Lessons learned from North Face's deface-gate

Written by
Adrianne Pasquarelli, Reporter
Ad Age

Published
Jun 10, 2019

Jun 10, 2019 • Author: Adrianne Pasquarelli, Reporter

When The North Face drew ire late last month for a campaign out of its Brazilian office that gamed Wikipedia, many marketers felt relief that it wasn’t their brand in the social media crosshairs.

The stunt, which involved replacing the photos on Wikipedia pages of popular outdoor destinations with images featuring the North Face brand, was met with outrage. Wikipedia called it “unethically manipulative” and in violation of the site's undisclosed paid advocacy rules, and many consumers on Twitter criticized the campaign for being at odds with the VF Corp.-owned brand values of outdoor exploration and athletic innovation. According to a person with knowledge of the situation, North Face global did not review or approve of the situation, though the U.S. brand headquarters in Alameda, California, still had to apologize for it. A statement from the brand noted it was ending the push.

North Face is not the first brand to suffer for a regional office’s mistake, and it won’t be the last.

“We now live in a world where we publish exponentially more content than we ever have before, and we have to publish faster than we ever have before,” says Brad Jakeman, a consultant and former president of PepsiCo Global Beverages. The need for speed, and the large number of personnel at a brand empowered to publish content, often create a recipe for disaster.

Earlier this year, camera maker Leica made a similar stumble after an ad that depicted the Tiananmen Square massacre in China was banned on Chinese social media. The video was released by the German brand’s Brazilian representatives, according to a CNBC report. Through a spokesman, Leica said in a statement, “Even though Leica Camera AG is not involved with the video we regret expressly any confusion caused by it.”

Experts say a clear process has to be in place, not only to avoid brand damage but to also survive a mishap if it does occur.

One tone to rule them all

Marketers need to agree on a universal brand mission, including tone and values, and make sure that all offices around the globe are aware of it. If expectations are clear, there is less room for error. Dipanjan Chatterjee, VP and principal analyst at Forrester, cites Caterpillar’s “One Voice,” which sets broad guidelines for the equipment company’s global business to follow, as an example. 

“Nowadays, there’s no such thing as local execution,” says Anselmo

Ramos, chief creative officer and founder of Gut Miami, noting that “every local execution would become a global execution in seconds.

Establish a process

Many brand fails happen in social media marketing because those campaigns don’t undergo the same rigorous approval process as a more expensive TV push, for example. But local teams on the ground, educated on marketing, legal and PR in both the local and global context, could help execute an established process.

“The key is to create small, multi-functional local teams that approve all of the content and all of the marketing programs,” says Jakeman.

Duh! Use common sense

It may seem like, well, common sense to use common sense, but in an age where all brands are trying to differentiate from the competition at lightning speed, sound judgment sometimes gets left behind. A brand needs to hire and train employees, as well as ad agencies, who understand its mission and the mind-set of “living the brand,” says Chatterjee. He notes that North Face’s hack, which he calls a “violation of trust ... would never have passed the sniff test with any employee or agency [that represents] a brand that prides itself on values like exploration, preservation and responsibility.”

Plan for the worst­­­—just in case

While brands might not expect to land in hot water from a regional office’s campaign, they should nevertheless have a plan in place for handling the aftermath. As with any mistake, marketers should be transparent and clear about what went wrong and how it will be fixed and avoided in the future. North Face, for example, noted in its apology that it has ended the campaign and that it will educate employees on Wikipedia policies. Jakeman advises that brands use their brand ambassadors and influencers in the community to speak on their behalf. 

The article Lessons learned from North Face's deface-gate first appeared on Ad Age.

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