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LinkedIn or Pinned Down? On Being Endorsed (A Lesson for Branding)

By Drew Letendre

Drew knows about…

Endorsement as branding
If, like me, you maintain a LinkedIn account, you are familiar with ‘endorsements’: the ‘system’ of unsolicited acknowledgements from colleagues and clients, that you posses certain skills or kinds of expertise. Each day I am awakened (or interrupted) in my work-a-day chores by email chimes telling me ‘David has endorsed you for Brand Strategy,’ ‘Phil has endorsed you for Brand Architecture,’ etc. Before one knows it, these endorsements begin to accrue and compile and ultimately ‘congeal’ into a certain, semi-public picture: what I will call one’s ‘professional brand’.

It would appear that I am, by a kind of consensus, best described as a ‘Brand Architect’. I was endorsed for this area of expertise (or skill) by 22 people, almost twice as many endorsements as for the next closest skill — naming (12). This occurred through absolutely no influence of mine — other than doing the things, exhibiting the skills, and demonstrating the expertise for which I was being credited. I did nothing, in other words, to encourage the creation — let alone the shape — of my profile. It should be noted too, that these ‘endorsements’ don’t necessarily indicate or even imply that you’re good at the things ascribed to you. They don’t assess or measure performance. They simply attest to the fact that you’ve done them — or somebody thinks you have done them. Talent is just an assumption, not to say a ‘generous’ one.

As it happens, this is not a wholly inaccurate (or unattractive!) picture of me professionally, and I rather fancy the title (formal or informal) of ‘Brand Architect’. It seems to me to be a license to do more than brand architecture, in the narrow or conventional sense, in spite of what it seems to suggest, at first blush. It also has going for it that it is unique in my field — I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a business card with ‘brand architect’ on it. And, it is certainly more interesting than the standard fare titles, ‘Director of This’ or ‘VP of That’.

All that said, this is not an entirely accurate depiction of me either. Nor is it one that couldn’t have ‘gone otherwise,’ that couldn’t have credited me with implied expertise that I don’t really possess (in my view) or simply don’t want to make my ‘foot forward’ to the world. Many of us know that vexing scenario of being ‘stuck with talents’ we don’t really enjoy using and don’t want to be pigeonholed into: one is good at math, but would rather write Op Ed pieces for The Times than teach college algebra. It also seems to imply degrees, quantities, rankings, and proportions of things. I received, for example, only 5 endorsements for ‘Positioning’ (less than a quarter of the number received for architecture, and a ‘ranking’ of 8th out of 10 skills). That struck me immediately as disproportionate: I do at least as much (if not more) work in this area as in architecture. What will be the reader’s impression of me from this picture? And, importantly, do I-I-I endorse it? In branding, you have a choice: you can be the rancher, wielding the prod, or the calf (in which case, there’s no place—pardon the pun—to hide).

The moral of the story
So, what’s all this got to do with branding? One little (or not so little) thing: it is an object lesson that may be summed up in the motto (akin to the familiar—vulgar—bumper sticker) ‘Branding Happens (Anyway)’. If you don’t brand yourself; if you are not the author of your own brand image; and if you do not control the context, and thus the ‘hermeneutical key’ to its desired interpretation, all of that can fall by default into the hands of third parties, some (or even many) of whom, are under no obligation to cast you in your best light. Indeed, some may harbor worse motives—to set up PR trip wires. Even where malicious intent is absent, unauthorized interpreters don’t always do justice to your brand image. A business can become an unwitting (?) accomplice in its own ‘mis-positioning’.

There is an ancient curse with an ironic twist that goes: “May you have an interesting life.”
A modern business warning of similar cast might be: “Beware endorsements.”