How Businesses Can Keep Occupiers At Bay

Occupy Wall Street seems to have overlooked some prominent members of the so-called 1%.

[This article originally appeared in the November 28, 2011 edition of USA TODAY.]


Occupy Wall Street seems to have overlooked some prominent members of the so-called 1%.


In its crusade against corporate greed and wealth inequality, the Occupy movement has largely focused on big financial institutions and rich businesspeople.


People love to hate these companies and their moguls — for what’s perceived as their relentless pursuit of profit, their never-ending avarice, their disregard for the middle class and their extravagant lifestyles.


But when the protesters fanned out across Manhattan, why didn’t they also stop at NBA headquarters? It would have been convenient — the NBA’s offices are located right on Fifth Avenue, just steps away from Occupy’s chosen targets.


After all, the NBA has been embroiled in an ugly labor dispute between players and owners about how to distribute $4 billion in annual revenue. This past weekend, these millionaires and billionaires finally figured out how to divide their ridiculously huge pie — while middle-class parents struggle to make ends meet, let alone figure out how to pay for decent seats at an NBA game.


But let’s not stop at the NBA. Occupy reflects frustration with people and institutions who enjoy oversized paychecks for work that — compared with how most of us earn a daily wage — doesn’t seem to warrant it.


So why isn’t anyone occupying Hollywood, or Yankee Stadium, or Kim Kardashian’s house? Leading actors make tens of millions of dollars for a film shoot that can last less than a year. Top athletes pull down even more for paid endorsements and a playing season measured in months. And then, of course, there are reality show stars such as Kardashian, who reportedly earns $10,000 per sponsored Tweet, in addition to millions from endorsements, appearances and the occasional low-key televised wedding.


Where is the outrage toward these 1%-ers who sport hourly wages that can make some bank CEOs look like welfare cases?


On first blush, it seems as though there is a double standard at work here. In reality, there is just one standard — but it’s applied in a somewhat irrational way. Right or wrong, the value we assign to things is influenced as much by emotional considerations (how it makes us feel) as it is by rational ones (whether it’s a fair price).


Highly paid celebrities, sports figures and best-selling authors stir our emotions. They entertain us, inspire us, move us — so instead of focusing on how much money they earn, we look past that and instead just enjoy how they make us feel. Even Kardashian and her reality show ilk capitalize on this dynamic, instilling in their audience feelings of voyeurism and aspiration (or, in my case, fear for humanity).


Business leaders can learn something from these members of the 1% who manage to cultivate adoration instead of condemnation. People’s perception of the value you deliver, and their tolerance for the rewards you reap, is inevitably colored by how you make them feel. If consumers don’t understand your business and don’t see how it enriches their lives (are you listening, Wall Street?), they’ll be more inclined to scrutinize the profits and compensation you earn.


Businesses can be beloved, even when they generate huge profits and create great wealth for their executives. Just look at Apple, Google, Disney, or Johnson & Johnson. Nobody is occupying these companies’ headquarters, even though these firms make a lot of money.


What’s different about these companies is that they create value for consumers that resonates with both the head and the heart. They infuse their business with purpose and meaning that transcends profit. They focus on feelings, not just fees.


And while that might sound pithy and trite, it is a formula that has enabled prominent members of the 1% — and even some of the world’s most profitable companies — to avoid public wrath.