What Brands Can Learn from The North Face Wikipedia Backlash

A marketing stunt turned PR fiasco holds lessons for other brands that see value in Wikipedia's reach, but want to avoid the whole thing blowing up the wrong way.

Earlier this week, Leo Burnett and The North Face announced that they had used Wikipedia to successfully promote the popular outdoor clothing and equipment brand by replacing images in Wikipedia articles about Scotland's Cuillin, Peru’s Huayna Picchu, and other famous hiking destinations with ones prominently featuring their products. Their reason for doing so? To help the company's branded photos to rise to the top of Google Images.

While initially the agency and brand touted this as a major win, the story changed very quickly. Wikipedia editors and the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) were livid that the brand had used the site to "game" Google search results. Wikipedia editors removed the offending images, or in some cases retained them—with the logos snipped out. The WMF blog expressed disappointment, and its executive director asked the company for a public apology. The original AdAge article describing the campaign was later updated to read, "Brand apologizes after campaign from Leo Burnett Tailor Made updated photos with its images and angered Wikipedia editors for violating user terms".

As coverage continues with more quotes from outraged Wikipedia editors, you'd be forgiven for wondering: is it ever appropriate for brands to engage with Wikipedia?

Absolutely! But not like this. There's a distinction to be made between engaging with Wikipedia versus manipulating the site and its community. For a long time, the site's volunteer editors and the Wikimedia Foundation have been vehement: companies should not use Wikipedia for promotion and should not edit anonymously. Yet this is exactly what happened in the case of The North Face: their goal was strictly promotional, and the updates were made without disclosure, intentionally attempting to avoid scrutiny.

However, there are many non-promotional ways companies can engage with Wikipedia that won't raise hackles: reaching out to the community to correct inaccuracies, share up-to-date information, provide sourcing and resources, and offer materials to build up Wikipedia as a great source of information. Indeed, the Wikimedia Foundation's blog post about The North Face ends by saying, "We invite companies to learn the established best practices of properly engaging on Wikipedia and support the public good."

What could that have looked like for The North Face and Leo Burnett? First, they should have disclosed their identities on Wikipedia, as required by Wikipedia's Terms of Use. Second, rather than substituting one existing image for another, they should have offered new images that would add to Wikipedia's representation of these topics. Third, they should have let Wikipedia's editors make the final decision about inclusion.

Wikipedia's image resource project, Wikimedia Commons, welcomes companies uploading their photos under a Creative Commons license, and where those images can help illustrate a topic better, Wikipedia editors will often agree to add these images to Wikipedia themselves. (Wikimedia Commons even maintains a page that collects images supplied by outside companies.) Rather than sneaking The North Face logo into the corner of a snapshot, the brand could have scored a public relations win by actually making Wikipedia better.

The key to engaging on the site is to work with the community and contribute constructively, while abiding by the Wikimedia Foundation's Terms of Use and Wikipedia's community guidelines for conflict of interest. If a company is able to approach the site with the goal of enhancing the encyclopedia, and follows its rules, they need not fear a backlash.

If you're looking to engage with the Wikipedia community the right way there are resources to help. You can start by checking our ebook Wikipedia and the Communications Pro, which we co-authored with other leading PR firms. If you have an immediate concern you'd like our insight on, reach out to hello@beutlerink.com.

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