The Haunting of Payless

I don't know if you can picture the Lipton's tea box. Lipton is named for Sir Thomas J. Lipton, the founder of the company, who was a yachtsman and a symbol of the British Empire. There's a tiny picture of him in the corner of the box. He's all white, like a ghost. They made him really small and they pushed him into the corner, where he now haunts his own brand.

Questions for a commercial semiotician

Originally published on January 24, 2007.

n+1: Mr. Hamrah, thank you so much for talking to us today.

A. S. Hamrah: Call me Scott.

n+1: Scott, what do you think of the new Payless logo?

ASH: This Payless logo change is not good, and it reflects the usual branding problem of deciding to change a logo after it’s already too late to make a meaningful change. This is usually done, as it is here, by using a typeface and design that arrives on the signage already out-of-date. The old logo had come to mean inexpensive shoes. It was neglected but lovable.

n+1: Yes-the change seems oddly timed in part because we seem to be in the midst of a ’70s revival.

ASH: Perhaps. But Payless doesn’t care about that. They’re doing an early-days-of-the-internet look. It looks like now they want to call it “iPayless.” Maybe what they should have done was reverse the field-made all the yellow things black, and the black things yellow. The only thing they retained in the new logo is the orange from the two O’s. Where did the light blue come from?

n+1: It would still look like Halloween if the blue were black. And if it were yellow you wouldn’t be able to see it and it would sort of burn your eyes.

ASH: Would it? But you can barely see it as it is. It’s like the orange from the old logo is haunting the new logo. Payless is haunting itself.

n+1: Is that a term semioticians use?

ASH: It’s a term I use.

n+1: What’s another example of haunting?

ASH: I don’t know if you can picture the Lipton’s tea box. Lipton is named for Sir Thomas J. Lipton, the founder of the company, who was a yachtsman and became a symbol of the British Empire. There’s a tiny picture of him in the corner of the box. He’s all white, not like a white colonialist, but white like a ghost. But no one ever notices that or thinks about Sir Thomas Lipton anymore. In fact he’s not even “Sir” anymore on the box, he’s just Thomas J. Lipton. They made him really small and they pushed him into the corner, where he now haunts his own brand. I guess they don’t want their tea to be associated with imperialism. Payless doesn’t have a figure like Thomas J. Lipton, but they’re haunting their own brand just the same.

n+1: By retaining the orange.

ASH: And by making it ghostly and apparitional-as opposed to aspirational. Because it’s not aspirational; it’s “pay less.” I mean, the aspiration is that you save money. But that’s a negative now, for them. They think nobody wants to look like they’re saving money.

n+1: Maybe by making the “Payless” sort of ghostly and rounded and inconsequential, “Payless” becomes just another one of those words that doesn’t mean anything.

ASH: Exactly. This is about unmeaning. They are unmaking the brand. They’re trying to go from “Pay Less”-to what sounds like “Payliss.” It sounds like “painless.”

n+1: The “Payless” was never two words or hyphenated, was it? Which was always a problem.

ASH: That’s their name. It’s not a problem.

n+1: The old Payless logo was gold and orange, colors that are supposed to make consumers hungry, right?

ASH: The reason Howard Johnson’s was turquoise and orange was supposedly-this is a rumor as far as I know, I’ve never read this anywhere (I should look into it more)-that turquoise and orange make you hungry. Anyway, who says? I don’t believe that. But the orange and pale blue in the Payless logo look like Howard Johnson’s. So maybe it’s supposed to make you hungry. Hungry for shoes. I do think women buy shoes as a sublimation of eating. You can shop for shoes instead of eating.

n+1: Eh, I don’t know. I think it’s about choosing and stocking up. Women are probably still in thrall to their thousands of years as gatherers of berries and edible tubers and things. Women take a lot of pride in their power to discern and select.

