Opinion
Column TM

Who Really Gets Punked in Marketing Stunts?

Forget impressions and start measuring real results.

Who Really Gets Punked in Marketing Stunts?

In November, Payless shoes set up a premium shoe boutique in Los Angeles, called it Palessi, and invited “influencers” to preview the shop. Fashionistas, trendsetters, and social media monsters showed up for the event and raved about Palessi’s fashionable, well-made shoes. Some said they would pay upward of $650 for a pair. Later, they learned the shoes sold for about $20.

This, my friends, is a marketing stunt.

Influencers were fooled by the Italian-sounding brand name and equated the upscale setting with quality. Then were got the bad news: It was all a fraud—and, by association, they are too.

Pranking a set of influencers is certainly amusing to me; pointing out how cheap Payless shoes are might not be the best marketing strategy, however.

We live in a new society, where transparency goes both ways. Sure, the points were made: Payless can fool influencers, and it sells really inexpensive shoes. But when the difference is $630, does it lack believability? If not, don’t you at least wonder why Payless doesn’t charge more—and what working conditions are for the people who make the $20 shoes?

Stunts are like crash diets and generally not a healthy marketing practice. They inject temporary energy into the brand, but last only a news cycle or two. Yes, Payless can turn this into a series of ads and stretch it out a bit further, but then it’s no longer news. Brands need sustainable energy, and the creative experiments that generate this energy need to be scalable. This stunt isn’t scalable. At least for Payless, this is a one-and-done.

It’s actually a bigger opportunity for influencer marketing (IM) firms, which essentially have become trading floors for social media stars who, with their large followings, can influence consumers’ purchase decisions. These IM agencies offer brands a centralized market to leverage influence and credibility. The Palessi stunt showcases how easily some influencers are fooled and why a vetted influencer who works with an agent might do better—fake influencers, beware.

The real question for Payless is: Would the Palessi experiment help someone remember Payless when they go shopping for shoes? Would the stunt leave a positive association about Payless with consumers? And how long will the memory last? The energy of this stunt is as temporary as duct tape.

Some might argue, “But it was so creative! Don’t brands need to be more creative?” Well, yes, they need more personality, and creativity is certainly a great attribute. But remember Enron? They did a lot of “creative” accounting, fooled a bunch of people, and got all kinds of media “impressions” for their efforts. Creativity is a means to an end, so we need to consider the purpose.

The Palessi stunt generated millions of media “impressions,” more value than Payless ad dollars could buy; all is good in the world of Payless shoes—until the hot-air balloon of agency puffery pops, and Ms. CFO shows up in stilettos (sure, from Payless) with a P&L devoid of real financial results.

If you’re still counting impressions, start to wean your team from that measurement. Move to behavior- or time-based metrics; you’ll have more proximity to real results. If Payless wanted customers to see the quality of Payless shoes, wouldn’t they want to draw customers to the actual store to try on a pair (or 10)? And if Payless wants customers to spend more time in their stores, would this be the best creative stunt to do that?

Like Enron’s “creativity,” this form of “creative” marketing lacks the discipline to deliver tangible long-term results. We need to clear our heads and start again, with three big questions for the next campaign:

Will this make memories and/or change behaviors with the people who matter?

Is the idea scalable or is it merely a flash in a hot pan?

How are we measuring success, and can we identify real behavior changes? 

Marketing is a proper discipline—important to the organization it serves, and a service to customers. If we treat our trade like it’s just pranks and stunts, then we can only expect management to see us as circus clowns with cigars—nothing against clowns or cigars.

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