Two things are true about digital marketing;

First, there are no shortcuts.

Second, trust is your most valuable brand asset

The North Face just violated both principles in the name of a marketing stunt that failed miserably. The company hired famed ad agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made to replace photos of famous locations around the world, with images of those locations that contained clothing from the company.

In short, the company did the one thing no marketer should ever do. It cheated. 

The idea was that customers usually start their trip planning by searching for information using Google. By replacing the images on Wikipedia, The North Face was able to take advantage of the fact that images from the site often appear at the top of search results.

That meant that the company's products would appear, reinforcing its position as a premier outdoor brand. 

There are no shortcuts.

Here's the problem. You can't shortcut your way to customer affection for your brand. Appearing at the top of Google search results is great, but when you cheat to do it, it doesn't build customer affection, it just makes people mad. They feel cheated. 

To make matters worse, the company even bragged about their guerrilla marketing tactics in a video posted online, saying "we switched the Wikipedia photos for ours." The company also claimed to "hack the results and to reach one of the most difficult place: the top of the world's largest search engine." 

Finally, the company boasted that it "paid absolutely nothing just by collaborating with Wikipedia." which leads to another problem. It's not true.

Wikipedia says there was no such collaboration. In fact, a statement from the Wikimedia Foundation states that "Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation did not collaborate on this stunt, as The North Face falsely claims. In fact, what they did was akin to defacing public property, which is a surprising direction from The North Face."

Transparency and authenticity matter.

Look, you can't lie. You just can't. 

Marketers often get a bad reputation for shading the truth or presenting things in the most favorable light, but The North Face went even further than that. They gamed a system that depends on the trust of everyone involved. 

In a world of "fake news," people aren't interested in the brands they love trying to pull one over on them. Which is what The North Face tried to do. They tried to make it look like their brand was organically associated with all of these amazing outdoor locations, when in fact it was all staged.

It doesn't matter how much attention you can generate for your brand if people don't trust you. When you try to take shortcuts or cheat, the trust you built over time fades in a moment. When you try to fake your way to the top of Google search results, you end up at the bottom of the trust barrel. 

Published on: May 30, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.