The North Face Apologizes (Weakly) for Wikipedia Fiasco

Thom Weidlich 06.06.19


Outdoor-clothing maker The North Face found itself scurrying last week to apologize for a marketing campaign that went woefully wrong. The story shows how attempts at cutting-edge marketing can become crises. Oh, and the company’s response was far from adequate.

One excuse The North Face might have invoked (though wisely didn’t) was that the scheme apparently originated far from its Alameda, California‎, headquarters.

Its Brazil office reportedly worked with ad agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made to come up with the brilliant idea of going to the Wikipedia pages of global destinations (the Storr in Scotland, Guarita State Park in Brazil) and replacing the photos with ones that featured North Face-branded products. One goal was to lift those photos in Google results.

They completely, absolutely, egregiously violated just about every principle you can think about with respect to trying to maintain consumer trust.

— University of Pennsylvania marketing professor Americus Reed

To make things worse, the creators then starred in a video boasting about the campaign. Ad Age broke the story. After the trade magazine contacted the company, The North Face issued a statement via Twitter apologizing for, and announcing the end of, the effort. “Moving forward, we’ll commit to ensuring that our teams and vendors are better trained on the [Wikipedia] site policies,” it wrote.

Not everyone was impressed. “Even following the company’s retraction and apology, the glittering underhandedness of the campaign will inspire marketing scum for generations,” Jennings Brown wrote on Gizmodo.

The Wikimedia Foundation, which owns the Wikipedia domain name, put out a scathing statement (“Let’s Talk About North Face Defacing Wikipedia”). The nonprofit was especially miffed because the company’s Brazil operation said it worked with Wikipedia on the project.

‘Falsely Claims’

“Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation did not collaborate on this stunt, as The North Face falsely claims,” the Wikimedia Foundation wrote.

The New York Times quoted University of Pennsylvania marketing professor Americus Reed about the company: “They completely, absolutely, egregiously violated just about every principle you can think about with respect to trying to maintain consumer trust.”

Leo Burnett also was forced to chime in. The marketing biggie insisted it didn’t know Wikipedia’s rules (you could call it the dumb-adman defense).

“We’re always looking for creative ways to meet consumers where they are,” Leo Burnett said of the scheme. “We’ve since learned that this effort worked counter to Wikipedia’s community guidelines.”

Really the situation requires more response from The North Face. The company didn’t even put its tweet on its own Twitter feed — it chirped its apology in response to the statement from the Wikimedia Foundation. Not good.

Photo Credit: CL-Medien/Shutterstock

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