The power of ‘mutualistic’ thinking to help brands, business and society…

This blog was inspired by my submission for the Admap competition ‘Planning 3.0: The Planning Landscape in 2020′. My response (called ‘Feeling Mutual’) is about how the concept of mutuality (‘a state of reciprocity and sharing’) can help solve many of today’s business, brand, comms and social challenges. Fortunately my essay received the silver award.

<Link to pdf of essay>

I’ve since been on the look out for fellow ‘mutualists’. The more I look into it, the more I discover inspiring takes on the idea….

Faris Yakob (who was also shortlisted for the admap prize and whose work I drew on in my essay) has talked about ‘zero sum comms’“communication where there is a balanced value exchange between consumer and brand”.  I think this idea of focusing on a balanced value exchange should be applied to multiple relationships: not just between people and brands, but also brands and their employees, brands and society and brands and their agencies.  Focusing more explicitly on the value that various entities can legitimately and effectively exchange, is more likely to build fruitful relationships, than defaulting to the traditional ‘awareness’ led approach to communications strategy (which is more concerned with forcing an idea on people).

Kevin McClean put forward the concept of mutuality in the context of encouraging brands to align their interests more closely with people.  He takes the symbiosis analogy even further by mapping symbiotic relationships that become ‘amensalist’ (in that one of the parties actually loses out).

Mark Earls has suggested that to feel mutual, is to be human. He says that we are innately social and have evolved to share rather than just compete ruthlessly in a Darwinian frenzy.  I like the optimism in his assumption that people have a natural capacity to get on and work well together.  Society seems caught up in an individualistic, hyper-competitive mindset which means that too often people enter into relationships and decisions with a combative, over-protective, negotiation-orientated mindset rather than embracing more open, altruistic and balanced thinking.

Charles Leadbetter has also championed the model of ‘mutual’ organisations ‘organised for and by their members’, proposing that it has proven to be an excellent way to run everything from healthcare to education and mortgage lending partly because it provides ‘social cohesion and self-organisation’.  The success of Barcelona FCJohn Lewis and Giff Gaff bear testimony to this.

I believe that the principles in mutuality can be applied to a number of social, business, brand and communications problems. In so doing, relationships will become more balanced, fair and enriching….I’d love to discover more pieces of mutualistic thinking, so please do share them if you come across them…<


  1. Steve 
    For a while I was part of a team being trained by Steve Barber in what he called “Interest Based Approach” to decision making. It was a paradigm shift from Adversarial negotiations to mutualism. You can find him at


    • Tom Woodnutt 
      Hi Steve, thanks very much for sharing. . . I’ve had a fish around the site and there’s some nice ideas in there….if there’s any other papers you could point me to I’d love to read more….