The North Face, beloved friend of the earth, political activist, and sometime outdoor clothing company, has jumped head-first into a quagmire.
As anyone who has ever used the internet will know, when searching for anything on Google, the first page, and usually the first image, is a Wikipedia stock photo. So The North Face went through and replaced Wikipedia pages' main photos with examples containing The North Face brand. Then, like a kid who knows the cheat codes, it bragged about paying nothing to appear first on Google.
Free marketing on a tight budget, perhaps. But a deeply cynical move nonetheless. Disingenuous, too. The brand claiming that it ‘collaborated with Wikipedia’ was immediately refuted by Wikimedia, the encyclopedia’s parent organisation.
Wikimedia lambasted the firm, spitting venom: ‘When The North Face exploits the trust you have in Wikipedia to sell you more clothes, you should be angry.’
And angry is what consumers are. ‘A short-lived publicity stunt that most certainly backfired,’ is just about the kindest comment. The worst is somewhat more profane.
The ensuing Twitterstorm was inevitable, obviously going to happen, and, it seems, totally intentional. The North Face’s agency partner, it transpires, quite literally planned this disaster.
By making something that so many people would publicly disdain — that would get the social media machine churning out vitriol and thought pieces like this one — the brand would be swimming in earned media. But the notion that all press is good press — that negative publicity generating reams of free media exposure is invariably positive — has been stretched to its finite limit.
Naturally, you can’t buy publicity like that. And that’s not to say that this sort of anti-advertising doesn’t have its place. Many a firm has successfully harnessed public division to boost its bottom line. Were you ‘Beach Body Ready?’ That now-infamous campaign from Protein World cost £250,000, yet generated orders of magnitude more in media exposure. The more buttons it pushed, the more people bought its product.
The North Face clearly expected people to be on its side. People edit Wikipedia pages for comedy all the time, after all. But if a brand is going to do something intentionally irksome, there’s a fine line to tread. When splitting public opinion, there needs to be two sides to the debate — those who approve and those who do not. Hate sells. But brands need to pick a side and hope one group hates it so much that the other loves it in retaliation.
In short, battles should be picked carefully. It’s a question of risk and reward. The risk here was tarnishing The North Face’s reputation. Which it has. The brand was duplicitous, using Wikipedia's openness against it, and directly contradicting Wikipedia’s rules against advertising, marketing, PR and self-promotion. The North Face defaced, and arguably stole from, a company that is loved and trusted by millions — hardly a good look for a firm that prides itself on purpose.
If looking absolutely ridiculous and untrustworthy was the risk, the reward was press coverage. But if all of it is bad, what was the point? Which dull-eyed strategist thought starting a fight with a free encyclopedia was a good idea? Patagonia’s? It’s like a jock picking on a well-liked nerd and expecting the class to cheer him on.
The brand has since backtracked and apologised profusely for its egregious miscalculation. But one can’t help but think they’ll need more than a windbreaker to weather this shit storm.
Ash Bendelow is the managing director of Brave.
The Drum has previously explored how the manipulation of Wikipedia factors into information warfare and propaganda efforts. Wikipedia is the fifth most visited site in the worth and boasts 48m articles and is available in 300 languages. There are under 1,200 admins protecting the integrity of its English-language pages. It is their job to ensure neutrality and accuracy on all pages.
John Lubbock, communications coordinator of the UK chapter of Wikimedia told The Drum that it is fairly difficult to manipulate the site for any lasting period of time.
He said: “There are eagle-eyed editors who are interested in pages about the human rights breaches of a dictatorships. It is reasonably hard to bias any page and any agency offering that service is running a scam. They can’t guarantee that they won’t get found out or have it changed back."