Q&A: How Payless Brilliantly Bamboozled Fashionistas With Its Fake Luxury Pop-up, ‘Palessi’

'We couldn’t skimp in any way. It had to feel real.'

The discount shoe retailer and agency DCX Growth Accelerator created a faux fashion shop that sparked millions of impressions. Payless
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

There may be a few schools of thought on why the Payless faux boutique stunt has attracted so much attention this week, with its videos of Los Angeles fashionistas paying $600 for $20 shoes going viral within hours of launching on social media.
One: It’s a brilliant marketing move that calls attention to stylish footwear at bargain prices and shakes up popular (and stale) opinion about a retailer that’s been around since the late 1950s.
Two: It’s a sharp jab in the eye to influencers willing to shell out big bucks for pedestrian products. Or perhaps it’s an even broader dig at influencer culture itself? Tweeting about the stunt to his 2.5 million followers, Questlove called it “champion trolling.”
Either way, it’s a massive win for Payless, which took over a former Armani location in Santa Monica recently and invited groups of fashion-forward social media mavens to the grand opening of “Palessi,” a bespoke shop decorated with gold mannequins, soft lighting, model-perfect sales assistants and other posh accoutrements more befitting a Prada store than a shopping mall staple.
Some shoes had prices attached, with outrageous markups of as much as 1,800 percent. Participants also tossed out their own guesses about how much the various ankle boots and embellished sneakers should cost, offering no less than $400 for products that actually sell for $19.99 to $39.99. Top bid: $640.
The influencers used descriptors like “elegant,” “classy” and “sophisticated,” with one gal calling a floral pump “stunning.” Their reactions on finding out they’d been duped by the Palessi label: Priceless. (No one reportedly left mad, though. They got refunds and free shoes, plus maybe a lesson learned.)

The campaign, which launched Thursday morning on digital media and the same evening on TV, comes as the brand has brought in new blood for its marketing team internally and hired DCX Growth Accelerator for the agency’s first Payless work, which it turned around in about two months.
Lisa Contino, vp of marketing at Payless, and Doug Cameron, chief creative officer at DCX, spoke to Adweek about the campaign’s origins and its logistics, which included creating a fake digital ad for the fake Palessi label (in case of pesky Google searches).
As for the aftermath, Contino has been fielding national press calls, with Payless set to appear on Good Morning America and the Today Show, while Cameron is busy tallying voluminous Facebook, Instagram and YouTube stats. (On Adweek.com alone, the Palessi stunt was viewed more than 1 million times in 24 hours.)
We caught up with the team amid the chaos of their PR coup to learn more about how it came together:
Adweek: How did you brainstorm the Palessi concept?
Doug Cameron, CCO of DCX Growth Accelerator: We wanted to revitalize this iconic shoe retailer, and what we found when we interviewed Payless shoppers is that they weren’t into all the over-branding and aspiration inflation that’s been happening in recent years. They’re very practical. So we decided to push back against the current billionaire culture and get Payless to reassert its pragmatist approach and show its smart, savvy attitude.

"What we found when we interviewed Payless shoppers is that they weren’t into all the over-branding and aspiration inflation that’s been happening in recent years. They’re very practical."
Doug Cameron, CCO, DCX Growth Accelerator

We’d also done some stunts before for Jesse’s Deli (giving the Brooklyn bodega a fake artisanal makeover as an anti-gentrification statement). That provided some inspiration. We said, “What if we do something similar?”
How did you think it would play out?
Cameron: We wanted to see what would happen if we opened this fake store and invited the most fashionable people we possibly could. Would they give their stamp of approval? At the same time, we thought the Payless consumer would appreciate it.

Lisa Contino, vp of marketing, Payless: We had a limited media buy, and we had to do something different. Just spewing messages at your consumer isn’t going to work in this ad environment. We believe in our product, but it’s better if we let other people tell you how great it is rather than us telling you. We weren’t trying to trick people or make anybody upset.

How does this fit into the Payless ad strategy?
Contino: I was brought on a few months ago (along with CMO Sara Couch) to rejuvenate the brand. Payless has been around for 60 years, and the advertising had become mostly about tactical execution and selling shoes seasonally, like for Easter or holiday. We needed to create an overarching strategy, make it newer, more relevant and get people talking about the brand again.

"We were very nervous leading up to the shoot. We didn’t know what was going to happen."
Lisa Contino, vp of marketing, Payless

Did you see the campaign as a risk?
Contino: It was certainly a risk, and we were very nervous leading up to the shoot. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We thought it was an amazing concept and it should work—but what if it didn’t?
Cameron: The client was willing to take the risk, and that’s rare, so they were kindred spirits for us. Dream client!
How did you physically set up the store and build its atmosphere?
Contino: We couldn’t skimp in any way because our ultimate goal was for it to be believable. It had to feel real in every detail. No one could be caught talking about Payless because then our cover would be blown.
Cameron: We created a Palessi website as an ad so it would show up if people Googled it. We couldn’t let them find out it didn’t exist. The Payless labels were disguised as Palessi, the lighting was perfect, there was a velvet rope for photos and Palessi shopping bags. We had camera crews, which would be natural for a store opening on that level. We wanted everything to reflect an L.A. luxury environment.
Talk about the big reveals.
Contino: The reactions in every case were shock and surprise. They were amazed. They’d say, “No way! You’re kidding!”, and, “Shut up! Did I pay too much?” Then they’d say they were excited because they didn’t know Payless could deliver such a product. That’s exactly what we wanted.
Cameron: We weren’t expecting the reaction to be quite as priceless, and we didn’t plan for the reaction shots to be as central to the spots as we ended up making them.
So there were no hard feelings?
Cameron: The sharing took off (after the videos launched) mostly influencer to influencer. They’re having a lot of fun with it, which might seem a little counterintuitive. But Payless has a unique position in American culture, and they have the authenticity to take a point of view in that space. It helps that it’s done with humor.
And it seems like people are rooting for Payless. It was a beloved brand, and this could be the moment for it to come back. The campaign is channeling a lot of goodwill toward the brand.
Maybe the timing was just right?
Contino: The way we look at it, it’s never not cool to get a bargain. No one ever says, “I paid way too little, and I’m really angry about it.” If you can get a deal and still get what you want, we think that’s never going to go out of style.


Join the foremost brand marketers, such as Marc Pritchard, Brad Hiranaga, Kory Marchisotto and more, for Brandweek Masters Live on Sept. 14-17. Secure your pass and learn from the brand masters.

@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.