Reputation Risk or Ruin?
In case you missed it, The North Face and its agency Leo Burnett Taylor Made tried recently to scam Wikipedia to get its products to the top of Google search. In a violation of Wikipedia’s terms of service for paid advocacy, they swapped Wikipedia photos with North Face product placement shots. They then used a promotional video to brag about “paying absolutely nothing” for the resulting improved search results. (That’s a still from the video, above.)
I wasn’t sure that the ensuing brouhaha would have enough traction to even write about. Boy was I surprised!
I checked in on the Talkwalker dashboard and as it happens our search from last month for Samsung was there alongside The North Face. I was stunned to see that the North Face crisis actually got more coverage than Samsung’s, and its negatives lasted longer. (See our Reputation Killer? coverage of Samsung’s Fold fiasco here.)
Samsung pre-released its new Fold to key influencers, but the phone never found its way into the hands of consumers. So while the negative reviews got lots of attention, media focus went elsewhere after Samsung quickly announced that the phone was not going to be released for several more months. And while the influencers might have been inconvenienced, it’s not like they have a support group of millions defending them.
Lessons learned: Apologize quickly, acknowledge the problem, and don’t release the product until it’s fixed.
In contrast, The North Face and Leo Burnett hacked a community that is notorious for rigorously enforcing its rules and savaging any corporation that breaks them. There are nearly 130,000 editors and some 32 million registered users on Wikipedia. None of them were happy.
Additionally, there is some speculation that the stunt was designed to drive publicity, since the video that Leo Burnett produced is still available and they have no intention of taking it down. The North Face apologized and put an end to the campaign, but put all the blame squarely on its the agency (deflection seldom works.)
Net net, was this a Reputation Killer?”
Maybe. It probably pissed off some North Face fans who also believe in the mission of Wikipedia. It’s possible but not likely that they would switch to EMS or Eddie Bauer for future purchases.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that Leo Burnett’s reputation took a hit, even if it wasn’t terminal. I’m sure there are clients out there with questionable ethics that will watch the video and give them a call, admiring their underhanded creativity. But given the industry response, and the fact that most major brands don’t want their reputations tarnished by association, my guess is most of their clients will be paying much closer attention to Leo Burnett’s tactics. And likely rewriting their contracts to ensure they aren’t victims of a similar scandal.
Still, Leo Burnett Tailor Made is loving the attention. That attitude helped lengthen the already long tail of the controversy, since every marketer and her brother had a comment for AdAge, PRWeek, and every other marketing outlet.
Lesson learned: If controversy and publicity is what you want, attack the social media equivalent of a hornet’s nest. ∞