Andrea Fjeld
Andrea Fjeld
Associate Editor

Occupy Wall Street Does Have a Message: Telling the Protesters’ Story

Contributing authors: Charles Coxe, Chuck Wentzel, Karen Nagy, and Katie Edmondson

CNN business reporter Alison Kosik tweeted to the world on October 4: “Purpose in 140 words or less: bang on the bongos, smoke weed!” She later apologized and deleted the tweet, but to be fair, she was far from the only otherwise sensible journalist who curiously dismissed a massive grassroots uprising taking hold, for many of them, right outside their front door. (Erin Burnett said on air, “What are they protesting? No one seems to know.” Most Fox News anchors and reporters dismissed the protestors as hippies, druggies, and do-nothing college kids, while presidential candidate Herman Cain dusted off The Man’s Woodstock-era exhortation to “get a job.” Even NPR executive editor Dick Meyer explained away his organization’s lack of coverage by claiming the protests didn’t “involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective.”)

That lack of “an especially clear objective” is something that has flummoxed scores of journalists and commentators over the past weeks as they’ve tried to balance their job to report on a movement capturing the public consciousness with their reluctance to attach meaning to something that doesn’t automatically spit out easy sound bites. Why can’t the Occupy Wall Street protestors just tell us what they want? is the common refrain (conveniently ignoring the fact that the first Tea Party rallies called for everything from lower taxes to removing evolution from school curriculums to President Obama’s impeachment/birth certificate—or the fact that the original Tea Party in 1773 was more about maintaining colonial control of government officials and local tea smugglers getting undercut in price than it was about any unfair taxation.) Democracy is an inherently sloppy process, and the reality of any grassroots movement is that it takes time for consensus and its message to coalesce.

To be fair, the media isn’t to blame for misrepresenting these demonstrations as much as its 24/7 cycle, which practically requires that the latest, loudest voice gets the airtime. In the Quaker-style open democracy of the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly, the demands change as quickly as the voices do. What are they against? Banks? Capitalism? Greed? Unemployment? Poverty? Corruption? Politicians? All of the above, and then some. And what do they feel is the solution? No one seems to have an answer to that question yet, but that may be the best place to start.

Consumer brands often find themselves in a similar crisis of mixed messaging after years of marketing led by different internal and external agency voices. To help them find their core story, we help them conduct workshops that begin with pre-workshop consumer research and competitive analysis, then go through brand identity exercises that define the true personality of the brand to guide messaging for years to come—what’s called their Story Platform. The Occupy Wall Street protesters, much like these brands, have a wealth of voices and important messages, but lack that platform to tie it all together in a way that unites attention toward a common goal. Much like Occupy Wall Street, brands often have diverse messages, but it’s important to find a theme or central thought around which all communications can be built.

The Occupy Wall Street Workshop

As an exercise in dealing with our own frustration over hearing the same “What are their demands?” news reports ad infinitum (and to prove to ourselves that the protesters’ messaging wasn’t quite as scattershot as portrayed), we decided to take Occupy Wall Street through this discovery process ourselves to help it find its Story Platform, a brief encapsulation of the emotional heart of the movement, to give coherence to its messaging. The aim is not to bring ruthless uniformity to all communications—a single mantra to be repeated endlessly—but instead, to give consistency to all activity without stifling creativity. As protestor Shawn Redden told The New York Times this weekend, “We absolutely need demands—like Frederick Douglass said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand.’” And if they want to receive more focused mainstream media attention, Occupy Wall Street groups need to be more focused in their Story Platform.

As preliminary research, we drew on interviews with participants as well as published documents to compile a core list of demands stemming from their basic principle that our government has failed and our form of capitalism isn’t working. Motivated by a common idea of social justice (although defined in a myriad of ways), the list of demands includes:

  1. Restoration of a living wage
  2. Universal healthcare
  3. Guaranteed living wage income regardless of employment
  4. Free college education
  5. An end to the use of fossil fuels and a fast track to alternate energy
  6. More money spent on infrastructure
  7. More money spent on the environment
  8. A racial and gender equal rights amendment
  9. Open-borders migration
  10. Election reform with impartial observation
  11. Debt forgiveness for all
  12. An end to credit-reporting agencies
  13. No restrictions on unions
  14. No taxpayer-funded bank bailouts
  15. Regulate government lobbying


