In 2018, fashion bloggers were invited to the opening of a new store in Los Angeles.
Italian brand Palessi had taken over premises recently vacated by Armani.
It was to be Palessi’s US launch, impossible to resist for anyone at the forefront of fashion.
It was invitation only, a private preview of its latest shoe range.
Until now, Palessi’s shoes had only been available in Milan, Florence and Rome.
The store was decorated in impeccable Italian taste: minimalist, mainly shades of grey, a single white statue of a winged lion, gold mannequins, shoes displayed like jewels.
Guests were served Champagne and canapes by attractive young staff.
The influencers were so impressed, they video blogged to their followers to show the sort of exclusive event they were invited to.
And they gushed about the shoes – in fact, they couldn’t wait to buy them.
Of course, they weren’t cheap – the prices were similar to Jimmy Choo, or Balenciaga, or Louboutin.
And the influencers paid up to $600 for their exclusive Palessi shoes.
After they bought them, they were invited into a back room where it was explained to them that the shoes actually cost between $19.99 and $39.99 a pair.
Palessi was actually another name for Payless, the budget shoe store.
The entire event was being videotaped and, if they agreed to let Payless use the film for advertising, they could have their money back and keep the shoes for free.
Naturally, all the influencers quickly agreed.
And Payless had footage of fashion bloggers with thousands of followers saying the shoes were indistinguishable from the real thing.
Of course, if the influencers had refused, Payless would have had to give them their money back anyway, but the influencers didn’t seem to spot that.
So Payless got fantastic advertising for next to nothing.
Does it mean that people who bought expensive shoes would now buy Payless instead?
Of course not.
The shoes are only a small part of what upmarket customers were paying for.
They’re actually buying an exclusive brand, so what are they paying for then?
It’s letting everyone know that they have shoes that only the richest people on the planet can afford – it makes them feel exclusive, discerning and special.
And, of course, that isn’t the Payless brand.
So what is the Payless brand, and who would buy that?
It’s about value for money for the girl who wants to look as good as rich people but can’t afford it, and wouldn’t if she could.
It’s smart shoes for no-nonsense people, with more sense than money.
Now would that advertising work among the Payless market?
Those girls saw that all the people who routinely pay a fortune for shoes, the influencers who advise rich people, can’t tell the difference.
So if you wear Payless shoes to a red-carpet event, no-one would know.
Now that’s a very different sort of brand.
And what I love is the agency realised people are different and want different things.
So brands have to be about different things.
Not just blindly following whoever else has been successful.
Even if they’re successful, their market may have nothing to do with yours.
So before we even think about brands, we need to study the market.
Defining the brand can tell you where you currently are, but studying the market can tell you where you could go.