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Zen and the art of marketing footwear

January 6, 2019

The idea of quality has been nagging me ever since the Payless ShoeSource marketing hoax in Santa Monica, Calif., at the tail end of 2018. Marketing executives thought of an ingenious way to show off their product in an upscale market by introducing one with a snappy name — Bruno Palessi.

To stave off sagging profits and reinvigorate its brand, Payless threw a launch party to celebrate a new luxury brand of Italian designer shoes from Bruno Palessi. Of course, they didn’t tell unsuspecting shoppers — “influencers” — of the ruse. Overnight, Payless became Palessi. And what better way to influence upscale customers who thought they were buying high-end, ridiculously priced shoes like Gucci and Prada with price tags up to $1,300?

An online YouTube video shows a customer buying a pair of $19.95 shoes for $800, believing she is getting a bargain. Of course, the buyer got her money returned, plus the shoes for free, all in the name of marketing and branding. The perpetuators of the marketing hoax were making a point that their products are just as swanky and beautiful as those from their high-end competitors.

Which brings us to the notion of quality: Is quality in the mind of the believer, or is it associated with aggressive branding? What drives consumers to be duped by these appeals to emotions and vanity?

Not since Robert M. Pirsig’s philosophical novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” in 1974 has the search for quality been so important. Pirsig’s novel is about a man and a son trekking across America on a motorcycle, searching for quality. And what they learn is that quality is akin to understanding the difference between what is classical and what is romanticism. It’s all in the viewer’s perspective. Do we see the world through a realist or idealistic lens — as in the old “Star Trek” series, with Mr. Spock seeing everything as logical, unemotional and completely cerebral, while Captain Kirk viewed things from an emotional, spontaneous and gut-instinct level? Obviously, the Kirk paradigm is the key to understanding quality as a subjective determinant.

The idea that quality can be packaged and sold as a commodity has been the driving force of capitalism. Think about how customers select items such as automobiles, makeup palettes, perfumes, shoes, and men’s and women’s garments. It’s all subjective. Reconciling price with quality is the conundrum. Can I get more for my buck without getting hit on quality?

But then again, what is quality? And how does one determine it? Is it based on craftsmanship or consumer demand, or does price play a dicey formulation in its appeal? The feud turns into a comic-tragedy, because one person’s junk can be another person’s treasure. The arbitration of quality is subjective. But the real determiner is craftsmanship, no matter the price. In short, Pirsig argues that quality is a perceptual experience.

The high quality of a pair of shoes, for instance, is reflected in the overall appearance of the item. Its construction, stitching, feel and overall aesthetics — all that will determine what consumers will pay for the item. Generally, people have a basic idea of what, if anything, determines quality.

The only outcome that Payless accomplished was to alert members of the public to their insane association of high prices and quality. All the customers who paid $500 to $800 for products costing $20 to $40 realized that quality is subjective. Which leads us to that nagging question: Is the price a true reflection of the product?

The philosophical debate continues. Next time you shop at a retail store, hold on to your wallet and ask plenty of questions.

Rafael Castillo, who teaches English and Humanities at Palo Alto College, is director of publications and special projects for Catch the Next Inc.

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