Exercise 1: Label the Target Audience

Before defining the core narrative through the Story Platform, we first had to inform it by performing various exercises. The first was to research and identify the target audience. Who are protesters targeting? Are they yelling at banks and corporations for irresponsible practices? Greedy politicians who would rather benefit from Wall Street than hold them accountable for the system’s flaws? Or is it their fellow Americans who currently accept the status quo? Since the ultimate goal is to bring about positive change, the primary audience of OWS is (through the megaphone of the news media) the broad general public—especially Millennials, who entered adulthood with promises of the American Dream that for all too many feel unfulfilled. Occupy Wall Street wants these people to band together to realize that their current misfortune is not their fault. The target of change is not Wall Street brokers, corporations and government leaders—these people will not likely be swayed by the opinions of a few radicals. Instead, they want to alter the entire nation’s viewpoint, because the more widespread the movement, the better chance the protesters have of actually enacting significant change.

Exercise 2: SWOT Analysis

Next, we typically conduct a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats), which takes a look at the external forces affecting the broad brand picture, as a way of better informing the platform. For Occupy Wall Street, this resulted in:

Strengths: numbers, press coverage, passion, longevity, celebrity endorsements, international support, interactivity, online presence, grassroots nature

Weaknesses: unfocused, no coherent platform, no leader, negative/confused public perception

Opportunities: gaining public support, increased media interest, wide reach, upcoming presidential elections, ongoing economic crisis

Threats: media losing interest, logistics, muddled message, public distrust and dislike, legal action, other grassroots political movements

Exercise 3: Explore Brand Metaphors

The third exercise uses the power of metaphors for exploring different aspects of a brand’s personality. Although it may seem off-topic, metaphors are colorful, high-impact shorthand that can convey how people feel about a brand more vividly than straightforward research. Metaphors also help us explain what feels right and wrong about a brand and its public perception. For Occupy Wall Street, this exercise identified the movement as being like…

An inventor, because it wants to turn big ideas into reality.
A nurse, because it’s trying to heal the country’s ills.
A self-help book, because it’s trying to help people solve their problems.
A helmet, because it’s trying to protect people.
A rolling snowball, because it’s gaining momentum.
Nelson Mandela, because it’s a tireless force for revolutionary change.

Exercise 4: Archetypes

We use archetypes as a vivid way of personifying and thereby instilling meaning into brands. There are 12 core archetypes that can represent and define a brand (developed by Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson in their book The Hero & The Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes), from the Innocent (wholesome, pure, forgiving, trusting, honest, happy optimistic, enjoys simple pleasures) to the Magician (shaman, healer, spiritual, holistic, intuitive, values magical moments and special rituals, catalyst for change, charismatic). Ultimately, each represent the various characteristics of how a brand should see itself.

Almost by definition, Occupy Wall Street does not yet have a solid vision of itself, but interviews show that many of the protesters think of themselves as “The Hero”: a warrior, competitive, aggressive, a winner, principled, an idealist, who challenges wrongs, improves the world, is proud, courageous, brave, and sacrifices himself for the greater good. Interestingly, most in the media seem to view the protesters more as “The Outlaw”: rebellious, shocking, outrageous, disruptive, feared, powerful, counter-cultural, revolutionary, and liberated. After analysis, it seems that both of these archetypes give only a small part of the picture, with too much room for erroneous interpretation. We’ve instead identified Occupy Wall Street, in its current state, as “The Explorer”: a searcher, seeker, adventurous, restless, who desires excitement, independent, self-directed, self-sufficient, and values freedom. In order for them to achieve their goal of being the Hero archetype, the movement would need to focus on turning its ideas into reality—by actually “improving the world” through “principled” and “idealistic” actions. For now, it’s still searching for the right answers.

Exercise 5: Story Circles

Normally, a brand would select a number of words it believes it embodies, and consumers would explain what that word means to them. In this case, we drew on words often repeated in various interviews with protesters as key over-arching terms. We (acting as the general public) then linked them to associated qualities.

