spirit of adventure and fun to more consumers. I think we’re less worried about opening up new accounts because there is a lot of pent up excitement about the brand from people that are in the know. We’re more worried about selling through and creating enough pull through the accounts. That’s one of the things I’ve been focused on—making sure we’re super easy to do business with, that we can support reordering a product in season, that we’re building relationships with shop staff, and that we're putting in the time and not taking this lightly. It’s not just about showing up, hanging up the product, and then going back to Norway. This is about being here, being part of the community, and supporting the retailers and helping them thrive. We will focus on the Intermountain West, Pacific Northwest, Northeast. We will hopefully be successful in those markets and grow from there. This is not a blitz on the North American market.
Five years from now, where will Norrøna be?
Hopefully, every other person who is an outdoors person is familiar with the brand. Right now, I’d say it’s something like maybe one out of 10. It’s not well known. I think if we have a little more brand recognition, say double where we’re at today, that’s strong. I hope that when people think of the brand they think of fun in the outdoors and sustainability that’s shoulder to shoulder with what Patagonia and other leaders. Whether it’s responsible down standard, responsible wool standard, we’ve been pioneers in decreasing our environmental footprint.
I also hope we're described as a great specialty brand. We’ll get there through a couple of different ways: partnering with the right retailers in core markets and opening our own retail stores in key markets. One of the things that’s helped the brand be so strong in Norway is a combination of DTC, a really strong specialty base, and a great brick-and-mortar retail program. All these pieces complement each other.
Related reading: Do brand stores crush—or help—independent outdoor retailers?