"How can a brand be the first on Google without paying anything for it?". Is a question The North Face asked at the start of video they released in April. They go on to claim they reached “the top of the world’s largest search engine, paying absolutely nothing”.

How did The North Face manage to 'hack' their way to the top of Google?

The North Face is an outdoor adventure company who want people to see their brand before going on holidays. How could they get their products in front of these travelers?

Wikipedia ranks in well in search engines for an encyclopedias worth of topics and the corresponding images within those articles rank highly in the image results.

Before going on holiday, most people will do some research on their chosen destination. When I type, "Galapagos Islands" into Google the first result is returned is Wikipedia.

google image search for Galapagos islands

How could The North Face get their brand seen when Wikipedia was dominating the top spots? They found out they didn't need to compete...

You see, wikipedia pages are community controlled. Anyone can edit them.

The North Faces' ad agency in Brazil decided to test replacing images on wikipedia with photos of their product. Using high quality imagery with backgrounds that are relevant to the given wikipedia page, they removed previous images and added their own.

When people searched for holiday destinations such as Huayna Pichu in Peru the top image result would show a picture that included the North Face brand - a subtle product placement.

Since it's inception wikipedia has had 899,004,724 edits. The North Face campaign going under the radar is unsurprising given this and it wouldn't be surprising to hear of others using a similar method.

"It features exclusively free content and no commercial ads, and is owned and supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization funded primarily through donations."

How Were They Caught

Leo and his team began scaling their method after  initial success. Relevant images combined with the fact that wikipedia is community moderated meant this went unnoticed.

Upon finding out about the campaign, the Wikimedia Foundation - the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia tweeted:

"Yesterday, we were disappointed to learn that @thenorthface and @LeoBurnett unethically manipulated Wikipedia. They have risked your trust in our mission for a short-lived consumer stunt."

Wikipedia Twitter

Leo Burnett and his agency thought they were taking a unique approach to gain exposure but now understands their method went against wikipedia community guidelines.

"We’re always looking for creative ways to meet consumers where they are”

The agency has since accepted an invitation to learn about the guidelines of Wikipedia.

The North Face apology takes a genuine approach with a representative stating:

"We believe deeply in Wikipedia’s mission and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles."

"Effective immediately, we have ended the campaign, and moving forward, we’ll commit to ensuring that our teams and vendors are better trained on the site policies."

Who is in the wrong here?

This is a case of an agency trying to figure out a clever way to promote a client company. It was effective because The North Face already has a brand associated with high quality adventure clothing, so any individual case of their clothing appearing in a destination photos is not out of the ordinary.

Wikipedia gained additional high quality images from top photographers which in itself is a nice idea. However, smuggling in images and boasting about sits less well with the public.

The Wikimedia Foundation summarises the situation well in a statement released shortly after the event:

“In fact, what they did was akin to defacing public property, which is a surprising direction from The North Face. Their stated mission, ‘unchanged since 1966,’ is to support the preservation of the outdoors’ — a public good held in trust for all of us.”

A multi-national company trying something different to gain some free exposure is nothing new. The North Face bragging about manipulating a non-profit does not reflect well on them.

In the video, that has since been taken down, they state they were "collaborating with wikipedia", a partnership unbeknown to wikipedia. This seems more akin to the relationship a shoplifter has with a supermarket.

Volunteers have since taken down the images and blocked all the accounts associated with the breaches of Wikipedia's terms of use.