“Justice” (fair, right, authentic, transparent, true, honorable)

“Principles” (faithful, ethical, upstanding, righteous, respectable, noble)

“Community” (together, society, culture, cooperation, collaboration, support)

“Relationships” (interaction, kinship, bonding, love, family, emotion, caring)

“Commitment” (steadfast, determination, passionate, dedication, perseverance)

“Awareness” (intelligent, motivated, involved, interested, illuminating)

Exercise 6: The IQ Test

Rather than “Intelligence Quotient,” this test outlines a brand’s powerful immediate Impact (the “I” in “IQ”) as well as the more measured Quality of engagement over time (the “Q”) that deepens a consumer’s relationship with a brand, through both rational and emotional messages. Most brands are naturally stronger in some quadrants than others; by identifying a brand’s weak and strong areas, the IQ Test can guide brand acquisition and retention strategies. For Occupy Wall Street, this is a reminder that to be successful in winning hearts and minds, they have to make sure to hit both emotional and rational notes, both at impact and over time.

Rational Impact: This is information that a creative execution must get across immediately.

  • Dedicated
  • Committed
  • Here to stay
  • Worthy cause
  • Justified


Emotional Impact: This is how an audience should feel immediately.

  • Makes me angry about the system
  • Makes me distrust Wall Street
  • Makes me question Washington
  • Makes me want to learn
  • Makes me want change


Rational Quality of Engagement: This is information the audience should learn over time.

  • Corporate greed is hurting American citizens
  • The government is not holding banks accountable
  • Our current economic direction is not sustainable
  • Social and economic justice has been neglected
  • It is possible to envision a better country


Emotional Quality of Engagement: This is how the audience should come to feel over time.

  • I am angry that these wrongs have never been addressed
  • I am confident that the mission is the right thing to do
  • I feel empowered to help the cause
  • I feel like I can actually change the system
  • We can create a better life for everyone


The Story Platform

Activists have come together in cities worldwide in increasing numbers to take a largely nonviolent stand against corporate greed, economic inequality, and a government influenced by corporate money and lobbyists. They see themselves as liberators, fighting for their future—for everyone’s future—and fighting to guarantee the next generation entering into the work force will not face an unjust, corrupt economy as they did. They are educating each other and the world about economic systems and the government’s role in manipulating them. They are taking the initiative to express the frustrations of the masses who have, knowingly or not, been cheated by the current system, begging those in power to do the right thing. If there’s a common theme to their complaints, it could be: Life isn’t fair, because corporations aren’t playing fair.

At Story Worldwide, we work with numerous brands to tell their stories across marketing channels by creating content guided by the creation of a Story Platform, an encapsulation of the emotional heart of a brand. As the name implies, it is an enduring idea that will serve as the consistent basis for the many stories that a successful brand must tell over time. It’s important to understand that a Story Platform isn’t a tagline or a descriptor; it’s not something that is meant to appear in a brand’s advertising or language a brand would use when communicating to its customers. Instead, as the emotional heart of a brand and its messaging, it is the single thought that should be apparent in everything a brand says, the core narrative that should be in every story that the brand, its audience and potential audience members, the media and the general public tell about the brand. For Occupy Wall Street, this platform, formed through detailed research and careful analysis and informed by the brand archetype, is the core theme of its message, the purpose or objective the media should find at the heart of everything the movement communicates.


Occupy Wall Street’s Story Platform:

Reform Capitalism, Rediscover Responsibility

Platform Pillars:

The following pillars further explain areas of concern for Occupy Wall Street that help support the foundation of the Story Platform while also providing avenues for the movement’s activities toward solutions.

1. Meaningful Government Oversight

The first and most fundamental belief is that government regulations must fairly regulate corporate behavior in favor of the greater good of society, without unfairly limiting the ability of corporations to make a reasonable profit against their investments. Corporate influence of government officials—from the local to national level—must be prohibited and closely monitored with substantial penalties for violations. Corporations that do not allow government oversight or do not abide by governmental regulations cannot expect the government to subsidize their continued existence through business-facilitating infrastructure, let alone underwrite their financial rescue in times of economic crisis.

2. Transparency/Accountability

Government agencies, Congress, corporations, financial institutions, and any other organizations that have the power to direct the course of society, must all perform their duties with transparency so that their actions may be reviewed and assessed by the public they serve. Each organization must be held accountable for the consequences of its actions in fair and meaningful ways—from voter referendums at the polls to prison sentences when appropriate and adjudicated by the legal system. This idea extends down to the personal level, where individuals must also learn to live their lives with equal accountability—contributing to society as a whole and living within their own means.

