A name ≠ a brand.

Selecting a name is hard.

It’s hard to get two, or four, or seven people to agree on any one thing, especially if that thing is a name.

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What’ll you have?

It’s hard because the name needs to work creatively and strategically — but it also needs to work legally. Seeking trademark protection takes time and money — and you’re going to lose some great names along the way to the trademark demigods and other companies who’ve beaten you to the punch.

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Hallowed ground: The USPTO.

It’s hard because there is a natural tendency to equate a name with a brand — and when you’re just starting out, names can’t neatly encapsulate the entirety of your brand. Your name will only become your brand over time.

We understand the tendency to want the name to do a lot of heavy lifting. When we see a name like Nike or Patagonia, we’re really seeing through the name to the totality of our experience with those brands.

A brand is like a cargo ship, stacked high with containers full of the different experiences we’ve had.

Nike is loaded with our athletic endeavors and the great athletes we look up to. It’s loaded with their killer ads, shoes, and world record holders wearing their products.

Patagonia is loaded with our memories of being in the wild, backpacking trips or surf spots, their environmental initiatives, and their countercultural business model.

For these brands, and more importantly for all brands, time is the big factor in how a name changes from being about one idea to being the vessel into which all ideas are stowed. Established brands have time in the market. When you’re selecting a name, you don’t.

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Just ship it.

At this stage, you’re brand new, a boat in a dry dock, and you’re standing at the bow agonizing over what to call your new ship.

With a paintbrush in hand and the wind at your back, now is the time to remember that a name is the smallest useful unit of language. When you’re brand new it can only do one thing really well.

What you really have instead of a cargo ship is a tugboat.

You own a tugboat.

All buff, no fluff.

Tugboats do one thing really well, which is to help other boats maneuver. They don’t carry hundreds of shipping containers, or go super fast, or aid in the research of sea cucumbers.

They’ve got their one task and do it beautifully. This is how a name operates during the early stages of your company. It can start a conversation about how you’re different, cue an emotional response, or pique someone’s curiosity by being like nothing else they’ve seen before. Those are all important jobs and your name can do one of them — and the rest of your brand will do everything else. Your visual identity, messaging, tagline, photography, attitude, employees, products, ads — the entirety of your brand will send the rest of the important signals.

Over time, as your audience becomes familiar with you, your little tugboat will graduate from Tugboat University and become a great big cargo ship that can carry all the meaning and messages and experiences of your brand.

So remember, when selecting a name think about the one job you want the name to do and know that in time it will become the vessel that carries the entirety of your brand. It just takes time.