What Does Occupy Wall Street Mean for Marketers?

Industry Should Recognize the Sentiment Behind the Movement Says a Lot About the Consumer Zeitgeist

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You're probably thinking Zuccotti Park is a radioactive zone for marketers. The protest's crazy quilt of themes, ideas and complaints is often downright hostile to commerce, and the pro-business messages that bubble up tend toward supporting small, local business vs. multinational brands. And what corporation would want to risk association with the threat of disorder and violence that hangs over Occupy and was manifested in Oakland last week when protesters took over an office building and shut down the city's port, clashing with police along the way?

Occupy Wall Street Credit: Bloomberg

At the same time, Occupy and the saga of the 99% has become a bona fide international-social-movement-as-meme, infinitely malleable and clearly tapping into some, to put it in marketing speak, cultural insights.

A survey by the ad agency network Euro RSCG discovered that some of the issues at the center of the protests are weighing heavily on Americans' consciences. Euro's Prosumer Report found that 41% of women and 39% of men were either very worried or extremely worried about the income gap between the rich and poor, while fear of running out of money was also high, vexing 46% of women and 31% of men questioned. To get a sense of how intense these worries are, consider that these rates were roughly comparable to concerns like terrorism and "diminished physical capacity."

Moreover, Occupy does seem to distinguish between financial institutions, who are the clear villains in all this, and other kinds of companies. Many protesters have gone out of their way to explain that the protests are not anti-business, but rather against a particular way of doing business that 's fattened up a tiny chunk of the populace, the 1%.

Does that leave room for brands to engage with the movement? While no one's arguing that Occupy Wall Street needs to have an official sponsor, the zeitgeist might create a boomlet for those that tap into the issues being raised by it.

So far the only real case in point is provided by Ben & Jerry 's. On Oct. 6, the company's board, mainly composed of former employees and social responsibility/NGO types charged with "defending Ben & Jerry 's brand equity and integrity," issued a statement of support for protesters that called class inequity "simply immoral," and called attention to unemployment numbers, the cost of education and the influence of corporate money in politics.

The idea of an ice-cream brand started by a pair of ex-hippies from Vermont backing the protests isn't exactly radical until you consider that , since 2000, Ben & Jerry 's has been owned by Unilever, a packaged-goods company with $60 billion in annual revenue. To some, Ben & Jerry 's is an example of the counterculture types who took the money and ran, a Deadhead sticker on an unfeeling multinational corporation. The move sparked a bit of resentment and, let's face it, it should have come with more free ice cream for protesters. Even the statement noted, "We know that words are relatively easy."

Marketing experts gave it mixed grades. "Ben & Jerry 's has built somewhat of an anti-establishment brand," said Jason Schechter, corporate practice chair at the WPP-owned PR firm Burson-Marsteller. "In that vein you can see it making sense. But they're part of a corporate entity. Did it further the brand equity? It probably did.  Did it accomplish anything on the business side? It's an open question."

Said Matt Ryan, co-chairman of Euro RSCG's New York office, "I think it looks parasitic sometimes, and it can certainly look pandering. I don't believe that was Ben & Jerry 's intention; it just has that feeling to it."

An alternative approach might have been to address one of the fundamental issues that sparked the protests. Mr. Ryan said there are basically three options for brands in this environment: Do nothing; engage with the protests; or find a third way that addresses the substantive issues of the Occupy movement without tying too tightly to its intense news cycle.

What Mr. Ryan is advocating hews closely to the well-established doctrine of corporate social responsibility, the idea that companies should have a conscience and get involved with social issues that match business goals and are important to their customers, employees and shareholders.

"A financial-services client could look at job creation as an initiative—not as response to Occupy Wall Street , but to be responsible corporate citizen," said Mr. Ryan. "The idea is not to respond to headlines but take serious the issues raised."

That's advice the banks might do well to heed, since they've pretty much been doing the opposite. Showing a particularly tin ear for what's going on in the world, Bank of America, whose reputation and stock price have been pummeled since the financial crisis began, announced a $5 fee for debit-card users earlier this year. Naturally, the fees were met with widespread outrage, including 300,000 signatures on a petition at Change.org and had to be dropped last week when several competitors scuttled similar plans.

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