"What if the future of business culture is to be more human?" asked Maria Redin, Strategy Lead and General Manager at social impact consultancy GOODcorps. Redin was presenting her company's initial research into what consumers think about goodness and in brands.

As brands work through how to gain trust from shoppers, and as they integrate more environmental and social responsibility into their operations, consumers are responding. Surveys show that trust in a brand makes a difference in purchasing decisions, even if it may be secondary to factors like price and convenience.

GOODcorps set out to really understand what "goodness" means when applied to a brand. The consulting firm decided to embark on a research project, starting with lengthy interviews with people who self-identified as very knowledgeable about sustainability and social issues. The second phase of the research, later this year, will consist of a wider survey of around 300 consumers in order to refine the hypotheses, and the final round will be a general survey on a larger scale to validate the findings.

After the first phase of qualitative interviews GOODcorps revealed five interesting insights:

  1. Brands are judged as if they were people. One person surveyed said, "If companies want to be more 'good,' it is just about being normal, being human." Consumers are ready to judge a shampoo brand based on characteristics they would apply to a human being: integrity, honesty, trustworthiness.
  2. Goodness can be a loyalty driver. Those interviewed said they return to stores or brands with community and sustainability programs they know about that are aligned with their values.
  3. Conscious consumers want more clarity and transparency. Brands whose sustainability commitments are difficult to understand, based on the complexities of their product category, need to clarify those commitments. One person said of the issues facing the consumer electronics industry, "it's too big for me to wrap my head around."
  4. Leadership is important. Conscious shoppers were able to list companies with CEOs who made memorable contributions to sustainability and spoke consistently about issues they care about.
  5. Treatment of employees is a great litmus test. Companies who treat their employees well are more likely to be trusted on sustainability or philanthropy.

Redin says the idea of consumers being human-centric, judging brands the way they judge people, could give indications of how best to develop a sustainability and marketing strategy. It is hard to spot goodness, and brands that figure out how to show it could have an advantage.

Redin and her team developed a set of questions they want to look at more closely in the next phases of the research. If "goodness" is a loyalty driver, what if brands and consumers shared a language of "goodness," and what would that be? What if "goodness" needs a spokesperson, such as the company's CEO? What if people are the new "green?" What if the future of business culture is to be more human?

People want happiness and connection from a brand, just as they want happiness and connection from their relationships. As marketers explore the concept of goodness further, we may find ourselves, as consumers, cuddling up with our shampoo.

Published on: Jul 2, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.