ASH: Well, that’s true. Shoe shopping is like gathering tubers. Shoes are like potatoes. It’s like that Jerky Boys joke, “I’ll take my shoes with me so I’ll have them.” But I see it more as a sublimation of eating and of sex. I like women’s shoes a lot, personally. I’ve always said that if I could do it all over again, I’d be a women’s shoe designer . . . or a Nascar driver. Shoes are like cars; you slip into them. Anyway, as far as the colors of food go, I don’t buy that. I don’t believe in any of these neurological approaches or evolutionary ones either. These brain and gene studies that attempt to isolate why we “naturally” relate to phenomena the way we do-you can figure these things out by sitting around and thinking about it. You don’t need electrodes. Anyway, I’m not saying you’re wrong, but we can firmly believe today that buying shoes is like gathering tubers, and in the future people will be like “Oh yeah, right. That was back when people thought shoe shopping was like gathering tubers!”

n+1: The old logo was actually very masculine. The black background, the sunset colors, the sort of nouveau old-timey font. Like the Wild West.

ASH: Like another tequila sunrise. The font is Cooper Black SH Condensed.

n+1: Wow.

ASH: Colors make you hungry by increasing your metabolism, according to this thing I just found on Colormatters.com.

n+1: Do they cite any sort of physical basis for how it increases your metabolism?

ASH: Apparently seeing the color does it. So what. Fantastic. There’s no control to the experiment. And where’s the restaurant chain that failed because the colors were wrong?

n+1: But some things are more noticeably edible than other things. Like blue things are not usually edible.

ASH: Well, it’s funny that you mention that, because the way they prove that they’re informed experts on color and food is by starting their food-color section with a thing on blue M&M’s. Blue is an appetite suppressant, apparently. So how ironic that they added blue M&M’s to the standard M&M mix, is what they’re saying. I think they got rid of beige because beige makes you suicidal!

n+1: It was tan. But why’d they choose blue for Viagra then?

ASH: I don’t know. Is Viagra blue or purple?

n+1: It’s blue.

ASH: Blue is a masculine color. And if it’s an appetite suppressant, I guess that’s good, because some people who have those problems have them because they eat too much and are fat. So guys are like, “Instead of having dinner tonight, I’m going to have some Viagra, honey.”

n+1: And the woman’s like, “Well, I guess that means I’m not having dinner either.”

ASH: The Payless “P” with the light-blue tail is very Piscean, like the horoscope symbol. Why do they want to associate their shoes with fish?

n+1: Technically, it looks more like the Cancer zodiac symbol. But it does look like a fish. And actually, Pisces governs the feet!

ASH: Why are they trying to appeal to water signs? Are water signs more attracted to saving money on shoes?

n+1: Probably, but I don’t believe in astrology anymore. Astronomically, the Western zodiac is about two thousand years off.

ASH: It looks like the yin and yang; that’s the obvious association-and one shoe fits with the other in the box.

n+1: Huh! Good point.

ASH: It looks like a 6 and a backward 9. It looks like fertility to me.

n+1: That’s what I thought when I walked by. I thought it was a fetus, and that it was some sort of attempt to reach out to the Christian Right.

ASH: The look of the logo was probably arrived at through a branding process resulting in the insight that women associate shopping for shoes with fertility. And they showed the new logo to a focus group and the focus group didn’t hate it. To successfully buy a pair of shoes is to successfully become pregnant. Shoe shopping and getting pregnant are both problematized, frustrating processes for women; both require endurance and more than one trip to the store. And profligate shoe shoppers who buy shoes at the drop of a hat can probably be seen as very fertile. The process for them is easy. Too easy. To me the logo resembles the logo for a fertility drug, or some kind of drug for “women’s problems.” Every shopping trip represents a successful impregnation. It’s like, “Honey, sit down. I’ve got to tell you something . . . I bought a cheap pair of shoes at Payless!”

n+1: And the guy’s like, “What are we gonna do?!”

ASH: “Are they pumps?” Maybe they wanted their shoe store to be called Pumps. That’s what they’re getting at. It’s dirty. And it’s sexy. It’s very masculine-it’s one syllable. They’re trying to make it look like it’s called Pumps. They’re trying to pretend it doesn’t say Payless and just concentrate on that P. That P that’s forcing its way in.

n+1: I still think shoe shopping is more about looking for berries.

