At Onesixtyfourth, we’ve been talking a lot about the ability for brands to forge new attitudes regarding social responsibility. That a true leadership brand will tend to transcend the preconceived notions surrounding their industry, despite the surrounding narratives – many of which are often extreme generalizations, but have for some reason been cemented into the psyche of society at large. For example, oil companies pollute, banks are greedy, and clothing companies sometimes take unfair advantage of cheap labor.

While these statements are of course tremendously opinionated and sometimes unfounded, it is not always easy to shake these labels. In order to do so, brands will oftentimes directly attack the source in order to change their image – they will target in on the source of criticism, and launch a campaign to counteract that criticism by excelling in exactly what they were criticized for not doing in the first place. (Think BP’s massive green washing campaign following the 2010 oil spill, or Dominos “mea culpa” strategy.) Both of these crusades essentially said, “Ok fine. We really messed up, so were going to do everything to clean up our mess. We won’t sleep if we have to.”

While it’s always wise to clean up a mess, the fact remains that these brands become best known for these specific actions. And, the means of turning these initiatives into lasting, positive brand equity remains less clear. Sure BP cleaned up, but was the intention genuine? Did they truly realize the error of their ways, or did they clean up simply because there was no other option? Was cleaning up the only means of saving their lucrative marriage with consumers and fellow corporations after years of promiscuity?

When we think of a corporation, we often think of large bureaucracy and an abstract, mechanic power – the idea of a corporation tends to dehumanize things. Yet when we think of an apology, we think of something a person does when he or she feels remorse and guilt.  An apology is something that is inherently human, even when given by the machine of a corporation. The mere presence of the corporation, however, calls into question the sincerity of the apology. If we return to BP for a moment, is BP as a motive-based corporation making an apology, or are they apologizing with more emotionally-based, human tendencies in mind?

Thus, if people perceive making corrections ambiguously, how do brands establish themselves as opinion leaders in regards to social responsibility? In a world where anything with a twinge of outmoded institutionalism is disparaged, how can brands, particularly larger corporate ones, alter consumers’ predominately cynical perceptions?

While the best idea is probably just to turn into an innovative technology company, another alternative could perhaps be to, well, not act like a large company. In a world where a tweet from a long-time best friend sits adjacent to one from General Motors, the wall that distinguishes brands from people is not so sturdy. Which strongly indicates that brands need to take on a more personal ethos.

How does this relate back to social responsibility? Well, if a large company is considered less personal, perhaps their decision-making may be more robotic and formulaic. Their thinking may be, if our actions result in a harmful outcome (like pollution), we must counteract them with the corresponding positive outcome (greenwashing). Whatever is subtracted in sum must be added in sum, thus evening out the equation.

Humans however, are not formulas. We are value creativity, admire imagination and experience the full range of those crazy things called emotions. Our actions are rarely as simple as an equation. At times, due to the presence of unpredictable institutions, our actions and initiatives even fall outside the realm of what’s expected.

In our CultureQ 2012 trends study, we found that TOMS Shoes ranked the 6th best corporate citizen in the United States, wedged in between corporate giants such as Ford, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and Johnson & Johnson. The fact that this comparatively minuscule company, which was founded a mere six years ago, has attained this ranking is a tremendously impressive feat. TOMS, however, was not founded with a corporate ethos in mind. Rather, it was a simple idea, predicated more on human emotion than on corporate zeal.

When participating in CBS The Amazing Race, TOMS Shoes founder, Blake Mycoskie, visited Argentina and eventually returned having noticed that many poorer children could not afford a pair of shoes. Mycoskie, distraught by this harsh reality, resolved to create a company that would give away a pair to those in need for every pair of shoes sold. TOMS has since developed into a profitable company that has managed to maintain its mission statement; one predicated almost completely on the power of empathy – a very human emotion.

While most companies can’t exactly turn back the clock to become incredibly philanthropic and simultaneously push the boundaries of corporations as social reformers, the story of TOMS offers an interesting and simple lesson: act like a good person, and you’ll be viewed as a good brand.