Dreamforce Unfazed as Protests and Stunts Crash the Conference

Activists and competitors demonstrated at Salesforce's annual event

The Failsforce blimp floats by the Salesforce tower. Groundswell Group
Headshot of Ann-Marie Alcántara

Tech companies in San Francisco are no strangers to controversy, and Salesforce was met with two different ones at Dreamforce, the company’s annual conference.

On Sept. 25, the first day of the conference, attendees could look up to the sky and see a “#Failsforce” branded blimp floating above them. On the ground, a makeshift 14-foot tall detention center created by Fight for the Future, Mijente, and other groups greeted attendees at the entrance of the conference to protest Salesforce’s contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), announced earlier this year in March. The protesters want Salesforce “to stop providing an operational backbone for U.S. Border Patrol’s activities,” Fight for the Future stated in a press release.

Meanwhile, during Dreamforce’s opening keynote, Salesforce co-CEO and founder Marc Benioff spoke about the “fourth industrial revolution” and the importance of company values.

“Technology is not good or bad—it’s what you do with it that matters,” Benioff said. “We’re not perfect. We’re not always going to get it right.”

As he spoke, the #Failsforce blimp floated in the San Francisco sky. Created by Salesforce competitor Freshworks, creative agency Funworks and marketing agency GroundSwell Group, the blimp was intended to make a point that companies can use other customer relationship management solutions. The company floated the blimp over the conference for three days and included an on-the-ground activation offering attendees juice and smoothies, as well as free yoga, barre and fitness classes.

David Thompson, CMO of Freshworks, shared that the blimp is part of a larger marketing campaign called “Hit Refresh” rolled out online, on radio and across social platforms.

We had this objective to break through this message—the sorry state of SaaS,” Thompson said. “The guerrilla marketing tactic of going after Salesforce is a subtheme of this campaign.”

Thompson said the campaign idea started coming together last spring and came out of a study Freshworks did with Forrester, finding that 69 percent of small business owners are looking to replace their current customer relationship management (CRM) solution. However, Paul Charney, founder and CEO of Funworks, emphasized that the the blimp is less against Salesforce specifically and more to highlight the “overall frustration around CRM.”

Noel Wax, president and co-founder, Groundswell Group, and Charney said the initial reaction from attendees has been positive surprise. Someone has even created a Twitter account co-opting the personality of the blimp (Freshworks, Funworks and Groundswell have all denied any involvement in the account creation).

The blimp and a live band followed attendees as they made their way to “Dreamfest,” a concert for Dreamforce participants. People walking towards the concert also passed by more protests from Fight for the Future and other groups. This time, the protests from the groups included a projection on the side of a building close to the concert with the hashtag #CancelTheContract—in reference to Salesforce’s contract with U.S. CBP—and a number to text if they wanted more information about the protest. In a tweet in July, Benioff wrote that Salesforce does not work with ICE and that the U.S. CBP “follows our TOS [terms of service].”

After an alleged agreement between the protesters and Salesforce, where company executives said they’d meet with the protesters, the group stopped projecting #CancelTheContract. 

Adweek has reached out to both Salesforce and Fight for the Future and will update with any responses.

“Marc Benioff and other Salesforce execs can pretend to model a socially conscious tech company all they want,” said Jelani Drew, campaigner with Fight for the Future, in a press release. “But until Salesforce drops their contract with Border Patrol, they actively providing a tech foundation to enable human rights violations.”

@itstheannmarie annmarie.alcantara@adweek.com Ann-Marie Alcántara is a tech reporter for Adweek, focusing on direct-to-consumer brands and ecommerce.