3. Fair Play/Opportunity

Access to opportunity should not be limited only to those who have already succeeded. Government oversight and transparency must work to create an environment where those with the passion and drive can find ways to access the tools and resources they need to create their own success. Limiting access for and creating unreasonable barriers against fledgling competitors can only be deemed as unfair business practices and must no longer be tolerated as acceptable ways of doing business.

4. Earned Rewards/American Dream

Members of our society have the right to expect that their pursuit of education and/or commitment to gaining expertise through work experience will result in employment that is compatible with their abilities, and that they will be compensated with a fair living wage. Corporations may not deny our country’s people the realization of the American Dream by outsourcing jobs to other countries while receiving subsidies or any other government aid. Companies must operate under a social justice responsibility to the greater good, reinvesting in the culture and economy that supplies their workers, their customers and their profits.

5. Sharing the Burden

The profits of success must be shared with the same generosity as is the burden of failure. Government oversight must strive to reduce the probability and impact of corporate and government failures, but must operate with the policy that individuals cannot not be expected to underwrite the cost of rescuing corporations that have not fairly and meaningfully reinvested into society. Furthermore, government regulations must prevent corporations from trying to recoup these loses through unfair business practices that shift the burden of repayment to those who were not responsible, allowing unethical and criminal behavior to go unpunished.

6. Building a Sustainable System

Society must refocus its efforts on building a system that is stable and sustainable, where success provides the opportunity for investing in activities that serve the greater good, and every reasonable effort has been made to mitigate the potential for and impact of failure. The current state of the economy must be cured, but the solution must be farsighted. Abusive government oversight that hampers the ability of corporations to prosper is not the solution, but neither is a system where corporations are empowered to recklessly seek profits at any cost to the economy, society or the environment. Rather, the goal is a balance that encourages free-market capitalism without neglecting the reality that no one becomes rich on his or her own. Society—through its educational systems, support services, health care, government agencies, among others—contributes to the success of every company and every individual. Those debts must willingly and fairly be repaid to society. It is the only hope for building a sustainable, shared success for this nation.

Moving Forward

About as close to a pure, open democracy as we’ve seen since ancient Athens, the Occupy Wall Street movement is finding serious difficulty reaching consensus on anything beyond the fact that everyone is angry and feels cheated by the system. As the days go by, segments of the group in New York and other locations are finding their voice, and realizing that using it to convey demands is a way to garner more media attention—but they’re also learning that in a group where everyone is a part of the voice, one dissenter has the power to object and have a demand removed. Hopefully the thinking outlined here, or an exercise like it, will help those involved come to an understanding about the solutions they want to see. Because regardless of your political beliefs, these protestors don’t appear to be going away anytime soon—and the sooner they can articulate that message (and yes, it will be easiest in a media-friendly sound bite)—the sooner everyone can roll up their sleeves and get to work breaking the path forward.

  • Steve S.

    I don’t know what they have to say,
    It makes no difference anyway,
    Whatever it is, I’m against it.
    No matter what it is or who commenced it,
    I’m against it.

    Your proposition may be good,
    But let’s have one thing understood,
    Whatever it is, I’m against it.
    And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it,
    I’m against it.

    I’m opposed to it,
    On general principle, I’m opposed to it.

    [chorus] He’s opposed to it.
    In fact, indeed, that he’s opposed to it!

    For months before my son was born,
    I used to yell from night to morn,
    Whatever it is, I’m against it.
    And I’ve kept yelling since I first commenced it,
    I’m against it!
    Music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, performed by Groucho Marx in Horsefeathers.

  • Stefano Boscutti

    Excellent analysis and insights. Speaking of media-friendly soundbites, may I suggest the all inclusive “No taxation without participation.”

    Or the slightly louder “NO TAXATION WITHOUT PARTICIPATION!”

    Feel free to pass it on.



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  • joe

    “not fairly and meaningfully”
    “fair and meaningful ways”

    stop saying meaningful. there are too many issues with it. work on using metaphors there’s more power in them.

  • Anonymous

    Humility and understatement also have great power. Punctuation, too.

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