How much would you pay for Payless shoes? Last week, one “influencer” offered to spend upwards of $600 on a pair, thanks to the brand’s clever Palessi marketing stunt. To recap, the budget shoe giant opened a faux luxury store in L.A., where it marked up its leather kicks (like pumps that retail for $19.99 or boots that go for $39.99) and invited influencers to come fawn over the “high-end” product. Footage taken from the launch event, which was translated into ads for the brand, shows said influencers gushing over the “stunning” specimens, only to express complete shock when they’re told the shoes are, in fact, Payless.
This was a genius marketing campaign—just look at all the media attention—social and traditional—it’s gotten Payless. (CNN, Ad Week, and ABC World News Tonight are just a few of the major outlets that covered the news.) The ultimate aim was to elevate the perception of the brand—to prove to consumers that, at Payless, they can get covetable, elevated, on-trend styles at a great price. But, in my opinion, what the campaign really achieved was highlighting why influencer marketing cannot be blindly trusted. The “influencers” (some of whom only have a couple thousand followers, hence the scare quotes) at the Palessi opening were paid to attend the event. So, of course, they were going to sing the shoes’ praises—that’s what they were hired to do. Thus, the takeaway is not necessarily the allure of the shoes, but that most Instagram stars will say whatever they’ve gotta say to get paid.
I found the Palessi shenanigans endlessly amusing (in a tweet, Questlove called the scheme “champion trolling”), but the gimmick had me asking a few questions. Firstly, why is influencer marketing effective when it is so clearly a façade? And secondly, why will shoppers shell out heaps of cash for items branded as “luxury” when often, they could get something of similar or perhaps even better quality from a lesser-known brand at a lower cost? According to the experts, the answer to both queries is the same. “The secret to the luxury business is that it’s all driven by emotion. What luxury brands are really selling is the emotional connection to the brand,” says Peter Noel Murray, Ph. D, who specializes in consumer psychology. “[Consumers] get what I call an ‘emotional end benefit’ out of having an association with either the brand or the influencer. It allows them to engage in some kind of emotional fantasy that creates wonderful feelings of Oxytocin soaring through the brain. That’s what makes them feel better about themselves. That’s what’s driving it. If you track the concept of an influencer back to pre-digital media, it’s the same as a celebrity endorsing a product.”
Meg Josephson, a New York-based psychotherapist, says it’s the “human” element that makes influencers so engaging. “Influencers are successful because they play to our human need for connection,” she explains. “We crave intimacy and influencers give that to us, whether it’s knowing about their day-to-day with their kids or watching them build their brand a thousand followers at a time. With the ’round-the-clock access that many of these influencers afford their followers, it doesn’t feel like a mirage. Trust is formed. This trust is critical because we feel that if an influencer is willing to endorse something, it is something they believe in.” Josephson reasons that the products in influencers’ #ads take on an enhanced meaning because the consumers align, owning them with achieving the perceived elevated lifestyle of their Insta-idol.
As far as why we spend, it largely comes down to propping up our self-perception. Luxury is associated with high prices and limited distribution—i.e., exclusivity. “Consumers will plunk down the money to buy that exclusivity,” Murray says. “They’re getting the end benefit of having that affect their self-identity. It allows them to have a transformation of their own perception of themselves.” And while sure, that may seem a bit empty, Murray assures that there are real benefits to the self-esteem steroid that is luxury. “Every emotion is a benefit. Basically, all day, we do things that give us emotional satisfaction and everything, in its own way, plays to that. We make decisions and purchases because subconsciously and sometimes consciously, there is this emotional end-benefit that we derive from that, which is very important to our own sense of who we are.”
But it’s not only about self-perception—in the age of social media, luxury feeds our narcissistic tendencies, and a big brand with name recognition will certainly garner more attention than an anonymous product, however fabulous. “This relates to what I’m calling the ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians Effect,’ where not only do we want to have nicer things than our neighbors, we want to use social media as a platform to show everyone exactly what we have,” says Josephson. “Millennials are spending more and more for the sole purpose of displaying what they have on Instagram. This speaks to the secondary gratification that not only comes from owning and wearing something beautiful but of having all our followers (friends and foes alike) comment on and ‘like’ said item.”
Yes, in a perfect world, emotional fulfillment would come solely from deep, meaningful connections, social good, and the like. But there’s nothing wrong with bolstering your happiness with a little retail therapy—so long as it doesn’t break the bank. “In moderation, retail therapy can prove very therapeutic. The act of exchanging money gives people the feeling of being in control and is also pleasurable,” says Josephson. “Even if it’s a relatively small decision in the scheme of things, the associated good feelings are very real and can be potent in the moment. When you wear the article of clothing, you may get that same good feeling. However,” she warns, “in excess, there’s a flip side: you experience a short-lived feeling of euphoria but then have to deal with the guilt of having overspent on something you can’t afford.”
When you splurge on a big-ticket item, you’re essentially fulfilling an emotional “need.” No, you don’t “need” that handbag to physically survive. Nor do you need it on any kind of rational level. But we, as humans, are not rational beings. “We love to think that we’re such rational people, that we make little lines on a page and [consider] the pluses and minuses. Well, that’s a crock,” Murray says, adding, “Emotional needs are just as valid, if not more valid, than many of our other needs.” If that’s not reason enough for a shopping spree, I don’t know what is.