How do you advertise a social movement that is suspicious of advertising?
A few weeks ago, the 31-year-old documentary filmmaker David Sauvage decided he wanted to make a short film in support of Occupy Wall Street. He spent half a day asking people in Zuccotti Park what they hoped to achieve, and then cut together a quietly rousing 33-second video juxtaposing their hopeful responses to inspiring music. But though some leaders of the movement were excited by the spot, he says others were turned off by its slickness and, in the end, the group refused to put it on its official website.
Mr. Sauvage admitted this week that "using the technique and method of corporate marketing, and applying that to Occupy Wall Street," was probably an absurd undertaking, given the movement's wariness of many tools of capitalism. "A commercial would seem to [embrace the methods of]the corporate bullhorn," he acknowledged.
But despite that opposition to the mechanics of corporate power and modern persuasion, the Occupy movement has been, by some measures, astonishingly successful: In marketing parlance, it has high "brand awareness."
There's an emerging sense that its rejection of conventional marketing wisdom is a brilliant – if unintentional – manoeuvre. And while most Occupiers would likely react with shock and chagrin at this idea, the success of their movement may actually be sharply instructive for brand marketers. Which means Occupy is shaping up to be one of the most unlikely case studies in the history of marketing.
Mr. Sauvage noted that some Occupiers had objected to both the glossy aesthetics of his spot and the possibility that viewers might think the people in it were outlining the sum total of the group's specific demands. The movement, famously, has so far refused to outline any such demands, and that was never Mr. Sauvage's intention. "I was trying to capture the feeling of the movement," he explained. "At bottom, it's about empowering yourself, empowering the individual against what appears to be a corporate-run government."
To that end, he understands why some within the movement would be skeptical of trying to sell to the masses using the obfuscating code of corporate and political messaging. "The language of politics is so carefully selected by professional talkers, writers, pundits and politicians, that if you take the language of Occupy Wall Street and translate it into the conventional language of contemporary American politics, you're going to kill the most important aspects," he said.
"So Occupy Wall Street can say, 'The banks have too much power, something isn't right.' To me, that's very powerful language. Then when you translate that into, 'The Glass-Steagall Act repealed under Clinton put banks in a place of necessary conflict' – well, true as that may be, and related as that may be to what Occupy Wall Street is saying, we've now lost the force of the movement and we've disempowered that core human language that [Occupy]is speaking."
Yet Occupy is managing to speak: Indeed, contrary to the conventional wisdom of brand building, it is speaking with a panoply of voices. Most of the protesters come equipped with smart phones, ready-made for spreading the word through pictures, texts, tweets, and other Internet postings. Hundreds of high-quality videos have emerged from the occupations, by turns defiant, aggressive, galvanizing, naive, garbled, stimulating, and articulate. The Occupy brand is the sum total of all expressions, none of which has been directed from above.
"Whether they've planned it that way or not, there is a kind of brilliance [in that resistance of central control]" suggested David Intrator, a marketing consultant who has dropped in a few times on the Wall Street occupation and appears in Mr. Sauvage's video.
A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Intrator was stuck by the disconnect between what he observed in person during his visits to Zuccotti Park and the way the occupation was being represented by some media outlets.
"Whenever I came back to the office, I'd look on the Internet, see how it was being covered, and even though I was seeing increasingly more grown-ups, more 'non-hippie types,' the mainstream media kept on showing only images of quote-unquote 'dirty young kids' – the kind of brands they wanted to promote." So he put on a suit, made up a sign that read "Harvard men for economic justice," – the Ivy League school is his alma mater – and gave a series of interviews to intrigued reporters.
"Things have brands whether they declare a brand or not," he continued. "The question is: How much do you want to control that, and who is going to control that? Now, if you allow Fox News to control that, you might have a problem. If you allow all the talent in your movement to contribute to that, you might have a tremendous success."
(Could corporate brands themselves learn from this? Might it mean unleashing their employees to speak more freely?)
"If someone had come to me two months ago and asked, 'What shall we do [to brand]these guys?' I would have said the classical things: 'You have to have a narrow message, repeat that and only repeat that, again and again.' These are the classical ways that brands communicate. They haven't done that and yet they've succeeded," he notes.
"If this continues to be successful, that might be the news here."
And the movement is big enough for all. While Mr. Sauvage's video didn't make it to the official website of Occupy Wall Street, it will soon see a wider audience beyond YouTube. The crowd-sourced fundraising site Loudsauce raised about $6,000 for a media buy, which means the ad will begin airing on U.S. cable channels in the next few days.
And Occupy is now lodged snugly in popular culture. This week, a prominent member of the American Dialect Society noted that "occupy" is now the leading contender for the organization's Word of the Year, running ahead of "winning" and "downgrade."