Payless ShoeSource Prank Exposes the Achilles Heel of Luxury Marketing

Written by:



Payless ShoeSource recently carried out a marketing prank on a select group of social media influencers. As expected, it worked like a charm. In the carefully-crafted ruse, the influencers were invited to a private launch party for a new Italian shoe designer Bruno Palessi in a high-end mall in Santa Monica, CA.

Accompanied by the typical fanfare that goes along with such launch events, the Bruno Palessi brand had all the cues and clues signifying luxury:

  • The product looked every bit in keeping with luxury styling.
  • The price point ranged from $200-$600, apropos for a new luxe shoe brand.
  • The place for the introduction was in a former Armani boutique in a shopping mall where Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors and Tiffany make their homes.
  • And the promotion was invitation-only to enter a showroom designed with gold mannequins, winged statues and mini-runway with each shoe style given star treatment in a carefully arranged display.

The trend-setting influencers were eager to be the first in town to sport the new Palessi shoes and made their selections at full price. But only after they paid up, was the truth revealed. Every item in the Bruno Palessi shop were from Payless\’ regular product line and available for under $40.

Since it was all in fun, the influencers\’ full price payments were refunded and they were given their shoes to take home free. The punked influencers got the joke and laughed along with Payless, even though their comments about the shoes before the reveal are recorded in a Payless promotional video, which makes them look pretty gullible.

You can see shots of the Palessi prank on Instagram here, where one person shared \”This experiment should be discussed in every marketing class in colleges worldwide. Hard to buy into the influencer movement now.\”

What Do Influencers Know Anyway?

At first blush one would think that fashion bloggers would know the most about the fashion world they cover and be the hardest to fool. But that is definitely not the case. Quite the opposite. They are opportunistic bottom feeders in the contemporary fashion ecosystem, paid to shill by the brands they write about or endorse on social media. Compensated to \”like\” not to objectively evaluate or provide others with valuable guidance, influencers are hardly independent authorities or experts.

This ultimately threatens their future and the brands that rely on them to influence consumers. Already consumers are increasingly suspicious of celebrity endorsements, but that is not yet the case with the run-of-the-mill blogger, YouTuber or Instagrammer yet.

Some nine out of 10 consumers surveyed in the McKinsey & Company State of Fashion 2018 report say they trust an influencer more than traditional advertisements or celebrity endorsements. But the tide will certainly turn as more high-profile pranks like this one are used to prove a low-end, mass-market brand is every bit as good as a high-end luxury one.

Unilever did a similar bait-and-switch for its mass-market Suave shampoo brand last year. It changed its label to Evaus (Suave spelled backwards), redesigned the package, gave it a premium price and presented it to a group of beauty bloggers and influencers to test. The result: The influencers bought it, hook, line and sinker.

But if influencers are set to buy the brand\’s narrative, like for Paressi shoes or Evaus, how about the consumers who have no skin in the game other than a desire to find a new brand that meets their needs better than the rest?

The fact is consumers are as easily punked as the presumably more in-the-know influencers. Nobody really knows what luxury quality is or what sets luxury apart from the mass brands.

Luxury Branding Is the Smoke-and-Mirrors of Marketing

While Payless and Unilever do these stunts to prove their mass-market brands are just as good as their luxury counterparts, what they really do is expose the ugly underside of luxury marketing and branding. Are Payless and Unilever to blame for pulling what to some might see as a dirty trick in the name of promoting their brands? I think not. Rather the luxury brands laid the ground work and invited them in.

In a recent article entitled \”Luxury Brands Aren\’t Worth the Price,\” the List did the research and found such vaunted brands as Louis Vuitton, Montblanc, Tiffany, Rolex, Louboutin, Mikimoto, Michael Kors, Coach, Prada, Balenciaga and Versace aren\’t worth what they expect the consumers to pay for them. So who is trying to fool whom?

While luxury brands believe their offerings are quite obviously better and worth the inflated prices they charge, consumers like the influencers in the Payless and Suave experiments can\’t discern the difference at the product level. Rather their perception of luxury is communicated in the presentation, not the product. The medium is the message, and that is where the luxury resides, in the message.

And because it still works, luxury marketing and branding has become formulaic. The brands understand it and the consumers still buy into it, though I am afraid not for much longer. It reminds me of the Byrds\’ classic tongue-in-cheek song, \”So You Want to Be a Rock \’n\’ Roll Star.\”

Just get an electric guitar
Then take some time and learn how to play
And with your hair swung right
And your pants too tight, it\’s gonna be all right
Then it\’s time to go downtown
Where the agent man won\’t let you down

You Can\’t Fool All of the People All the Time

In the latest State of Luxury 2019 survey conducted by Unity Marketing and Luxury Daily, one of the chief concerns expressed among those who work in the luxury industry is that the definition of luxury has been compromised. But I wonder who has done the compromising.

The insiders said consumers, most especially the millennial up-and-comers, do not understand what luxury is. \”Many consumers do not actually know what \’luxury\’ is and it\’s an overused term,\” says one and another complains about \”There is a blurring of lines between luxury and non-luxury, as well as an increasing gap between \’old\’ luxury brands and millennials.\”

But while luxury insiders may see this as a consumer problem – i.e. the consumers don\’t get it — the reality is luxury brands need to build true luxury into their brands and their products, not just rely on cheap tricks and marketing ploys. In other words, the luxury brands don\’t \”get\” the new consumers.

\”The biggest danger that the luxury business faces is irrelevance,\” Mickey Alam Kahn, editor in chief of Luxury Daily, says. \”There is no other way to sugarcoat this: the luxury business is facing an unprecedented identity crisis. What is its product? How relevant is it to the quality-seeking consumer\’s wants, needs and lifestyle? How much sunlight to let in before the brand mystique slips out the back door? Is the product really made – key to the authenticity credentials – where the label says it is? Do its values resonate with its target audience?\”

Consumers are smarter, more informed, able to discern value and prize authenticity. When they look at luxury brands, too often what they find there is smoke and mirrors, not authentic luxury. The problem is not with the customers but with the brands that use these tricks of luxury branding and marketing rather than build authentic luxury into their products and brands from the ground up. Brands too often revert to using luxury as a veneer, not as substance.

Abraham Lincoln said, \”You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.\” I\’m afraid too many in the luxury industry are just fooling themselves. In recent interviews I conducted with millennials on the road to affluence, called HENRYs (high-earners-not-rich-yet), several shared this perception about luxury. \”When it says \’luxury,\’ it means overpriced and too expensive.\”

So far, brands are getting away with their smoke-and-mirror tricks. Jennifer Bremner, Suave\’s brand director who dreamed up the Suave/Evaus project, said seven in 10 millennial-aged women believe that premium or high-priced brands are more \”trustworthy than value or lower-priced brands and products.\”

But I think the writing is on the wall for luxury brands that resort to the formulaic smoke-and-mirrors marketing ploys. Public exposure is coming as more such Payless/Paressi and Suave/Evaus marketing stunts are carried out, and as more of the public becomes aware that influencers are paid for their endorsements, just like celebrities, and as more real women share their product experiences on social media. Luxury brands need to build true luxury value into their brands and true luxury quality into their products. You can\’t fool all the people all the time.



Scroll to Top
the Daily Report

Insights + Interviews right to your inbox.