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Brand Watch

Marketing And The Occupy Movement Brand

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Branding Occupy Wall Street Adbusters

The paradox of the Occupy movement is that it is good news, not bad, for brands. Occupy was begun by Adbusters, an anti-consumerism organization and magazine founded in 1989 and headquartered in Vancouver. During the Arab Spring protests this year, Adbusters felt the time was ripe for some similar agitation in the U.S., tapping into the frustration and anger simmering here just as the Arab Spring tapped into the frustration and anger simmering there. Adbusters created the #occupywallstreet hash tag and suggested a peaceful occupation of Wall Street in a July 13 blog post. This suggestion caught fire with other activist groups, culminating in the September 17 occupation of Zucotti Park in New York as well as thousands of sympathetic occupations in cities around the world.

What vexes many people about the Occupy movement is that it has not articulated a specific set of grievances or proposals. To a large extent, this is because many Occupy participants feel that a single voice hewing closely to a small number of talking points would misrepresent a movement that has gathered together people with a variety of perspectives and opinions. This is implicit in the movement’s tagline, “We are the 99%.”

Yet, this tagline has also had the effect of focusing coverage and perceptions of the movement on one message, that of income inequality. Comparing the 1 to the 99 puts inequality front and center, well above any other ideas or messages. Dylan Byers at Politico.com tracked a quintupling of mentions of this phrase in print, broadcast and Web media from the start of the occupation to the end of October.

Inequality, though, is more about disaffection than secession. Inequality stings because it smacks of unfairness, an idea that we have identified and highlighted in our US MONITOR research since 2008. While Adbusters and many of the other activist organizations that gave birth to Occupy are vehemently anti-consumerist, most if not all of the frustration and anger that Occupy is arousing is about being locked out of the system not about overthrowing the system.

What Occupy is expressing is the wish people have to be able to afford their fair share of things. Certainly, some participants are extremely anti-consumerist. Most, though, just want what they’ve earned, so that they can enjoy the lifestyles to which they aspire. This has long been true of social movements in America. They are more about access to consumerism and capitalist rewards than a rejection of them.

For example, the civil rights movement was about access and the opportunity for African-Americans to participate in what mainstream society had to offer. Similarly, this is why Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington of Clash of Civilizations fame characterized the student protestors of the early 1960s as the “new Puritans.” He understood that what they wanted and what they were protesting for was a country that lived up to its ideals not the overthrow of the ideals of this country. There are always those with more extreme opinions, but they are always a small minority. For Occupy, this is perhaps best exemplified in the profile of Ray Kachel in a recent issue of The New Yorker, a participant in the Zucotti Park occupation who was radicalized by unemployment.

For brands, this means that the overarching thrust of Occupy is not about rejecting marketing; it is about being able to afford the middle-class lifestyles people feel they deserve. People want jobs. They want a fair shot. They want equal opportunities. They believe that extreme inequality is un-American. But they still believe in America and the American Dream. Fairness is the answer that Occupy seeks, and that is what brands must take to heart and be mindful of as frustration and anger continue to pour out of the distressed, disaffected middle-class.

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1 Comment

Laurence Gebhardt on December 08th, 2011 said

The marketers certainly have wishful thinking that the materials economy continues in status quo. This is extraction-production-distribution-consumption-disposal driven by obsolescence and planned obsolescence (design for the dump). Marketing to the ‘base of the pyramid’ – that is the lowest parts of the 99% – has been somewhat ignored yet even poor people need things and will pay for them. The January 2012 Journal of Product Innovation Management is focused on creating new products and services for and with the base of the pyramid. It will be interesting to see if the Occupy Movement will explore more sustainable economy concepts such as built-to-last products and consumer attitudes that value beautifully made things that remain in style and functionally last for many years. Some of us make these choices – like my 1986 Toyota pickup with 240,000 miles and my 1988 Harris Tweed jacket (although getting a bit tight).

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