It’s utterly amazing how much cash some people are willing to shell out when they think they’re getting top-end products.
Some people would never dream of paying hundreds of dollars for something like a pair of shoes. Others think it’s fair … as long as those shoes come from a big-name designer, like Palessi.
If you haven’t heard of Palessi, it’s because it doesn’t really exist.
Actually, it’s just a play on the name “Payless,” as in “Payless Shoe Store.”
Payless recently launched a project to see how much it could get customers to pay for its shoes if they were convinced that they were buying designer-brand kicks. The answer was … a lot of money.
Recently, in Santa Monica, California, Payless partnered with DCX Growth Accelerator and commandeered a former Armani storefront. Then, it invited some select customers in to look at the new “Palessi” line of designer pumps.
Of course, the real story was that all the shoes in the store ranged from $19.99 to $39.99.
They were actual Payless shoe styles that go for pretty cheap in malls. But customers were totally fooled.
The shoes were marked up as high as $1,800. That’s enough to make most people feel a little faint … but there are others who are willing to pay that much for something that goes on their feet. Customers claimed to be able to tell that the shoes were exceptionally high-quality.
But after their purchases were completed, Payless took mercy on the gullible clients. Staff members took the shoppers into a room at the back of the store, where the ruse was revealed, and their purchase was refunded. On the bright side, the customers were allowed to keep the shoes at no cost.
“We wanted to do something provocative,” said Doug Cameron, founder of DCX Growth Accelerator. “We wanted to get Payless back into the cultural discourse.”
Whether the campaign managed to do that is up for debate.
But it certainly managed to show that marketing works. Companies can really say anything about their merchandise, and some customers are going to believe it.
Palessi was supposedly named for Italian designer Bruno Palessi, an image that conjures images of haute couture and lots and lots of expensive things.
Payless and DCX Growth Accelerator went all out on their launch, decking the store out in a red carpet, gorgeous lights, statues of angels, and glass shelves full of supposedly one-of-a-kind shoes. The event was styled as an exclusive one, open to only a select customer base.
But the prank went even deeper, with a dedicated team that organized an Instagram account and onboarded fake interviewers, style influencers, fashionistas, and more.
DCX Growth Accelerator specializes in public pranks like this, which it calls “cultural hacks.” They’re designed to ask questions, challenge opinions, and change cultural mindsets. Of course, another part of the mission is to help companies rebrand themselves.
As for Payless, leaders were more interested in reminding people that it’s more than just an outlet store — it’s a supplier of high-quality shoes for affordable prices.
Payless has gone through a struggle over the past year, losing revenue and laying off employees. Company leaders were interested in finding out how it can go in a new direction with a new, more vibrant client base.
Both of the missions seem to have been successful.
For one, customers totally fell for the idea of an exotic Italian designer named Bruno Palessi.
“Palessi is just such high-quality, high-fashion, taking your shoe game up to the next level,” one customer said. “It looks really well made.”
Cat Chang, a diamond designer from Los Angeles, was one customer invited to the launch of the fake store. Although Chang said she was fooled by the prank, she was impressed by what she saw and will now rethink paying a visit to a Payless store in a mall.
Meanwhile, the prank also generated some interesting market insights.
What did a campaign like this tell companies about their consumers? They’re not good at knowing what quality of the product they’re getting. They rely on labeling, advertising, and branding, and they’ll believe what companies tell them.
“The way that we evaluate things is through associations. If you put wine in a nice bottle, people like it more. If you package things up to look more premium, people will like it more,” said Phillip Graves, a consumer behavior consultant. “If advertising has high production qualities, people will think it’s better.”
Whether the event will have a lasting impact on Payless remains to be seen. But it produced some interesting answers for how we see products and marketing.
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