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Occupy Wall Street's Marketing Problem: Can Experts Help Solve An Identity Crisis?

Ows Marketing

First Posted: 11/17/2011 11:23 am Updated: 02/ 3/2012 12:48 pm

An unfocused message has the power to bring down any high-flying startup. A company that seems destined to change the world can wind up an amusing footnote without making the right connection with customers. What's been this fall's hottest product? You could certainly make the case for Occupy Wall Street. But on its two-month anniversary, is the grassroots movement already in need of a marketing makeover?

Occupy Wall Street may have lost its tents in New York's Zuccotti Park and moved into proper office space, but one thing hasn't changed: its message. Or, according to some, its lack thereof.

Some consider the diverse message part of the beauty of OWS. As one reader recently commented on HuffPost Small Business,"OWS has no message? The medium is the message, that's the part that people don't get. And OWS is the medium. It works like a light bulb lighting the dark." But for others, it's a little hard to sift through the chaos. Kerry Niesen, owner of City Kitchens in Seattle, pointed out the signs one weekend were "supposed to focus on protesting banks but some signs were about the city's tap water and some were about animal rights."

As Occupy Wall Street hits a crossroads, how can the movement refine its message, before it drains the goodwill of its mainstream supporters? We turned to a panel of marketing experts to find out what this unlikely startup can do, marketing-wise, to survive and grow effectively beyond the two-month mark. In fact, they're tips that any startup could benefit from.

1. Focus the brand.

"Occupy Wall Street never had a really clear message -- mostly energy," says Allen Weiss, the founder and CEO of MarketingProfs and a professor of marketing at USC Marshall School of Business. "My sense is that it's very difficult to come up with a clear message when people are upset about a lot of different things. They can put a name around it like 'Wall Street,' but there are a lot of different motivations. I sense they don't care that they have a lot of different messages, but the media does care, so it's time to galvanize that message."

"The clearest message is the overall sense of the 99 percent," Weiss adds. "That has resonated in the market -- it's been picked up, parodied. But what do they want? That's where the clarity has broken down. A business might have a broad message that people resonate with and buy into. But this is a market of ideas we're talking about. The 99 percent concept is like a branding concept, with an emotional connection. One could easily make the case that this is the beginning stage, where the emotional message needs to be out there in the marketplace. In classic marketing terms, in new product categories, you're trying to use emotional messages to connect with people, and it's only later that you get to the functional messages, the brand differentiation. Right now, it's more like, 'this is what toothpaste is,' not 'my toothpaste is better.'"

"The message is blurred and diffused," says C. Samuel Craig, deputy chairman of marketing at NYU. "One of the basic tenets of marketing is to have a singular purpose in what you're communicating. Coca-Cola, for example, does one thing and doesn't deviate very far from that. One message that does come out fairly clearly is the distribution of wealth in America. Having said that, when they interview individual people at Zuccotti Park, you find a wider range of concerns. There's considerable confusion around the edges. The message is clear about the 1 percent and 99 percent, but it'd be more effective if they codified that, solidified that and actually suggested what could be done or what should be done. My advice is to try to achieve greater focus and try to make some of the elements more concrete or more meaningful."

2. Find a pitchman.

"As far as getting a message out, Occupy Wall Street has succeeded," says Michael McIntyre, the author of "The Authentic Salesman". "It's on the front page of most newspapers, on cable news -- it's hugely successful as far as media exposure. Where has it failed? The major media exposure has been negative. The message is not as clear as concise as it could and should be. It has failed in seeking out leadership to give talking points that can deliver the message in a concise manner rather than an incoherent message that sometimes hurts credibility."

"One of the problems is they don't have the facts straight, in my opinion," McIntyre adds. "I admire the protestors -- their tenacity, their perseverance -- but if you're going to sell a message, you have to know your product. They have several splinter factions that are running awry."

"If it was a small-business client of mine, I'd want to know, 'Who's the CEO?'" says Steve McKee, president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland, an Albuquerque, N.M.-based marketing firm. "If I were going to recommend how to brand Occupy Wall Street, who would I even recommend it to and who would have the power to implement it? Who would I give the advice to? The guy on the street corner? The guy on the news last night? It's a puddle, not a glass of water."

3. Remember, positivity sells.

"Marketing is more about what you're for than what you're against," McKee says. "They're not articulate about what the movement is for, so people can decide what they're aligned with. In our business, we often say nothing happens without a transaction. Where exactly does the transaction happen, between whom does it happen and what happens? How do you get to that transaction? What is the transaction that Occupy Wall Street wants? Policy change? Regulation? And who are 'they'? You can't tell that by pointing to a crowd. What is the organizing principle? I've been scratching my head over the whole thing. What do you want? Some want socialism, communism, some want regulations of banks, some want their student loans forgiven. There has to be an organizing principle. From a branding standpoint, there's no 'there' there. There's just angst."

4. Get organized.

"The 99 percent signs are effective, good for visuals, good for cable news -- it's what you see under those signs and the confusion that takes away from the positive message," McIntyre says. "It comes down to organization. Anytime you communicate, from a political movement to a one-on-one basis, you have to be clear on your message. There's a short attention span in this country, so if you want to talk to somebody about the wrongs of capitalism, you have to be clear, concise and accurate. Once you're throwing things out there for the sake of throwing them out there, you're hurting your message.

"What should they do next? First of all, they should form a committee consisting of one to three people from every occupied city, establish a leader, meet in Washington, D.C., over a weekend to get a platform established, call for a cease and desist of all destruction and mayhem, file permits and reestablish credibility. They should meet with congresspeople, get political muscle on their side, and clarify and define a three-point message and sell it, if they can. My theory is they don't know what their message is. I'm overgeneralizing, but they're mad -- mad about student loans and they can't get $100,000 jobs to pay them off. That's the perception I have, and I think a lot of other people have that perception, too."

5. All startups have growing pains. Learn from them and move forward.

"Two months is a very short period of time," Craig says. "Some of the successful brands have been around for decades. You don't necessarily build a brand overnight. I'm not too concerned with the fact that they've been in existence for two months. I think the life cycle is shorter, though, and if they hope to accomplish something, they have to find a way to achieve a stronger focus from this juncture onward."

"I've seen motion without direction," McKee adds. "My question when I watch TV is, 'What do you want?' We all agree greed is bad. But what do you want, practically? You can't sustain intense emotions for a long time. There's a fatigue factor that may be going on sooner or later if they don't get practical."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that McKee Wallwork Cleveland is based in Cleveland. It is based in Albuquerque, N.M.
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