A Great Lesson in Branding – the Payless Experiment

Payless Shoes recently used branding to underscore the value of their shoes. Their clever marketing ploy reminds small business owners that branding imparts value. What value perceptions is your branding giving customers?

A Gret Lesson in Branding: The Payless Experiment

Payless Shoes remains a favorite store of mine, not just because they have the latest styles but because the prices are always right. I can find ballet flats for under $20, nice pumps that match a work outfit for $10, $15, $20, and boots under $40. I’ve patronized Payless since college and have no plans to stop. My only wish is that there was a store here in Farmville, Virginia, where I live now, rather than having to drive 40 minutes into Lynchburg to visit the nearest store.

Clearly, I do not patronize upscale boutiques. It’s not that I don’t appreciate their beauty; when I’m in Manhattan, I love visiting the Christian Louboutin boutique at Columbus Circle, near Central Park and the office building where I worked for many years. But the second I walk in and begin admiring the shoes, the sales clerks swarm me with a jaundiced eye; clearly, my Avia trainers and practical L.L. Bean down coat screams country bumpkin these days rather than chic New Yorker. Ah, my lifestyle has clearly changed.

With this little backstory in mind, imagine my delight when I spied an article on CNN about Payless fooling so-called social media “influencers” into endorsing $400 boots (that typically retail for $39). Payless created pop-up boutiques and dubbed the stores Palessi, filling them with all the trappings of high-end shoe stores. Bright backdrops, backlit displays, shoes on pedestals lit with single spotlights. The influencers, gabbing on about the styles, gushing about the chic beauty of each item, recover nicely when the gig is up and the emperor’s naked self is revealed. Payless, to their eternal credit, refunded the influencers’ money and let them keep the shoes in a deal to use the spots showcasing their horrified, surprised, and delighted expressions in upcoming commercials.

I have so much to say about this…let me start here.

Brand Image Is Everything


I love the fact that you’ve unmasked the fools who call themselves “fashion influencers.”

Listening to the “fashion experts” gush on and on about the cheap shoes proves how absolutely meaningless these people are when it comes to factual information. Can they influence buying decisions? Yes, as long as the American public remains ignorant, which will be a long time to come. Clearly, they are ignorant about what makes a quality shoe. They ignore the construction of the shoes, the stitching, the heel quality, for the fashionable qualities of the item as well as the milieu of the Palessi boutique. Branding, not facts, sells the shoes.

I own genuine Palessi shoes!

Branding Imparts Value

The main takeaway from the Palessi/Payless experience is that branding remains king.

Payless’ brand image conveys comfort, budget-friendly shoes. Payless customers tend to be lower to middle-class people interested in bargains. A trip to Payless shoes means finding the latest styles made into inexpensive footwear that lasts one, maybe two seasons, at most.

Palessi, however, conveys elegance. The name sounds expensive, Italian. The store displays, the lighting, the signage, the colors, the vaguely Roman statues around the “boutique” trigger automatic assumptions about the footwear on display. This, the brand image seems to whisper, means elegance. Style. Old money. Quality. European fashion.

The stunning reveal – that the $400 boots one influencer holds in her hands are actually $39 Payless boots – astonished the influencers. Why? Because they have been completely enraptured and hoodwinked by the brand images.

Key Takeaway: Small Business Owners, Pay Attention to Brand Image

The key takeaway: small business owners must pay close attention to the brand image they convey.

Social media influencers and fashion bloggers, those who revel in the expensive brands, were completely fooled by the overarching Palessi brand into thinking the Payless shoes were anything but exquisite new Italian styles they discovered in the little boutique. Chic, elegant shoes they were willing to pay $400 for…all because the brand image was right.

What is the brand image?

  • The name – Palessi – conveys it.
  • The lighting, the store display, the carpet, the paint colors – the visual experience – conveys it.
  • The price tags convey it.
  • The sales clerks and music, the store experience – conveys it.
  • The entire experience from the moment the customer walks into the store to the moment they leave with their purchases conveys the exquisite illusion of Palessi.

Now think about your own business. What image do you convey? What image do you wish to convey? Quality, values, professionalism, exclusivity, cutting-edge style, knowledge, experience?

All of these are valuable brand attributes. Yet most small businesses fail to convey a consistent brand image because they mistake branding for logo or color palette.

Branding reflects the sum total of the customer’s experience. Branding conveys the value your business offers.

Payless branding? Cheap, price conscious, stylish.

Palessi branding? Haute couture, chic, European styles. The difference? The experience. The product remains identical. It is the brand experience surrounding the product that changes the value-based perception.

Notice how every facet of the brand experience works together to create the sum total. Branding affects all five senses: sight, taste, touch, feeling, sound, smell.

  • Payless smells like cheap cardboard shoe boxes and customers’ feet. I’m betting Palessi smells like soft potpourri subtly sprayed around the store from hidden misters.
  • Payless plays the local pop station or no music at all. I’m betting Palessi piped-in classical music or New Age piano music or something equally upscale.
  • Payless’ lighting provides utilitarian light to see price tags, sizes, boxes. Large windows at the front allow sunlight to enter and illuminate gray or beige industrial carpeting inside most Payless stores. Palessi uses soft golden spotlights, plush carpet, all to highlight the footwear.
  • Payless employees wear business casual attire and nametags. Palessi employees probably sport all black – black shirts, trousers, shoes. A chic image and subtle reflection of other situations where we encounter staff in upscale places: restaurants, hotels, and resorts.

Do you see how Payless played upon customers’ subconscious mental mindmaps and sensory input to impart value-based impressions?

This is branding at its core.

Reflecting Brand Values

Brilliant, Payless, and well done. I am forever in your debt and forever a loyal customer. I glance at boxes of pumps from my days working in Manhattan; beautiful crocodile-texture beige pumps, patent faux-leather black, ivory slingbacks. Each earned me many compliments from my supervisor back around 2002-2004, a woman who shopped only at the most exclusive boutiques. When she asked me where I purchased such ‘exquisite’ shoes, I said, “At a local boutique” and changed the subject.

Now, I can say with a smile if asked the same question, “At a boutique called Palessi.”




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