The North Face is apologizing for a campaign, called ‘Top of Images’ project, in which the company’s Brazilian division manipulated North Face’s search engine optimization (SEO) rankings on Google via a Wikipedia hack that went unnoticed until reported by Ad Age.
As part of the campaign, VF Corporation-owned The North Face used photos of travelers clad in North Face to update the Wikipedia pages of famous global destinations such as Peru’s Huayna Picchu, Scotland’s Cuillin and Brazil’s Guarita State Park. The stunt catapulted the images that North Face planted to the top of Google Image search results for those locations.
“Our mission is to expand our frontiers so that our consumers can overcome their limits. 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,” said Fabricio Luzzi, CEO of The North Face Brazil in a statement.
The head of the agency that devised the campaign boasted in a video that North Face “did what no one has done before … we switched the Wikipedia photos for ours” and “[paid] absolutely nothing just by collaborating with Wikipedia.”
After Wikipedia editors noticed the hack, the organization and angry users were quick to rebuke North Face on Twitter, as Wikipedia tweeted:
“When companies like The North Face take advantage of the trust you have in Wikipedia just to sell you clothes, you should be angry. Their actions have gone directly against the spirit, purpose, and policies of Wikipedia to provide neutral, fact-based knowledge to the world.”
North Face then pulled the campaign and apologized for “engaging in activity inconsistent with Wikipedia’s principles.” The North Face Wikipedia page has since been updated to reflect a section titled, “Conflict-of-interest edition of Wikipedia # The North Face,” explaining the scheming campaign and reactions to it.
The fact that The North Face was honest about the exploit shouldn’t equate to the kind of honesty and authenticity consumers are expecting more and more from brands.
In 2018, North Face pledged to embody a more female-inclusive marketing strategy, even doubling its investment in the design and manufacturing of its women’s apparel. The brand also expressed a commitment to authenticity and working with influencers who “genuinely love” the brand, according to Marketing Week.
In the interview, The North Face’s former vice president of marketing said, “More than ever, consumers see when you’re just trying to talk at them, so you have to continue to be as sincere as possible so that the dialogue is genuine, or you’re just not going to break through.”