Image courtesy of Daily Pic, via Flickr

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of brands marketers should be aware of: personal brands, corporate brands and professional brands. And ­– to make things even more confusing – these three things are beginning to converge.

Brands brands brands

First, a summary of those three types of brands. A personal brand is simply a culmination of factors that make up an individual’s public image. This can include content on social networks (pictures, posts, interests, etc.), as well as anything in the media about that person.

Personal brands are not created; they just are. That is, most people don’t write something on a Facebook wall because they want others to think of them in a certain way; they do it because they want to, because it’s a reflection of who they really are.

A corporate brand is a culmination of factors that make up an organization’s public image, whether it’s an airline, a media company or a not-for-profit. While personal brands aren’t usually created on purpose, corporations spend lots of time and money cultivating their brands through ads, logos, mascots (ever seen the GEICO gecko?) and, of course, content.

A professional brand is a brand that’s created intentionally by an individual. For example, if a person wants the public to see them as an expert in their field, they can foster this perception through social media, blogging, guest posting or speaking gigs.

When the professional gets personal

Consider the following example, which was pretty common a few years ago. You’re launching a new product and decide to hire a PR firm to promote it. If you see that Joe Shmo will be in charge of the account, you’ll probably google Joe Shmo.

Once you find his Facebook profile you might see that he clearly stays out all night and spends all day complaining about work. This will give you a negative opinion of the company, and you’ll probably go in another direction.

Once people realized that their personal brands were affecting their corporate brands, they began to create a professional brand. They changed their names on Facebook and maintained two Twitter accounts. But it has become apparent that it’s pretty hard to keep these two brands separate. After all, it doesn’t take much for a prospective client or employer to connect the dots.

So where do we go from here?

From the organizational perspective, corporate brands need to be aware of the personal and professional brands of their employees because clients can (and do) look them up online. You should be including social network and Google searches in your employee background checks to see what kind of footprint your employees have online.

Although most people aren’t comfortable with a prospective employer snooping through their personal lives, any content they have put out for the world to see is fair game. That said, companies should be reasonable and not expect someone to be devoid of a personal life. If the candidate’s professional footprint is more prevalent than their personal one, then that person has done a good job maintaining his or her brand and will likely represent your company well.

From the individual perspective, it’s crucial that you create and cultivate a professional brand online. If you have some things out there you’d rather were hidden, there are a few things you can do to help cover them up: guest post on websites so that those articles come up first on search engine pages, change your name on your old social accounts, or set your social accounts to private.

Or better yet, don’t put anything out there that you wouldn’t want your clients or employer to see. Because they will.