The North Face apologizes for hacking Wikipedia

In recent years, many in the industry have talked about the importance of brands being open and transparent, with authenticity and trust widely accepted as essential best practices of modern marketing. Apparently The North Face wasn’t paying attention.

Working with Leo Burnett Tailor Made, the Brazilian marketing team for the famous outdoor outfitter decided to effectively hack Wikipedia, sneaking North Face product into adventure destination images on the site. The goal was to to get The North Face photos to the top of Google searches. They claim the idea worked, but the ensuing fallout might have tarnished its carefully cultivated brand image in the short-term.

The North Face and Leo Burnett felt good enough about the idea to produce a case video for the campaign (see it below, published by The Drum) and share their accomplishment with AdAge in a story published Tuesday. “Our mission is to expand our frontiers so that our consumers can overcome their limits,” North Face Brazil’s CEO, Fabricio Luzzi, said in a statement. “With the ‘Top of Images’ project, we achieved our positioning and placed our products in a fully contextualized manner as items that go hand-in-hand with these destinations.”

At a time when there is so much concern about online misinformation and the erosion of trust, here was a brand boasting about tricking the system and somehow associating the trickery with a larger brand mission.

Upon finding out, Wikipedia editors pulled down the photos. On Wednesday the Wikimedia Foundation published a strongly worded rebuke: “[W]hat they did was akin to defacing public property, which is a surprising direction from The North Face,” it reads.

“When The North Face exploits the trust you have in Wikipedia to sell you more clothes, you should be angry. Adding content that is solely for commercial promotion goes directly against the policies, purpose and mission of Wikipedia to provide neutral, fact-based knowledge to the world.”

By Wednesday night, The Forth Face had moved from boasting to apologizing, posting the following tweet in a reply to a Wikipedia threat. “We believe deeply in @Wikipedia’s mission and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles. Effective immediately, we have ended the campaign and moving forward, we’ll commit to ensuring that our teams and vendors are better trained on the site policies.”

David Brown