When you first start planning a big trip, step one will likely happen at the Google search bar. Step two might be clicking onto the images of your target destination. The North Face, in a campaign with agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made, took advantage of this consumer behavior to keep its name top of mind with travelers considering an adventure sports excursion.
The brand and agency took pictures of athletes wearing the brand while trekking to famous locations around the world, including Brazil’s Guarita State Park and Farol do Mampimptuba, Cuillin in Scotland and Peru’s Huayna Picchu. They then updated the Wikipedia images in the articles for those locations so that now, the brand would appear in the top of Google image search results when consumers researched any of those locations—all done for a budget of zero dollars.
“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," explained Fabricio Luzzi, CEO of The North Face Brazil in a statement.
According to the agency, the biggest obstacle of the campaign was updating the photos without attracting attention of Wikipedia moderators to sustain the brand’s presence for as long as possible, as site editors could change them at any time.
The "hack" worked, at least for a while, evident in a quick Google search of some of the places mentioned in the campaign's case study video.
Soon after The North Face campaign was featured on AdAge, Wikipedia’s volunteer editors were quick to remove The North Face’s photos, noting that the effort breached the site’s user terms for paid advocacy.
According to a representative from the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that operates Wikipedia, neither the Foundation nor Wikipedia collaborated with The North Face on the campaign. “Adding content that is solely intended to promote a company or its products goes against the spirit, purpose and policies of Wikipedia to provide neutral, fact-based knowledge to the world. It exploits a free public learning platform for corporate gain.”
The Wikipedia Foundation does not determine, write, edit or maintain the content on the site. Rather, that’s done by its volunteer editors around the world.
When its comes to altering Wikipedia pages, that can be treacherous territory for agencies and brands. Back in 2017, for example, Burger King was behind an award-winning stunt that hacked Google Home—and altered the brand’s Wikipedia page—in order to “extend” the life of its TV commercial.
Nine of Wikipedia’s volunteer editors then issued an open letter to Burger King demanding the brand apologize for the stunt because the campaign broke several of the site's rules when it comes to advertiser-related activity.
From Leo Burnett Tailor Made's original statement, it seems the agency was anticipating such a reaction to the North Face effort all along. In stunts like these, the ensuing controversy and attention around it can be part of the overall campaign goal and strategy.
After Ad Age reached out to The North Face, the brand said the campaign has been discontinued and issued an apology: "We believe deeply in Wikipedia’s mission and integrity–and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles. Effective immediately, we have ended the campaign and moving forward, we’ll strive to do better and commit to ensuring that our teams and vendors are better trained on Wikipedia’s site policies."
Following The North Face's apology, Leo Burnett Tailor Made issued its own statement: "Leo Burnett Tailor Made found a unique way to contribute photography of adventure destinations to their respective Wikipedia articles while achieving the goal of elevating those images in search rankings. We’re always looking for creative ways to meet consumers where they are. We’ve since learned that this effort worked counter to Wikipedia’s community guidelines. Understanding the issue, we ended the campaign. Our team has further accepted an invitation by Wikipedia to learn more about the platform and their work to share unbiased, fact-based knowledge. We look forward to working with Wikipedia to engage with them, and with respect to their network of volunteer editors, better in the future."
This story has been updated with comments from The North Face, Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia volunteer editors and Leo Burnett Tailor Made.