Occupy Wall Street’s Influence on Corporate Purpose

A decade ago, I was settling into a new job in a new city supporting our agency clients from our New York office. The city had just marked the 10-year anniversary of September 11, while a week later – a few blocks away from the new memorial – a group assembled in a small plaza, Zuccotti Park, unknown to most New Yorkers.

Over the coming weeks, more protesters crowded in along with union representatives, media, celebrities, politicians and curious observers like me. The acceptance of a wide range of activists and causes meant that Occupy Wall Street became the symbol of a grassroots movement to challenge the status quo. And that symbol inspired a number of “Occupy” encampments in cities around the world – along with a new generation of activists in the years that followed.

Businesses were largely silent on the Occupy movement – understandable, given the existential questioning of capitalism, reputational vulnerabilities and the lack of a clear call-to-action for companies. But much like its legacy on politics and culture, the movement contributed to a shift in how companies and brands addressed calls for societal change.

Here are four ways Occupy Wall Street changed how businesses have responded to that call over the last decade:

  • Articulation of a company’s purpose – The Occupy movement unfolded in the same year Michael Porter and Mark Kramer published their HBR article, “Creating Shared Value,” which argued that businesses could maintain a competitive advantage by addressing societal issues. The concept eventually found footing in the board room. Companies have largely embraced their responsibility to a broader range of stakeholders instead of shareholders alone, which is evident in Business Roundtable’s Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation. Incidentally, Wall Street (and notably BlackRock’s Larry Fink) accelerated the business imperative by linking investor risk and financial return with environmental, social and governance factors (ESG). Today, companies can no longer only play defense – they must be able to articulate what they stand for to an expansive range of stakeholders: investors, consumers, customers, employees and communities.
  • Increased accountability – The Occupy movement criticized government bailouts and demanded accountability. Over the last 10 years, corporations and entire industries have had to justify – and minimize – the “costs” of doing business in social, environmental and economic terms. The shift to ESG is increasing transparency around these costs. While there has been a proliferation of reporting standards, there is a move towards consolidation, such as the Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics championed by the Big Four accounting firms. Companies should be prepared to align their reporting and communications with these new guidelines, and also anticipate SEC regulations in climate disclosures.
  • Recognition of inequality – “We are the 99%.” That slogan became the siren call for many who saw disproportionate economic inequalities in society. Many would argue that for most of the last decade, business as a whole largely ignored the issue. But there are signs of recent progress – including minimum wage increases to frontline employees who came to be “essential workers” amid the pandemic. And conversations around equity have expanded to include gender, race and climate. As companies have made bold commitments over the last year in these areas, many of these organizations must now accelerate work and progress to make up for lost time and bridge significant gaps.
  • Standing up and speaking out – Retrospectives of Occupy Wall Street have credited the movement with renewing the take-to-the-streets style of activism. Over the last decade, companies have warmed to taking positions on social issues outside their core business. Indeed, many now are expected to comment on the issues driving cultural shifts, politics and grassroots activism while dodging targeted campaigns against them – including some from their own employees. Marketers have learned from woke-washing accusations that advertising alone isn’t the solution. Companies that engage in causes should be mindful that activists will demand action, not just words. Corporate foundations need to challenge their assumptions about which emerging organizations are a good “fit” for partnerships. Brands also need to evaluate where they have the credibility to weigh in and if such advocacy requires longer-term commitments.

Ten years ago, after tolerating a few months of protesting from Lower Manhattan, the city cleared the encampment. And Occupy Wall Street largely faded into the background.

Will the history books credit the movement with changing the status quo? Perhaps it’s too soon to tell. But reflecting on where corporate purpose was 10 years ago, it’s possible Occupy Wall Street was the catalyst for a decade of progress that will only accelerate in the years to come.

If your brand needs help navigating ESG issues and opportunities, contact our team of experts to discuss how we can help.

As a senior member of the Ketchum Purpose team, Jonathan leads client programs in corporate social responsibility, sustainability and employee engagement. For more than a decade he has counseled companies in areas of corporate communications, reputation management, thought leadership and marketplace communications (including B2B and B2C).