An Open Letter to Occupy

An Open Letter to Occupy

The Occupy movement is a simmering stew. The kitchen is pleasantly full of chefs adding their own ingredients to the pot…ideas, goals, processes, and local community seasoning. Yet, as guests swing by the kitchen for a whiff of what's cooking, many are asking some reasonable and important questions about this stew: What's the recipe? Are you guys good cooks? Where's the beef?

I don't know the recipe. But there's one thing about this stew that I do know. I've spent the last 8 years thinking hard about one particular ingredient which needs to be part of it: Carrots.

I'm the founder of Carrotmob. A Carrotmob campaign is a new way to influence businesses. We invite businesses to take whatever socially-beneficial actions we want. If they agree to do what we want, we reward them by spending money at their business. It's the opposite of a boycott. Now, let me explain why this matters to Occupy.

The Occupy movement has raised many different grievances, such as unfair financial policies, extreme income inequality, a lack of jobs, and so on. Problems like this exist because public policy is influenced more by corporate interests than human interests. Corporations are just legal structures, yet somehow, even though there are seven billion of us humans, we currently have no effective counterbalance to the financial power of corporations. This must change.

Let's be clear on the cause of these problems. It's not really about wealthy people or executives. Our problems are not caused by evil masterminds who want to hurt us. Big companies are full of good people. People like us. Businesspeople just work hard to achieve whatever goals are defined by the system. CEOs may want to do good, but they can only do what the system allows.

Don't blame people. It's a distraction. Focus on the system. I believe our economic system is afflicted by a design flaw, and I believe we can fix it. So, even as many are asking Occupy to zoom in on more specific demands, I'm asking you to zoom out further and ponder this critical, overarching problem:

People should have more power than businesses, but they don't.

How do we solve that? Well, throughout history, people have tried to gain the upper hand over businesses by trying all sorts of things: The Boston Tea Party. The Labor Movement. Socialism. Boycotts. Protests. Petitions. Lawsuits. Marches. You name it, someone has tried it. Some of these ideas work well, others not as well. Nothing has worked well enough to save us from our current reality: Businesses have more power than ever before, and people have never felt so powerless. So what should we do next?

We should stop approaching businesses like they are piñatas, and start approaching them like they are donkeys.

Activists think of businesses as piñatas. They are above us, just out of reach, and we vent our anger by hitting them with a stick. Blinded, and dizzy with rage over the latest injustice, we take shots, hoping we'll knock off a leg or head, and if we're really lucky some candy will fall out to be gobbled by the masses below.

Maybe that was effective when piñatas were small and made of papier mâché, but these days the piñatas are huge, candy-filled Death Stars, made of reinforced quadanium steel. A million people swinging our little sticks might break through every once in a while, but honestly, it's time to consider a supplementary tactic.

Let's think of businesses as if they were donkeys. Donkeys are stronger than people. When they're nobly pulling weight for people they can help us achieve more than we ever could without them. But once in a while a donkey wanders into our garden, eats all our flowers, and then blames it on the sheep. And boy, are they stubborn.

What's the trick to dealing with donkeys? Well, the old saying goes that there are two ways to make a donkey walk forward. Either you hit its behind with a stick, or you dangle a delicious carrot out in front of it. Donkeys are simple creatures who respond to incentives.

Businesses are just as simple. There may be brilliant and complex people leading businesses, but once a business gets big enough, decision-making generally gets quite simple: Businesses will do whatever makes them the most money. This is the problem. It is also the solution.

Collectively, we have a ridiculously large amount of money. If we organize our spending as a group, then our money becomes the biggest and most powerful carrot you could ever imagine, big enough to move even the most stubborn donkey. Here are some examples of what we could do:

  • Our mob has $10 million to spend on bath soap. Dove, Dial, Ivory: whichever one of you agrees to power your factories with new job-creating wind turbines gets our $10 million.
  • Our mob has $25 million to spend on Halloween candy for trick-or-treaters. Nestle, Mars, Hershey: whichever one of you fights poverty by using more fair trade cocoa gets $25 million.
  • Our mob has $50 million to spend on dinner. Applebees, TGI Fridays, Red Lobster: whichever one of you agrees to stop serving an endangered species of fish gets $50 million.

We'll start with the things we buy every day, like soap, candy, and dinner. But when enough people have joined our mob, we'll be able to change all sorts of industries.

Banks? Oil companies? Phone companies? Use your imagination. What issues do you care about? Care to rewrite some corporate policies? Open or close a few factories? How much money do you think we can spend together? Could we move a billion dollars? If so, what could we get in return?

We already have the financial power to make it happen, but in order to use that power effectively we need to get organized. Carrotmob organizers around the world have already created 175 successful campaigns changing small community businesses. Soon we will attempt our first campaigns to reward larger businesses for doing good things. I'm inviting all of you to join the mob and help us build the organization we need in order to take our power to the next level.

There's one more thing worth discussing, since this is a letter to the Occupy movement. Occupy, you are angry. And for good reason. It takes a psychological shift to go from attacking businesses to rewarding them.

It took quite a few years for me to fully make that shift. I have marched. I have boycotted. I have spoken at rallies. I have signed petitions. I have been on the front lines, filming police as they pepper-sprayed my friends. In college I even organized a few dozen people to camp out in protest in the middle of campus. So I understand this stuff.

But after years of obsession with the Carrotmob idea, I know there's only one way we're going to make this work. Let me set your expectations:

Carrotmob will never attack or criticize any business, for any reason. We don't need to, because plenty of others already have that covered.

The strength of our model is that everybody wins. Any company can feel completely safe coming to talk to us. Having a conversation with Carrotmob must never be a risk for a business, only an opportunity. This is going to work because corporate marketing executives are going to enthusiastically take our phone calls.

This is capitalism. This is marketing. Customer acquisition. Cost per impression. Supply and demand. It has to be this way. Big businesses are not designed to respond to our moral arguments. They are designed to respond to money.

So we are giving them money. Even more money than they already have. And what are we getting in return? Power. The power that we've been losing for decades. As much as businesses enjoy having power, they will happily cede power and let us have things our way if it helps them get even more of our money.

So my question for Occupy is this: Would you rather punish businesses and get the same old results, or show love to businesses and gain unprecedented power and influence over how our economy works? Are you comfortable with this model?

Carrotmob as an organization must reject "the stick" completely. But on a personal note, I am not asking you to lay down your sticks altogether.

Fixing our societal problems will require protest. Peaceful protest illuminates the problems. Once everyone can see the problems, we will need solutions. What are the solutions? Changing government by voting is one solution. Changing businesses by voting with your money is another solution.

Your anger is a gift. Use it. But meanwhile, nurture whatever positivity you can find in the shadow of your rage. Let's grow a big carrot, add it to the stew, and see how it tastes.

Click here for more information about joining Carrotmob.

This post originally ran on Carrotmob.