The Occupy Movement's Branding Problem

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As the name for a protest, the word "Occupy" works okay when you put it in front of "Wall Street," but as it becomes a worldwide political movement, it's pretty iffy. Try out: "Occupy Poland." Or "Occupy Palestine." What about "Occupy Bagdhad"? Protest organizers are ambivalent about the usefulness of Occupy as an umbrella label — they would prefer people focus on the issues they are protesting, of course — but "Occupy protesters" has become the shorthand description to describe people who are claiming allegiance with the cause. To borrow a term from the corporate world, it's become their brand, and it's not great. If you agree that Occupy is the Tea Party's the left-wing equivalent, imagine being asked to "Vote the Occupy Ticket."

"The brand 'occupy' isn't great in the long-term," said Jayson Harsin, an associate professor of global communications at the American University in Paris, told The Atlantic Wire. "Cold War, Nazi Germany, Israel-Palestine--[it] can evoke images of ruthless invaders."  

"The problem is not only of brand, but also of institutions. Our system is very closed to outside players, especially those not backed by business," said Eleanora Pasotti, author of Political Branding in Cities who has extensively studied protest movements around the world. "The choice of 'Occupy' really undermines the possibility that it might become institutionalized, because the word really makes one think of extremism."

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Occupy protesters have not been big on the kind of top-down planning that those who usually think about branding, so it wasn't a surprise when a few organizers we spoke to brushed off the topic. "I don't think your question is very interesting," said Yvonne Yen Liu, an organizer with the Occupy Oakland protests. We mentioned the association with occupations in Iraq and elsewhere, and she wouldn't have it: "The point of Occupy is not the word Occupy, but the two that follow it: Wall Street." In New York, the sentiment is similar. "Occupy Wall Street is not a brand," organizer Alexa D. O'Brien wrote in an email. "Operation Enduring Freedom is."

But in a consensus driven decision-making process, words can be scrutinized. In Boston, for instance, the United American Indians of New England endorsed the Occupy Boston protest, but with some reservations, said organizer Keith Rosenthal. "In their letter of endorsement, they do indeed point out the problems of the term, 'Occupy,' which has historically been connected with the theft of Native American lands," he said. "I don't think anyone is particularly wed to the phrase, 'Occupy.'"

Shady commercial ventures and verbiage aside, another expert we spoke to insisted that the broader definition of branding, Occupy needs to bring all kinds of people to the protests, to the movement, to rally behind an idea if they have any hope of affecting change in the political system. Not there aren't plenty of silly names in American political history. The Whigs were the original patriots, the revolutionaries that shook the shackles of British oppression in the name of social justice over three hundred years ago. The name is short of wiggamore, a Scottish term for cattle driver and a working class movement in the 15th century (and not the white powdery mops that British judges wear on their heads). The Know Nothing movement came along in the 1840s, named to suggest its semi-secret nature. Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party in 1912 got hung with the Bull Moose moniker after their standard-bearer deemed himself "as strong as a bull moose" after he was denied the Republican nomination. More recently, the name of the political movement that emphasized traditional American patriotism got colorful again with the Tea Party. But even they had a shaky branding start when, their symbolic use of tea bags got them labeled "Teabaggers." As soon as they figured out what that was slang for, the movement quickly embraced Tea Party and started considering the former name a slur.

As silly as thinking about names can be, Pasotti argues this stuff matters. "The movement will only be successful in persuading and mobilizing as long as viewers and participants see it as a space for 'common folk,'" she says. "They need to maintain distance from extremism especially in our political environment. You want outsiders to empathize with participants. That's the main mechanism of solidarity."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.