Social media influencers, the joke’s on you. You fell for a branding experiment, the ultimate emperor’s new clothes. Payless ShoeSource—a retail chain ubiquitous with back-to-school shopping, inexpensive trendy footwear, and suburban strip mall retailing—created an elaborate hoax, a trompe l’oeil brand called Palessi that hoodwinked so-called social media influencers into believing their cheap footwear was an expensive European brand.

The retail chain, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2017, paid a small stipend to fashion-oriented social media influencers to attend an alleged gala opening of a new European-style shoe store. The store, dubbed Palessi, even had a fake website and Instagram account.

Videos online of the influencers oohing and aahing over sparkling boots, sneakers, and other footwear ended with a big reveal of the company behind Palessi. “You’re kidding me, right?” one astonished diva exclaims. She had just admitted she would pay $400 for a pair of boots that retails for $39.

Payless reports that its experiment resulted in $3,000 of sales in the first few hours, and one high offer translated to an 1,800-percent price markup. The event lasted two days, and the company refunded the social media influencers but allowed them to keep the shoes. The influencers’ reactions fed into the next Payless ad campaign.

It is a brilliant advertising ploy and a fascinating glimpse into the darker side of branding.

Genuine imitation pearls and Palessi shoes

Facets of Branding

The Payless experiment proves that branding matters more than most people think. Branding conveys the sum total of the user experience and value in one sensory package. The Payless/Palessi experiment plays on the subconscious perceptions of value that retail shoppers use to judge the quality of items.

Name

The name alone conveys brand value. Payless = pay + less, which sums up the entire brand in the name. Palessi, in contrast, offers a vaguely Italian image, which in the fashion world can convey chic European style. Both names establish brand expectations.

Store Experience

When you walk into any Payless ShoeSource, you know immediately you are in a store catering to low prices. Customers are greeted by racks of shoes with simple signs that proclaim Men/Women/Children and size numbers. Prosaic beige or gray industrial carpet hides stains and wear. Formica counters and harsh overhead lighting illuminate prices on boxes rather than highlight value.

The same shoes that sell at Payless for $19, $29, and $39 retailed at an incredible markup at Palessi.

Images of the pop-up Palessi store show soft lighting, golden spotlights, Romanesque statues, and shoes highlighted on pedestals. This is where laminate counters go to die. The store experience conveys elegance and quality.

Sensory Experience

About a year ago, I had to replace my brown Payless boots purchased circa 1992. I entered a Payless store in Lynchburg, Virginia, on a cold, rainy January day. The smells of damp carpet, cardboard, cheap shoe glue, and feet assailed my nostrils. Pop music from the local radio station blared overhead and upturned boxes indicated the clerks were in the midst of restocking empty spots on shelves.

Photos show that walking into a Palessi store is akin to traversing the hallowed halls of the Christian Louboutin boutique in Columbus Circle, an experience I enjoyed when I worked nearby. I never bought anything—I can’t justify spending $500 or more on a pair of shoes—but I did enjoy the sensory experience and beauty of the shop. The rich, buttery leather smell, the soft golden spots, and the whispering thick carpet underfoot convey an impression of comfort, elegance, and atmosphere—a far cry from industrial carpet and glue at Payless.

Prices

This is my favorite aspect of the Payless experiment. The same shoes that sell at Payless for $19, $29, and $39, retailed at an incredible markup at Palessi. This is a retailers’ dream. And they sold. If Payless had not unmasked their hoax, they could have netted a hefty profit. I suspect they will net more as a result of their commercials showcasing the masquerade than by selling shoes at Palessi.

Price offers another signal of value. Fashion influencers plunked down hundreds of dollars for shoes they could have purchased elsewhere for pennies. The price tag conveyed to them the quality of the item, not the stitching, the leather, the fabric, the style, or the feel of the shoe. Smart businesses can use price to convey value too.

Image

Finally, consider image. A fashion influencer, invited to attend a gala opening, subconsciously walks into that gala opening with expectations of encountering and conveying a particular image. If the influencers knew what to look for in quality footwear—stitching, leather quality, heel construction—they would have spotted inexpensive shoes from a mile away. But because the image was so perfect, they fell for both the image that was projected and the image they needed to project. The result? Spending $400 for a pair of $39 sparkly ankle-high denim boots.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

The Payless/Palessi experiment reminds me of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Two tailors trick a vain emperor into buying an invisible suit of clothes. The hoaxers’ reactions convince the emperor of the suit’s quality and style. The emperor’s court, afraid of his reaction to the truth, continue the deception and pretend he is indeed wearing a fine suit of clothes when he parades naked down the street. Only an innocent child sees the truth and speaks without fear: “The emperor has no clothes!”

Branding can be used to manipulate perception to the point where people are completely hoodwinked. It can also be used to convey within seconds the truth of the products or services, such as paying less for discounted fashion. We must embody the child who sees through the mask of manipulative branding and point to emperors without clothes. We must convey, accurately, the values our businesses bring to the world. Like any tool, branding can be wielded for good or ill, truth or lies.