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Occupy Wall Street: Is Madison Avenue Listening?

  |  October 28, 2011   |  Comments

Brand strategists assess the impact of a global protest movement - and what it could mean for marketing and advertising.

At the Occupy Wall Street makeshift community at Zuccotti Park in New York City's Financial District, protesters have embraced a grassroots multi-channel, multi-platform strategy to share their messages locally and around the globe. This amorphous movement taps the energy, creativity, and diversity of participants - and uses traditional and digital tactics to bring attention to its causes.

  • The text and images on colorful posters, banners, and custom buttons are as varied as the protesters (labor union workers, unemployed college graduates, the homeless, and others).
  • An alternative newspaper, "The Occupied Wall Street Journal," which offers a centralized place to read about the movement's latest developments.
  • Twitter, which provides a quick way to share information via the #OWS and #OccupyWallStreet hashtags.
  • YouTube, which serves as a hub for videos featuring protesters in action, including video showing participants getting arrested.

Now that Occupy Wall Street protests are springing up around the world, is Madison Avenue listening? And what impact, if any, will the movement have on businesses and their marketing messages?

Three brand strategy experts I contacted - Special Forces Strategy Partner Ilana Bryant; Tungsten Branding's Phillip Davis, and SingerSalt's Leslie Singer - shared their thoughts on what Occupy Wall Street means for marketers and advertisers. Here are excerpts of all three interviews, which were done by email over the last two weeks.

occupywallstreet-protestsign

Who should be listening to Occupy Wall Street and why?

"Banks, financial services companies, and credit card brands should definitely take notice of the movement," according to Bryant, as should companies that market to Gen Y and youth. "Occupy Wall Street protesters are venting some of the frustrations of the Millennial Generation. They're carrying excessive student debts and can't get any jobs, so advertisers pushing them to buy may rub them the wrong way. Many youth are rejecting the 20th century American consumerist model that money/shopping = happiness. They've been pioneering non-consumerist alternatives from Craigslist to freecycle to collaborative consumption all their lives. They're also expecting more from companies they choose - they want to see these companies reflect their ethics and values."

90percentDavis concurred that financial services businesses should listen to the protesters' grievances. "So far, the financial sector appears most vulnerable to this type of consumer pushback and to date, very tone deaf in their marketing. As social media becomes a bigger player in brand messaging, the response times will need to increase, to near real time, to keep pace with changes in sentiment," he said.

Singer agreed that financial services are under siege, but suggested anger should be focused on at least one other target: Congress. "Without Congress, those bastards couldn't get away with all that they have. But Financial Services are the Darth Vader of the 21st century. A new brand of bank needs to emerge from the ashes. It will happen and it will be incredible," she said.

Some speculate that the outrage could spread to other industry sectors such as healthcare. For instance, nurses and doctors last weekend rallied for healthcare reform, contending that pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and medical device companies should reduce their profits and allow more money to go to direct patient care.

Or consider one protestor's sign at Zuccotti Park, which attacks Verizon. "VeriGreedy: Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Verizon, Occupy Everything," reads the sign.

verizon-occupywallstreet

Do you think brand messaging willl change in response to what's happening in this movement?

"If I were running a bank, particularly an investment bank, I would take notice of the Occupy Wall Street Movement in both my messaging and tone. Here's an example where one advertiser got the wrong tone: Bank of America's assertion that it had a 'right to make a profit' off its customers and its decision to raise debit card fees during the Occupy Wall Street movement backfired in public sentiment," Bryant said.

On Sept. 29, Bank of America said it plans to charge a $5 monthly fee on debit card purchases; the charge does not apply to ATM withdrawals. Six days later, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan said the bank has a "right to make a profit," further angering customers and creating an opportunity for rivals.

Consider Ally Bank, which pounced on BofA with a newspaper ad: "Raising bank fees now? We couldn't believe it either…and we're a bank."

"Ally Bank leveraged the cultural zeitgeist of Zuccotti Park brilliantly," Bryant said. "In two lines of copy, they had the movement and the mood of the nation behind them."

allybank-fees

The print advertisement, part of Ally Financial's "people sense" campaign, appeared in The New York Times on Oct. 16 as well as local newspapers on Oct. 16 and Oct. 23. "This advertising was designed to let consumers know that if they are looking for a banking alternative that places a high priority on offering competitive products with no or low-fees and customer-friendly features, then Ally Bank is an option they can consider," said Beth Coggins, Ally spokeswoman. Ally worked with Grey Group on the campaign.

Other approaches that financial services companies could take? "Highlight their home lending efforts, especially in hard hit urban areas. They could also show the human side of their organizations, with first-hand accounts of recently hired employees now able to support their families," Davis suggested.

Are there some brands/verticals more likely to tune their messaging in response to the movement?

"Brands need to be very careful where they stand in this movement," Singer warned.

occupywallstreet-dumpthebosses

"Brands are best to stay out of the conversation - at least for now. I could change my mind depending on what the movement's voice became - but as long as it's not defined it will be very easy to get blacklisted quickly - think French fries and French wine just a few years ago," she continued. "Chrysler's tag line, 'imported from Detroit,' lets us know that they are pro-American manufacturing - personally I think Chrysler could do more with it and perhaps tie into the Wall Street movement in a back door sort of way…it would be tricky but interesting."

Occupy Wall Street, she contended, is in need of a brand manager. "Without a defined position, leadership, manifesto, and a mark...their mission is up to interpretation," she said.

What example/s in history stand out where brand advertising responded to a movement?

Said Bryant: "Seeing a movement embraced in brand advertising is the ultimate sign of a successful movement because it shows that companies have recognized the commercial value of the movement's ethical or philosophical values. For example, the organic food movement was once a niche issue, but consumer demand and appeal has made the movement for 'pesticide/chemical free' production a very mainstream advertising concept. The same has been happening in the sustainability movement; being 'green' is embraced as a positive, mainstream brand attribute. In the food space, I'm seeing this bubbling up with the 'buy local' and 'locavore' movement, which is now popping up in more forms of marketing and advertising today."


Said Singer: "Just look at salad bars in McDonald's and no high fructose corn syrup labels on foods...Gluten free foods, electric/hybrid cars, and biodegradable products, etc. Brands follow movements. They have to. Time will tell with the Wall Street movement. I do think change is in the air, but it's not going to happen overnight."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anna Maria Virzi

Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.

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