What Corporate America must learn from #OccupyWallStreet to succeed in 2012

Over the last several months we have witnessed the rise of the #OccupyWallStreet movement, both across America and around the world, and witnessed its tour of a familiar news cycle. At first, it was dismissed out of hand as a collection of rabble-rousers with no clear or unified intent. It was then re-characterized as a fringe movement with radical demands. It soon became a popular movement, spreading to what is now over a thousand cities in eighty-seven countries around the world. As a consequence, the movement developed sufficient social resonance, on the web and across social media channels, to warrant the attention of traditional news outlets. What is still lacking from this coverage, however, is an accurate articulation of the line in the sand that the #OccupyWallStreet movement represents.

Customer and citizen activism, epitomized in the #OccupyWallStreet movement, is tangible evidence of several transformative forces gaining momentum at home and abroad. They all turn on the ability of social media to give regular people a voice, and to scale their message through what is now a wide selection of channels, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube, and beyond.

On the political side, this newfound capacity to drive historic change is clearly evident in the Arab Spring Revolutions which have swept through Tunisia,EgyptLibya, and continue to threaten the traditional power structure inSyria. On the commercial front, we have seen an increasing level of comfort and sophistication in the use of social media by consumers. Whether its the harvesting of palm oil by Nestle,  the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, thecancellation of debit card fees by Bank of America, the nationwide Bank Transfer Movement (in which 700,000 customers transferred their savings to Credit Unions to the tune of $4.6 billion), or the customer push-back against Netfix regarding Quikster which resulted in a 30% drop in their stock price, customers are increasingly demanding greater social responsibility from brands. On the positive side, smart marketers have embraced the opportunity to collaborate with their customers, as evidenced by the Pepsi Refresh ProjectP&G’s Pamper’s/UNICEF collaboration, and the recent strategicpartnership between Pizza Hut and Zynga to support the World Food Program. What each of these examples demonstrates is the rising impact of social media and citizen activism within the private sector. And this is only the beginning.

Wall Street and brands of all sizes will soon be forced to reconcile themselves to an obvious but consequential fact– their greatest assets are not their tall office buildings, their long-standing reputations, or their most recent quarterly profits, but rather their customers. And those customers have changed. Armed with tools that allow them to connect and amplify their message, tomorrow’s customers will celebrate and admonish brands through their purchasing power. If a company is acting in a transparent and socially responsible manner, consumers will actively celebrate its products and services using the multiple tools and channels now available to them. In the same way, those brands that act purely out of self-interest, or disingenuously, or choose to dismiss outright the concerns of their customer community, will invite the ire of millions of connected and media-savvy customers.

It is no accident that we are now seeing the smartest brands market themselves on the basis of the values they share with their customer communities. This is why we see the Pepsi Refresh Project, Starbucks Shared PlanetWal Mart Sustainability IndexPatagonia Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Procter and Gamble’s Click For Water blogovation campaign, and so on. These multinational companies are still beholden to their shareholders and rightly focused on the bottom lines, but they are working towards social change not just because it’s well intended but because it’s well received, allowing them to be effective architects of community.

At the same time, consumers are being armed with tools that better equip them to expose brands not acting in accordance with their stated values. For example, mobile applications such as GoodGuide allow shoppers to get a social benefit rating of a given product using a barcode scanner in their smartphone. Online platforms like Brand Karma combine consumer feedback and research to create a new index of the most socially responsible brands, so that customers can make an informed decision as to which brands they want to support through what they buy. So at the same time we see mainstream adoption of social media, and at the same time we see an increasing assumption of responsibility by customers for the change they want to see in the world, consumers are being handed easy-to-use and sophisticated tools that hold brands accountable for their corporate behavior.

This rise of social technology, and the demand it drives for more human interaction between brands and their customers, can no more be turned back than we can turn back social media, the digital revolution, or the internet itself. What’s more, the desire for such engagement is being driven by the peristant economic downturn that is forcing citizens to demand greater social responsibility from brands. It is being driven by real unemployment of 16%, by1 in 7 Americans relying of Food Stamps, and by 1 in 6 U.S. citizens now living below the government set poverty line. So while the Occupy Wall Street movement boasts a dizzying array of grievances, it is united by a singular cry for a more sustainable practice of capitalism and more equal distribution of wealth.

It is no accident that leading brands are already getting out in front of these changes. They include Coca Cola, Pepsi, Unilever, General Motors, Proctor and Gamble, Starbucks, Patagonia and Nike. These companies have already re-framed their thinking from being the celebrity of their customer communities to being the chief celebrant of their customers. They are already re-framing leadership, employee engagement and organizational structures around their new role as community architects. They are already putting their shoulders behind the core values that their brands stand for so that their services and products can be meaningful to the lives of their online communities.

The creative destruction that social media is currently unleashing will change more than technology or the leader board of the Fortune 100. It is driving a qualitative shift in the nature of relationships between brands and their customers. It is demanding greater transparency, authenticity, and accountability from brands which has enormous and difficult implications at every level of business practices. But it also represents an unprecedented opportunity for those brands that rise to the challenge of being responsible corporate citizens within a mutually-dependant global community. The question remains: which brands will commit to creating a private sector pillar of social change, and which will become casualties of their own outdated thinking?

This post originally appeared in Forbes.com. If you’re interested in building your brand and business using social media in 2012, join us at We First Social Branding seminar, where world class experts will you through the stages required to create an actionable Social Branding Blueprint, specific to your business, based on the best practices, case studies and bottom lines benefits of the world’s smartest marketers. What’s more you’ll get an extra ticket to invite your favorite non-profit so you’ll be making a contribution just by attending. Places are very limited so register now.