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North Face vs Wikipedia: Brands need great ideas. Greater Execution. Greatest Integrity

Ever since I read about the North Face incident last week, I have been trying to find time to write about this. It was one of the stupidest things to do for North Face and Leo Burnett (the creative agency). If I am to put it in one line to describe it, it would go as follows:

Brilliant Idea; poor execution; pathetic ethics.

For the uninitiated, North Face recently launched a campaign where it bragged about how they “collaborated” with Wikipedia to ensure all their branded images come at the top of images list on Google when searching for locations.

What they did was to hack into (or just log in) Wikipedia pages for tourist locations and replace the usual images with amazing images clicked by professionals with obvious product placements for their brand.

Since Google algorithm anyway shows up Wikipedia images at the top for every image search for any tourist location, North Face successfully sneaked into the top of every such search by piggy backing on Wikipedia.

How do we know this?

North Face, in its misplaced glee and aspirations, even made a video bragging about their “achievement”. (Check it out below). The video faced immediate backlash from people, with Wikipedia leading the charge like Jon Snow from the front.

North Face had to immediately issue an apology and also take it down. But thanks to the active netizens, the video is still available to remind us of the North Face folly and help us learn a few lessons as eager students, young and old.

Learning is a part of our daily lives

One of the purposes of my maintaining this blog is to keep jotting down the lessons learned from others and try to create frameworks and lists that aid others (and myself ). Here are a few things that came to my mind the moment I read the news on this and watched the video.

Good ideas aren’t hard to find

Companies put a lot of effort into building smart marketing teams. The creative agencies are paid a bomb to churn out great ideas to keep the conversation rolling. So, there is no dearth of creativity at any point in time as long as the money keeps flowing.

We need to gauge ideas very carefully, make those ideas undergo a lot of tests, obtain feedback from multiple vantage points. If there are any pain points seen, just move on to the next idea. Never get stuck on an idea which could harm the brand.

Due diligence is absolutely necessary

Brand managers must maintain a list of quality checks, or a hygiene factors checklist. Branding is not only about what you want to say, it is about what you want to say correctly, without stepping on toes, or breaking any principles, religious sentiments, political sentiments, etc.

North Face should have paid more attention to the Wikipedia rules, their code of conduct for contributions. I would say they should have known it.

And if they still went ahead despite knowing it, then I think the company really needs to rethink its position. They were being purely unethical here, which brings me to the next point.

Always be ethical in your dealings

A brand is like a leader to look up to. A brand is like a role model. People don’t need unethical role models. If brands stop being ethical, they stop gaining followers and in fact, start losing them. It is clearly seen here in the case of North Face.

The users of the brand Wikipedia (which probably outnumbers North Face users by a lot!!) already have a negative feeling towards North Face. So, its already goodbye future potential customers for the brand.

Humility is such a great quality

Can you believe the audacity of the brand to be bragging about the successful hacking at a low cost?

North Face probably would have been better off without making that pompous video about how smart they are and how bloody sneaky they are.

Check out the screenshots below to understand how they dug their own grave by mentioning those lines.

Trust is very hard to earn and easy to lose

See the last image above. It says, “Paying absolutely nothing, just by collaborating with Wikipedia.

This is a blatant lie on the part of North Face. The makers of this campaign from Leo Burnett probably were not paying much attention to the Aesop’s fables (if they were taught) story about the boy who cried “wolf”. Lying really doesn’t get your anywhere in the long run. You might have some short term wins, but in the long run, your credibility will suffer forever.

As a brand, we must maintain our credibility. Trust is very hard to earn, but too easy to lose. Don’t ever make that mistake as a caretaker of the brand.

Creative Agencies need to be given freedom for ideas. But lack of long term vision will bring the brand down

Well, this is the last lesson I would like to reiterate. We often find creative agencies revolting about stiffling their creativity with too many restrictions, too many rejections. Creative agencies accuse brand managers of lacking the vision, or creativity.

It might be true. But that’s not the brand manager’s job. The owners of the brand must ensure that the brand communication is aligned to its philosophy and positioning.

Creative agencies are wild. They come up with brilliant ideas. But it is not necessary that every time their ideas must be accepted. Often, the radical ideas might transgress some characteristics which the brand should not associate with. Creativity goes hand in hand with thinking outside the box and many a times borders on rebellion.

We should support these bright young creative minds with all the help and confidence. But as a brand, don’t ever forget who you are, what you stand for. That is the only way to survive successfully as a brand.

I always encourage discussion and debates. So, as usual, please feel free to send us your comments via the section below.

We also have started a dictionary section on this page to encourage eager young people to learn more about marketing terms and also make it easier to access knowledge. We are at a very nascent stage and will keep growing the section. Do stay tuned.

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