In a marketing campaign idea that even the least savvy internet user could have told you was a terrible idea, the North Face decided to announce publicly earlier this week how it gamed Google Search results to promote its products by uploading photos of them to high-traffic Wikipedia entries.
North Face even gloated about its success with a short, two-minute video detailing how shots of famous locales were swapped for similar-seeming photos featuring North Face product placement, inorganically juicing North Face visibility in Google results. The opening of the video showed a graphic of a Google Search bar filling up in real time with the words, “How can a brand be the first on google without paying anything for it?”
Now, the brand is apologizing for the move, and for having claimed it worked with Wikipedia-owner the Wikimedia Foundation. And, in an interview with The New York Times, North Face is also claiming that it was the cause of a lack of communication between the company and an independent distributor outside the US.
“We believe deeply in @Wikipedia’s mission and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles,” the company wrote on Twitter yesterday, in response to a post from the official Wikipedia account debunking the claim it had worked with North Face on the project. “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.”
The Wikimedia Foundation didn’t mince words in its own blog post. “We were disappointed to learn that The North Face, an outdoor recreation product company, and Leo Burnett Tailor Made, an ad agency retained by The North Face, unethically manipulated Wikipedia,” the organization wrote in a blog post published yesterday. “They have risked your trust in our mission for a short-lived marketing stunt.” The organization said it only became aware of the tactic once details of the ad campaign were divulged in an Ad Age report on Tuesday.
“We achieved our positioning and placed our products in a fully contextualized manner.”
According to The New York Times, North Face has numerous independent distributors that handle marketing and sales of its products in various territories around the globe. One such distributor, located in Brazil and carrying the exclusive rights to market and sell North Face products in the region, contracted an ad firm called Leo Burnett Tailor Made, a division of the larger ad firm Leo Burnnett. So it was Leo Burnett Tailor Made that decided to game Wikipedia, and it was the Brazil distributor — not anyone from North Face proper — that ultimately approved the campaign, the company claims.
In a statement to Ad Age, North Face Brazil CEO Fabricio Luzzi defended the tactic, apparently appealing to the “any press is good press” philosophy. “Our mission is to expand our frontiers so that our consumers can overcome their limits,” he said. “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.”
It would appear North Face corporate disagrees.