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The Rebranding of Occupy Wall Street

Goodwill networking after Sandy changes public perception

A woman searches among donated clothing in Belle Harbor, Queens, after Hurricane Sandy left millions without power or water. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

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The loss of loved ones and property in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is an undeniable nightmare for countless people. But as seen in the political realm during the last three weeks, tragedy often creates paths for individuals and organizations to rise up and show character. With that in mind, has any brand had a better month than Occupy Wall Street—now also known as Occupy Sandy?

Talk to anyone who knows at least a little bit about how Occupy Wall Street has shifted its big-money-protest organization into a full-bore disaster relief system for Hurricane Sandy victims. Anecdotally, the brand transformation is there.

“There’s no question,” said Peter Madden, CEO of AgileCat, a public relations and branding firm in Philadelphia. “If you took their brand and rated it [on a 10-point scale], it’s gone from a two to a 10. It makes you reflect on the Occupy Wall Street movement, where there may have been a lot of [negative sentiment] around it. Like, ‘Why don’t these people just get a job? What are they doing? They are blocking the traffic.’ I think now people are doing a little bit of a rearview mirror and considering what the movement organizers have done with Sandy. People are now saying, ‘Geez, these are a lot of well-meaning people.’ Occupy is addressing the needs of the neediest. They've done an exemplary job of showing what their brand is about.”

Data Shows Improved ‘Occupy’ Brand

According to social data firm NetBase, Occupy mentions—whether for Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Sandy—on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have turned favorable. During the month before Hurricane Sandy, Occupy's sentiment analysis was 51 percent positive, 49 percent negative. Since the storm hit on Oct. 29, per NetBase, the social sentiment has gone to 68 percent positive, 32 percent negative.

Adweek spoke with Breanna Lembitz, who serves as the movement’s de facto CFO, about the metamorphosis of her organization’s brand, at least in the public view.

“It makes sense,” she said. “No one is going to disagree that Sandy is disempowering. But there is a huge swath of the population that will disagree with the idea that Wall Street is disempowering.”

But it’s not that Occupiers have changed course, Lembitz said. The movement's origins were entrenched in goodwill, and it will continue with that mindset whether the concerns are disaster or financial relief. This week, her org has gained considerable notice for its “Rolling Jubilee” plan to buy distressed debt on the cheap and then holistically relieve debtors.

Say what you will about Occupy—it seems to be building a ground game that's no longer constricted to hundreds of protest tents in Zuccotti Park.

While Lembitz’s focus right now is on Sandy, Lembitz said, "Occupy Wall Street was about empowering people against the oppression of Wall Street. This is about empowering people against the oppression of the storm. I see it as different aspects being applied to the same concept.”

Lembitz, 22, joined Occupy one week after its inception in September 2011, first serving on the organization’s medical team before joining the facilitation team and then the finance team. Indeed, her one-year journey in the organization in of itself flies in the face of popular depictions of Occupy, whose members have been criticized as lazy, freeloading idealists who are so disorganized that they can't figure out what they are protesting about. The goodwill accomplished by Occupy in the wake of Sandy practically takes the steam out of such perceptions.

Shifting Perception: 4,000 Volunteers & Millions In Relief

Its grassroots network has recruited more than 4,000 volunteers, establishing aid camps in Sandy-torn NYC neighborhoods like Red Hook, the Rockaways, Coney Island, Long Island, Astoria and the Lower East Side.

Occupy has collected $1 million worth of in-kind donations and established a $500,000 emergency fund. Lembitz said that her organization has been frugal, attempting to use all of the in-kind goods and services before using the relief cash. In fact, she said, Occupy has only dipped into $20,000 of the cash and will use the rest once the in-kind donations are either depleted or no longer what the cleanup-and-care situations call for.

“The emergency fund is for direct aid, food, warmth, transportation and short-term infrastructure that cannot be covered through in-kind donations,” she explained. “We put out calls for in-kind donations, first and foremost, because those things will help us long-term when the general public quits caring about the tragedy. And secondly, because having individuals come and bring an in-kind donation gets them involved with the process.”

Occupy has hacked an Amazon wedding registry, using it to post requests daily so donators can buy needed items and have them delivered directly to the movement’s Sandy relief camps.

“That’s been extremely successful,” Lembitz said. “It’s been one of our key sources of goods. It’s been getting exactly what we need to exactly where we need it. People feel much more comfortable spending 20 bucks on hand-warmers when they know they are going to people on the ground instead of spending 20 bucks on a fund where you are not sure how it’s going to be allocated.”

Later, she gave a lay of the land on Staten Island, 18 days after Sandy slammed the borough. “I am looking right now at a doghouse turned upside-down that's sitting on top of a fence. There is all kind of rumble and wreckage, still. For a lot of people, there’s still no power, no heat.”