Recognize If Your Brand Has a ‘Problem’ Before You Become the Big Next Failed Retailer

Perhaps tricking customers isn’t the best marketing strategy

Palessi may have been fun, but it didn't help save the brand. - Credit by Payless
Headshot of Tom Denari

Recently, Payless revealed that it will soon be closing all of its 2,500 shoe stores. It wasn’t the most earth-shattering news, but seeing the story reminded me of their Palessi stunt back in November.

For some reason, many marketers think it’s really cool to trick consumers into thinking that they’re enjoying a high-end product when it’s really the crummy brand that they’d never buy. They’re strangely proud to promote that they have products their brands don’t live up to when they should actually be embarrassed.

What these marketers too often forget is that brands are as much about feeling than they are facts.

The role of a brand isn’t simply just to help sell a product; a brand should also enhance the buyer’s experience with it. If it doesn’t, either the brand is weak or the product is completely misplaced, like when Volkswagen tried to introduce a luxury car, the Phaeton. While the Phaeton’s physical characteristics may have objectively lived up to the standards of other premium class cars, the VW brand didn’t. Unfortunately, a consumer’s brand experience isn’t objective, no matter if it’s shoes, pizza, coffee or automobiles. As the hidden camera stunts illustrate, a combination of elements including environment, price and brand perception all create a context that influences how a consumer actually experiences a product. This is why it’s not surprising that when women walked into what they perceived to be a high-end designer store, they felt really good about the shoes no matter what they saw or tried on. But this stunt also underlined the fact that Payless had a brand problem, not a product problem.

How do you know if your brand has a problem?

Well, are people surprised that your products are actually really good? Or do you wish people realized that your products are worth more than you’re getting for them?

Unfortunately, many marketers often seek to remedy these challenges by objectively proving that their products are better with tests or data—or even tricking people. What these marketers too often forget is that brands are as much about feeling than they are facts. People generally make choices once they have a feeling about something then use facts to justify the decision. In a sense, consumers are buying the idea of the thing more than the thing itself because a brand subconsciously represents a reflection of them.

While we all buy shoes, the brand of shoes we buy and where we buy them says a lot about who we are. Unfortunately, the Payless brand, whose store environment, advertising and maybe even the name itself created a context that made its shoes feel less valuable to consumers. All of this adds up to the demonstration that how a brand behaves is as important as what it sells.

If you want people to perceive that your product is worth more, your brand could follow Target’s lead.

First, behave like it’s worth more, even if you’re a discount retailer. Target gets this. Over the years, instead of faux fashion stunts, Target has created partnerships with designers like Jason Wu and Lilly Pulitzer to give them legitimate fashion credibility, which rubs off on all of its products throughout the store.

Second, invest in the consumer experience. Target’s merchandising is thoughtfully designed, creating engaging spaces to give context to seemingly simple products that might look mundane just sitting on a shelf, proving that the right presentation can make almost anything seem more valuable.

Finally, don’t focus on price. Plenty of psychological research has demonstrated that low prices often signal low quality. Target’s messaging strategy and advertising is about energy, not price, making whatever you buy there feel a little more valuable than the few dollars you spent on it.

None of what I’ve said thus far should be a big surprise to anyone who considers themselves a serious practitioner of marketing, though time and again this understanding isn’t put into practice as brands—especially retailers—fail to invest adequately in their brand expression, advertising or store experience. Too often, investment in a brand is viewed as a “nice to have,” or as I’ve sometimes heard, something “we’ll get to it when we’re stronger,” which regards the care and feeding of their brand as an indulgence, not an investment.

All brands should take the closing of a large retailer like Payless as another bitter lesson to be heeded. And hopefully the next time a marketer is tempted to capture a social media moment to prove that their offering is just as good as a much more expensive one, maybe they won’t, realizing that they might have a brand problem.


@TomDenari Tom Denari is president and principal of Young & Laramore (Y&L).
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