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The Power of Positioning: How Payless Got Away with Tricking Influencers

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“Payless customers share a pragmatist point of view, and we thought it would be provocative to use this ideology to challenge today’s image-conscious fashion influencer culture.”

— Doug Cameron, COO, DCX Growth Accelerator

I worked for Payless ShoeSource for two and a half years. It was my first job in college, and my foray into the next 4+ years in the not-so-glamorous position of selling shoes.

I started at a location in a strip mall in Flagstaff, Arizona. I eventually moved to Phoenix and – after a 5-month stint selling shoes at Burlington Coat Factory – transferred to a store in a low-income neighborhood of Phoenix next to a Walmart where I happened to get my credit cards and ID stolen.

After a while, and some drama with a new manager, I ended up quitting and heading over to a luxe (in comparison) DSW location in Northern Phoenix. Although it was another major shoe retailer, they seemed worlds apart.

All of this is to say I know Payless pretty well and became so well-associated with their brands of shoes that I still find myself thinking Champion tennis shoes and American Eagle flip flops.

I also know they’ve been struggling. As a former employee, I received word of their bankruptcy filing by mail, informing me they were closing many of their locations. I wasn’t surprised.

In 2012, the stores I worked at weren’t doing poorly. In fact, we were still emerging out of our recession as a culture, and I actually thought a few of our shoes were cute. But as fashion bloggers, the economy, and the popularity of online shopping began to rise, Payless wasn’t innovating fast enough to keep up.

To many, Payless ShoeSource is the place for moms and low-income families to get cheap shoes. But for one day – under a new name and a fake brand created for this PR stunt – Payless became Palessi, the super-chic luxury shoe store only open to celebrities and fashion influencers.

The Stunt: What Happened

The campaign was put together by DCX Growth Accelorator, an agency that specializes in building iconic brands. For the stunt, they took over an empty Armani store, decorated it with shoes and mannequins, and even built a website to make it seem even more authentic.

They filled the space with influencers and filmed the event – capturing these bloggers dropping hundreds of dollars on $20 pairs of shoes. At the end of it, they revealed the truth and captured their reactions which will be seen in commercials coming soon. Oh – and the influencers’ hundreds of dollars were refunded.

Why It Worked (In The Short Term)

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Well, it got people talking. One of the first rules of public-relations is to do something worth talking about. So, here we all are again, talking about a brand that many of us – former employees included – forgot about except when we drive past a boarded-up location in a strip mall.

But that’s what’s happening after we all found out the truth about the stunt. What about before that – when it was just another fancy shoe store with an invite-only influencer-filled grand opening? How did a brand known for inexpensive and low-quality footwear convince supposedly fashion-geniuses to drop hundreds of dollars on $20 shoes?

They told a story.

They probably started with the audience. Who did they want to attract? Well, with the popularity of Instagram influencers and fashion bloggers, they likely figured this would be the perfect audience for a PR stunt. So, that’s who they catered to.

What do these influencers want? They want exclusivity. They want to hear about new and exciting opportunities and be the first ones on the scene. They want to be a part of something fancy and expensive and be able to brag about attending an invite-only fashion party.

So, Payless came along, built a fake brand with an Italian-luxury-sounding name, dressed up a storefront, and sent out exclusive invitations. They made their attendees feel special; like they were a part of something new and exciting.

And then they dropped the bomb: this isn’t an exclusive grand opening party for a new luxury brand; it’s just Payless and these are just $20 shoes. The sentiment of the story they told was so strong that it acted as a disguise for the cheap shoes they were complimenting.

Will It Help in The Long-Term?

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In a recent article criticizing the stunt, Vox writer Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote a piece titled Payless doesn’t need to trick bargain-hunting young people with faux-luxury hoaxes. In it, Tiffany argues Payless has made a number of mistakes, both in its overall branding and with this stunt.

First of all, their 2006 rebrand went it the wrong direction, resulting in a yellow bubble-letter logo that doesn’t necessarily appeal to who should be their target demographic: value-oriented millennials.

Secondly, she argues they targeted the wrong audience. Fashion influencers, while they can get people talking (and, it could rightly be argued that was the point of this in the first place), they aren’t Payless’ ultimate customer.

No matter how many fake grand opening parties Payless invites them to, it’s going to be a hard sell getting fashion bloggers to brag about their latest purchase at Payless (unless they’re value-fashion bloggers – in which case, the stunt still didn’t invite the right people).

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And the boots…. #palessi

A post shared by Palessi (@palessi_shoes) on

She then states:

What’s weirder is what it tells us about how Payless thinks about the general market of people who buy shoes — namely, that most people don’t understand value and pricing and packaging and don’t think about what goes into making something cost what it costs, but just gravitate toward status symbols impulsively.

I’m not so sure about this statement. Yes, as a millennial – and one with an undergraduate degree in Fashion Marketing where I dolled out thousands of dollars thinking about what goes into making something cost what it costs – I think a lot about money. I don’t make many impulsive buys and think deeply about the money I spend.

But I don’t believe Payless thinks their customers aren’t concerned about those things. They just wanted to make their customers – and maybe even themselves – feel special for a few hours. And people who feel special – who feel a part of something exclusive, even if just for a little bit – are going to want that feeling to last longer.

So, once the journalists move on to the next big thing and the holidays are over and people are back to deciding where to get new shoes for themselves and their families, what’s the lasting sentiment of the press?

Are people going to think: Oh yea, Payless, that’s where fashion influencers shop now because they accidentally shopped at one when they thought it was Palessi. I should go there and buy everything from now on.

Probably not.

But I’m not going to lie. When I saw the shoes all dressed up with influencers, looking special and fancy, and then saw the $19.99, I almost went to go see if they have my size.

So, we’ll see. All I can say is unless they make some long-term, lasting changes (like dressing up all their locations – not just one fake one), this stunt won’t likely help the retailer in the long-term. They need a complete revision of their overall brand.

If they learned anything from Palessi, it’s that you need to make your customers feel special to get them to come back, not just offer a great price on a pair of low-quality shoes.

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