The evolutionary psychology behind mutualistic brands

I’ve recently gone deeper into what makes mutuality such a powerful force in human nature….and I’ve discovered that evolutionary psychology goes a long way to explaining its significance.  It also provides some inspiration on how to build more mutualistic brands.


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Mutuality has been defined as ‘a state of reciprocity and sharing’.  This blog is dedicated to the concept and talks about how it can be used to improve not only brands but also society.

This recent exploration was for a workshop that I ran for the media agency PHD.  They invited me in as part of their ‘Human Touch’ series, in which they take inspiration from the world of psychology (below is a shortened version of my presentation).

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Working with a team from University College London, I reviewed the psychology of ‘mutuality’ focusing on the concept of reciprocity (which underpins it).  It soon becomes clear that:

Reciprocity has long been recognized as a universal cornerstone of morality, rational choice, and group life” (Brown, 1991)

This is because we have evolved a strong tendency to reciprocate since it has been evolutionarily adaptive to do so:

“A strong concern with reciprocity may have fostered survival and reproductive success in our evolutionary past” (Brown, 1991)

There were some interesting insights that can be applied directly to brand strategy and marketing:

1)    Reciprocation drives many psychological dynamics

  • We give to those that have given to us (dePaulo 1983)
  • We self-disclose to those who have been open with us (Cunningham, 1986)
  • We are programmed to abhor non-reciprocation (Greenberg, 1983)

Brands can develop more two-way relationships by giving more value to people   

2)    Reciprocation is adaptive and helped us survive

  • Animals rely on ‘reciprocal altruism’ to increase their survival chances 
    (Buss 1996)
  • Squirrels warn each other despite it putting themselves at risk, expecting that one day the favour will be returned (Trivers, 1971)

Brands can tap into our universal instinct to reciprocate.

3)    Reciprocation is more likely when we have a long term relationship 

  • Bats will regurgitate blood to feed hungry peers, but only when they’ve spent substantial time with them (Wilkinson, 1984)

Brands can’t rely on a temporary campaign-led mentality, they must strive for ongoing engagement in social media  

4) Reciprocation relies on recognition

  • Animals that recognize others better, are more likely to reciprocate (Tooby, 1992)
  • Baboon’s will help others in a fight if they have helped them in the past (Trivers, 1985)

It is vital for brands to recognize people as individuals, whether that be through social media following, cookie-opt ins or e-CRM 

4)    Reciprocation is more likely when the cost-value ratio is low

  • Hyenas will give away food once satiated, since they can afford to and will benefit in return (de Waal, 1996)

Brands need to identify the value that they can create and give-away at     relatively low cost (e.g. rewards, discounts or exclusive content), in order to earn credit

I believe that if brands focus more explicitly on the value that they can create for people (by being more finely tuned into people’s needs and the social context in which they operate), then there can be a more sustainable and mutualistic balance between brands, people and society.

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