The latest PR stunt from Payless took a potshot at Instagram influencers, but it ultimately missed the mark by ignoring the value and desirability of high-quality consumer goods.

Payless ShoeSource is a lot of things — affordable, approachable, and a BOGO pioneer — but cool? That isn’t necessarily on the list. That’s fine, of course; plenty of successful brands aren’t cool. Just look at Amazon: low on personality, but high on value and convenience, the e-commerce giant was almost certainly the driving factor behind Payless’s decline and eventual Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing last year.

But based on an unusual recent PR stunt, it seems that Payless is getting a little insecure with its practical identity. The brand set up a faux-luxury popup called “Palessi” in a former Armani store in Santa Monica, anonymously inviting a number of stylish Instagram influencers to have the first look at the fake brand.

In what appeared to be some sort of auction system, the influencers rattled off how much they’d be willing to pay for the $20 to $40 shoes. The top offer was $640 for a pair of Yeezy-esque sneakers, an 1,800 percent markup from the shoes’ actual value. A blazer-clad influencer handling the sneakers justified their “high price” by noting that he “can tell they’re made with quality materials.”

This is where the prank really starts to lose its way. There’s something discordant about Payless’ mocking a customer who says the shoes are high quality. In so doing, is Payless admitting that its shoes aren’t high quality and prompting viewers to laugh at the man who thinks they are? Or is Payless attempting to assert that its quality is on par with luxury brands, a frankly unbelievable statement?

The Problem with “Palessi”

Payless partnered with Brooklyn-based advertising agency DCX Growth Accelerator to pull off the elaborate influencer experience. DCX specializes in media pranks such as this one, which the company calls “culture hacking.” Doug Cameron, the founder of DCX, told the Washington Post that “We wanted to get Payless back into the cultural discourse.”

As a big, splashy, press-attracting stunt, Palessi fit the bill. As a sustainable means of market re-entry? I’m not so sure. The Palessi prank suffers from a serious identity crisis, failing to properly target both its audience and its naysayers. Is it trying to tell status seekers that they’re overpaying for shoes from luxury brands, or is it trying to get more pragmatic, money-conscious shoppers to … join in mocking consumers of luxury goods?

Either way, Payless is missing the mark. Pitting one customer segment against another is the move of an unconfident, floundering brand, which is exactly what Payless appears to be in its Palessi ads.

Pay More or Payless?

The confusion over audience isn’t the only problem I have with the Palessi ad. More so, I have a bone to pick over its conflation of “expensive” and “silly.” Let me be clear, there’s some evidence to suggest that consumers tend to falsely equate price and quality, and plenty of brands use a potent mix of hype, high prices, and artificial scarcity to propel themselves into the stratosphere. But that doesn’t mean that consumers throw their money at any fancy product or service that comes their way.

When customers assess the value of a product, they’re generally determining cost-per-use. A $500 product that a customer can use for a decade or more has better value than a $50 product that lasts less than a year. It’s all about whether the durability of a product justifies the cost.

More expensive doesn’t always mean better – some inexpensive goods will surpass expectations, while some expensive goods won’t live up to their cost-per-use. “Palessi” made that clear; had those influencers been allowed to actually trade upwards of $600 for those shoes (they weren’t — Payless let them take the shoes home for free), the cost-per-use would have been completely unjustified.

But luxury goods can be worth an elevated price if they translate to increased cost-per-use, and Payless took that for granted. The influencers who were willing to shell out the big bucks for “Palessi” shoes believed they were buying high-quality materials and master craftsmanship from an independent Italian designer, but Payless seems to think they’re purely driven by status. I’d argue that’s unfair.

The Brandless Phenomenon

Payless isn’t the only major brand that’s suffering in today’s retail climate, and many of the declining brands have one thing in common: they offer lots of lower-quality products at a bargain price. Forever 21, H&M, and Gap have all seen declining sales, largely because fast fashion is losing favor with the consumer segment that used to be its bread and butter: millennials.

As environmental and ethical concerns about fast fashion increasingly deter millennials, new retailers like Cuyana and Everlane are poised to become the biggest brands in affordable fashion — and they’re barely brands at all. Their slogans are “Fewer, Better Things,” and “Modern Basics. Radical Transparency,” respectively, and both offer simple, durable clothing and accessories free of logos or other conspicuous branding.

In a similar vein, a VC-funded “brandless” startup called Italic sells cashmere and leather goods made in the same factories that make products for the likes of Burberry, Prada, Givenchy, and Celine. But, since the goods don’t carry a luxury name brand, Italic sells them at a fraction of a cost. The company has already garnered a 100,000-person waitlist.

In light of the new millennial trend toward ethical, high-quality goods, Payless’s stunt seems especially tasteless. It makes young people who place a high value on nice things the butt of the joke, framing them as status-obsessed label junkies when, in reality, they’re often mindful consumers who can do with or without a fancy brand name.

It’s possible that there’s no longer a place in the retail landscape for Payless as it’s existed in the past. The company is now at an impasse: it could offer its usual low prices along with Amazon-level customer service, or it could offer slightly higher prices on longer-lasting, ethically-made products. The recent PR stunt seems to communicate that Payless values neither its customers nor the quality of its goods.

Viral marketing isn’t always good marketing, and an unclear or conflicting message may be worse than no message at all. And if Payless isn’t following up this stunt with a reimagined brand identity — well, then it’s doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Author Madeline Killen

Before graduating from Dartmouth College, Madeline studied English and Italian literature, edited the arts section of the campus newspaper, worked as an Italian tutor, and completed a senior honors thesis on Emily Dickinson. At L&T, she’s translated her passion for language — no pun intended — into success in her role writing and managing social media for clients across multiple industries. When she’s not at work, you’ll find her reading, running, or enjoying the perks of moving back to civilization after four years in the New Hampshire wilderness (even though she does miss the trees).

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