Payless is paying a high price for awareness

Advocacy Marketing



Okay Payless. You got us. Good job. Sort of.

We’ve seen the ads now — and if you haven’t, you can watch them here. Set to The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy (Tchaikovsky’s grave is probably very active during the holidays, what with M&Ms and discount shoes destroying his music), the ad shows you a posh group of people at a posh party talking about what they consider to be posh shoes.

But they’re not.

They’re Payless.

And in another example of gotcha advertising, Payless sought out to prove that their shoes are still relevant because influencers want to spend hundreds of dollars on them.

This ad campaign is going to go down as divisive, not because it matters or is saying anything socially, but because there are so many problems with what it implies about both influencers and general consumers.

It’s easy to mock influencer culture

Let’s face it: When Urban Outfitters sells an Influencer Halloween costume, you know things have gotten a little ridiculous. So on one hand, this ad campaign is really funny. “Ah influencers; they’ll do and say anything to make a buck. Silly influencers. They’re not like us.” But once you realize these influencers — who were just trying to promote a brand they were hoping to work with — were actually being used as the butt of a marketing joke, you start to feel a little icky about the whole thing.

Regardless of your feelings on some of the sillier aspects of influencer culture, it’s still tacky to base an entire ad campaign around how overly inflated influencer marketing has become…with the influencers themselves unknowingly playing the starring roles.

On the other hand, brands like Lululemon embrace the power their ambassadors have, and the trust consumers place within them. Rather than mock the culture, they build upon the positive nature influence gives.

Shifting consumer perception requires trust

When looking to alter how consumers perceive your brand, pulling a bait-and-switch certainly helps make a splash, but you have to tread lightly. As a brand, you must consider why consumers don’t look to you in the first place: is it your message; your mission statement; your product? Getting a consumer to look at you more positively requires more than just a slick brand awareness campaign. Your brand must be committed to improving the product offering and the consumer’s experience, in addition to working with the voices consumers trust for buying recommendations (we actually partnered with Reebok on this in 2017 — you can read more here).

What Payless has done here is effectively state that all of the issues that have plagued their brand aren’t inherently a brand issue, but a perception issue. And yet, as far as I can tell, their product offering and experience hasn’t changed at all from the product offering and experience I had as an 8-year-old in the 90s. From what I can see, they’re still selling bargain priced shoes made with bargain materials in a bargain environment. Pretending to be upscale in an attempt to prove their bargain shoes can be stylish completely misses the point.

Brands looking to shift consumer perception, and who want to make a splash, have a perfect example in Old Spice light-hearted 2010 ad campaign. They didn’t feel the need to rebrand as a more upscale brand, but instead revitalized their image to help target new consumers.

Payless is playing the short game

The Payless website and retail stores will probably see an increase in traffic and sales. They’ll likely sell more shoes during the holidays, and while this ad campaign runs. But in a few months, the ad buys will end, the laughs will fade, and Payless will once again be faced with a problem: how to compete against companies who can scale and market more efficiently. It’s indeed possible for Payless to build loyalty, even with a business model that includes a product that isn’t built to last, and Payless has the opportunity to nurture that equity with their consumer base. While this campaign pokes fun for a quick laugh, it does little to prove to consumers that Payless is the place to go for today’s trends at a reasonable cost.

If a brand wants to have a fighting chance in today’s competitive retail environment, they must develop a long-term strategy that builds consumer loyalty.

It might be cliche to point to Apple as a brand who understands the long-term strategy, but the loyalty their fans possess is legendary for a reason. They don’t focus on campaigns for clicks, because they understand that consumers are smart, with the desire for more than just a quick laugh.

Should we really trust influencers

At the heart of this campaign is this guy who, holding a Payless sneaker, states “and I can tell it was made with high quality material.”

Influencer from Payless's 2018 “Gotcha” advertising campaign

Never mind that I can’t believe he signed the waiver to be included in this — this is the last thing influencers need being spread around.

Consumers already have limited trust in influencers, precisely because they don’t trust the motivation behind the products they shill. I mean no disrespect to Payless or their product, but shoes made with high quality materials cost more than $19.99. So when this guy gives his ringing endorsement,Payless is just reminding consumers that influencers are paid to give opinions that suit the brands and the products they sell. Unfortunately, many  consumers believe that influencers aren’t paid to have consumers’ best interests in mind. Perpetuating that mindset through this campaign doesn’t help consumers or brands.

Luckily brands like Sperry have done a great job providing an example of trusted influencers. They target existing fans, invite them to share using hashtags, and even feature the content on brand accounts. Not only do brands win in this scenario (with great new branded content that feels authentic), but influencers and consumers win, too.

Not all influencers are created equal

There’s a happy ending here. As a brand, you get to choose who you work with to increase your brand’s reach. You get to decide if you’ll work with people who know what they’re talking about while avoiding working with those who are primarily motivated by the paycheck. You get to educate the influencers consumers actually trust when deciding what to buy. In fact, 82% of consumers are likely to buy an item recommended by someone they believe to be an expert. So while it can be tempting to chase the clicks and hits this Payless campaign achieved, aim instead for an advocacy marketing strategy that uses the best influencer marketing has to offer while increasing consumer longevity and loyalty.

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