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“I Googled you before today's meeting.”

That recent remark, indicating online research on a name, symbolizes a seismic shift in personal branding.

Tom Peters kicked off the personal branding trend with a famous Fast Company article in 1997.

“Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You,” he wrote.

A lot of people hopped on the personal branding bandwagon, seeking both an edge and a sense of purpose. The trend remains strong, despite criticism that personal branding leads to an obsession with self instead of with the team or organization.

“Personal branding is distasteful for being blatantly ambitious, sneaky and superficial. Worse, it is surely bad for business.… The more you focus on Me Inc., the less you are likely to be focusing on the job in hand,” wrote The Financial Times.

Such criticism, true or not, is irrelevant. That's because the premise of personal branding—that we can control and shape our reputation with our demeanor, actions and expertise—is being eroded by the increasing importance of our online identities. And, for better or for worse, your personal brand is being shaped by forces outside your control.

In many ways, this trend parallels the current ineffectiveness of “positioning” as a branding tactic. At one time, companies could define, or “position,” their brand based on their control over media and messages. Today, however, it's customers who define brands, based on experiential, emotional or functional relationships.

Just as the rise of the customer economy has meant the loss of corporate capabilities to “position” their brands, increasing personal reliance on the Internet means a weakening of our ability to define our personal brands, for several reasons.

First, we no longer control the information others can access. Once, we could shape our reputation with selectively distributed resumes, articles or personal references, but online search engines such as Google have undercut that capability.

When people Google your name, they can come up with intemperate personal postings, petty attacks (I, along with many other authors, have been hit by drive-by reviews from competitors on Amazon) or even political, religious or other views that may be distasteful to others.

What also complicates matters is that it's often hard to date information on the Internet, giving past events the currency of today's news. Look at the way political and judicial candidates have been attacked over views expressed decades earlier; now, we are all subject to that potentially painful scrutiny.

Worse, it could mean the end of second acts in our lives. In the past, when personal brands got corrupted, we could always move, change jobs or establish new relationships. What happens to our ability to re-create ourselves if our past remains constantly accessible?

Second, the rise of social networks like Ryze and LinkedIn means that our brand will increasingly be less defined by what we know but by who knows us. Just look at Google, which establishes rankings based on online popularity (how many others link to you) rather than the quality or the authority of the information.

You may not even own your brand online. Consider this scary legalese from Orkut, Google's social networking service: “By submitting, posting or displaying any Materials on or through the orkut.com service, you automatically grant to us a worldwide, non-exclusive, sublicenseable, transferable, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right to copy, distribute, create derivative works of, publicly perform and display such Materials.”

Do you really want something posted on a dating network to be read by a potential employer?

And what about the FOAF (Friend of a Friend) profiles common on many of these social networks? I investigated one and found a picture of a much younger associate. Irrelevant, perhaps, but it is not a reflection of the greyhair he is today, plus there's the potential for the posting of inaccurate or embarrassing information.

(Social networks fulfill a need, but I suspect that their long-term value will come less from their ability to promote our careers and social lives and more from “connectedness” as a tool that reduces spam, irrelevant or impersonal search results and untargeted marketing.)

We should always keep striving to improve and enhance the brand called Me. But we should always be aware of—and even concerned about—the brand called We, which reflects the uncontrollable, omnipresent ability of others through time to build, enhance or even destroy our personal brands.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Wreden is the author of ProfitBrand: How to Increase the Profitability, Accountability and Sustainability of Brands (named "Best Business Book of 2005" by strategy+business) and FusionBranding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future. Reach him at nick@fusionbrand.com.