Whether you look at Occupy Wall Street as a group of hippies with ridiculous demands or a group of courageous idealist looking to change the world for the better, it’s time to take notice of the effect this movement is having. When bank aligned politicians like Barack Obama and Ben Bernanke express, albeit awkwardly, empathy with the group, businesses can no longer ignore the movement.
The loose-knit group has yet to publish a list of companies it believes they should target. One member suggested targeting companies that outsource American jobs as noted in CNN’s “Exporting America” list. On the list are companies from all backgrounds, not just big banks. Notable members include MetLife Auto Insurance, Microsoft, Nabisco and Walgreens. Some suggest the focus can only be on government regulations to control these companies. Even as the group works to sort out exactly what it wants, businesses are beginning to respond to its presence.
Interestingly, the response from businesses looks like a pyramid, with a large number of small businesses on the bottom and a few middle-sized businesses above that. Missing, however, is the pointed tip of the pyramid, where the main targets of these protests have failed to respond at all. The biggest targets of the protests are keeping their cards close to their chests as they tighten security and ignore the mayhem surrounding them.
Small and Medium Business Response
The response from small and medium businesses is pragmatic, stemming from the impact the movement has on their sales. NPR’s Margot Adler interviewed several small businesses on the ground at Occupy Wall Street and found winners and losers from the additional foot traffic brought in by the protests. The food vendors in and around Zuccotti Park aren’t complaining although revenues are a bit down since the protesters aren’t buying. They get free lunch as part of the event. Coffee revenues however are up 10 to 15 per cent. A Dunkin doughnuts operator said business is up because of increased police presence.
Larger retailers like Sephora and Brooks Brothers are a little less happy. Although they wouldn’t comment publicly, workers expressed frustration over the barricades that make it harder for customers to make their way into the stores. Occupy Wall Street representatives go around to work with these businesses and address the problems the movement may cause for them. As a result, the strongest response from small and medium businesses has been a resounding shrug.
Even some companies that might expect rage from the group are chipping in without taking a stance on the movement itself. The McDonalds near Zuccotti Park is offering use of its restrooms and Wi-Fi free to protestors. UPS receives packages for them.
Businesses Responding with Cause Marketing
Some businesses see the movement as a marketing opportunity. Cause marketing is a feel-good enterprise that seems like a win-win for business and charities. In Seattle, small business, Big Mario’s has been handing out free pizza for a month. The Main Street Alliance, a small business support group, hails itself as part of the 99%, the movement’s expression of the disparity of power, where 1% of the population controls what happens to the remaining 99%.
Ben & Jerry’s posted its support of the movement online and then went down to serve ice cream to protesters. Even though Ben & Jerry’s is owned by corporate giant Unilever, the company has kept its small business atmosphere through an independent board of directors that does not answer to Unilever. A company representative wrote, “Unilever respects the unique social mission of Ben & Jerry’s and the independence of its board in speaking out on social issues.”
Corporate Giants Remain Silent
As the protests wear on, it is becoming increasingly difficult for corporate giants to keep their composure. In the beginning, many underestimated the leaderless movement as a flash in the pan. Now the group is flexing its muscles, with executives hiding from scrutiny.
Chief Executive for Goldman Sachs canceled a lecture at local liberal arts school, Barnard College. Many suggest the cancellation came from fears of protests. Officially, however, a Goldman representative said the cancellation was due to a scheduling conflict.
A Reuters report details the corporate response:
‘Witold Henisz, an associate professor of management at The Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania who has studied the public reaction to the financial crisis, said banks’ response to anti-Wall Street sentiment had been woefully inadequate so far.
“Leadership from the heads of some of these banks would be a powerful signal and it’s just not there,” said Henisz. “They’re putting it all in terms of, ‘You can’t tell me what to pay my workers, you can’t regulate me, that’s not the role of government, the role of government is to stay in the background.’ Well, where would they be without the bailouts?”‘
The corporate response has largely been internal, with heightened security. The Reuters report details the “heightened awareness” among corporations on and near Wall Street.
“The New York City Police Department has kept banks in the loop about protester activity by sending out email blasts to its Lower Manhattan Security Initiative and Midtown Manhattan Security Initiative, according to sources familiar with the matter. The emails tell landlords and occupants in those areas, including large banks like Goldman, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America Corp, where protesters are headed and whether there are any unusual risks.”
The lack of public response by these companies is likely to hurt them in the long run. To heighten security inwardly and ignore protests outwardly will be perceived as a yet another selfish act that further defines them as part of the 1% that does not stand with the 99%.