ASH: Branding ideas, at that level—somebody just wins. They pick the blandest, most inoffensive thing they can get and don’t think about the implications once that choice has been made. It’s voodoo. Without the rigor of voodoo.

n+1: It’s like voodoo, but on a quarterly schedule.

ASH: Voodoo has definite goals and aims.

n+1: Do you have any personal associations with the Payless brand?

ASH: Payless was once attractive to slackers, which may be why you noticed the logo change. When I was living in Allston, Massachusetts , the Payless Shoe Source on Harvard Street was a cool place in a negative sense, which gave certain people an excuse to shop there. It was an acceptable way to buy new things for people who didn’t want to be perceived as buying new things. Then the internet came along, just as the culture was becoming more grasping and whoreish-and with the internet you can get whatever you want quickly. Now people will have one used item in their outfit-not used but “vintage”—just to show they’re not lame. And that item will sometimes cost hundreds of dollars. Back in those shopping-at-Payless days, my girlfriend used to go to the AmVets or the Salvation Army (“the Sally”) or the Goodwill (“the bargie,” for “bargain store,” pronounced “boggie” if you’re from Boston) and she and a lot of other people had their day—”I go on Tuesdays.” But now you can go on eBay and get exactly what you want whenever you want, instead of going once every week to a thrift store and just hoping, and the result, curiously, is that people look more the same now than ever.

n+1: The people who went on Tuesdays got the Tuesday clothes, from the Tuesday shipment.

ASH: They got what they got and they incorporated it until they got sick of it, and it wasn’t a big deal because they went again the next Tuesday.

n+1: Do you think the new look will have any effect on Payless’s sales?

ASH: Despite the inadequacy of this redesign, I predict the Payless rebranding will be hailed in the business press as meaningful (if it’s mentioned at all), just as the Dunkin’ Donuts one was. After Dunkin’ Donuts changed their look by cluttering it up and making it blander, the company successfully got across the message that Dunkin’ Donuts was the workingman’s Starbucks. Because, I guess, we all know workingmen like bland, cluttered things. So once a brand gives itself a new, inauthentic look, it is suddenly remembered as an authentic thing and becomes in the minds of business writers the authentic thing it no longer is. So I predict success for Payless even as they alienate the people who actually liked their look. For most of the people who shop there, the look doesn’t matter one way or the other. That’s another reason this blandification through passé logo design is suspect.

My friend was obsessed with Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. She moved from Boston to Los Angeles, but out there they don’t have two Dunkin’ Donuts on every block like they do in Massachusetts.

n+1: What do they have instead?

ASH: They have all-night Chinese doughnut places where the doughnuts taste like chicken wings. She was upset with Dunkin’ Donuts because they changed their logo. They put that cup on the far left next to the logotype and they made the colors lighter, and they basically did the same thing Payless has done, and it was clear to Dunkin’ Donuts aficionados that they had messed it up. Companies don’t care about their devoted fans. So my friend wrote on her blog about the new logo. And then the Dunkin’ Donuts corporate people contacted her. They asked her all these questions, and they were going to “follow up” somehow, but I think they got scared because on her blog she uses the name “Kitty Bukkake.”

n+1: Oh no.

ASH: The addition of the cup is seen as aberrant by fans. The company is trying to say “We’re not just doughnuts.” But no one thought that. No one ever said, “I can’t get a cup of coffee there because it’s a doughnut shop.”

n+1: Remember their old logo that was like a rising sun? If you google Christ Died for Our Dunkin’ Donuts you’ll get it.

ASH: That’s a great logo.

n+1: Because it’s a doughnut being dunked in a cup of coffee!

ASH: Why didn’t they go back to that? Why did they make this new ugly cup of coffee? They think, “No one dunks their doughnuts anymore.” They’re very literal, even as the brand becomes more nebulous.

n+1: The new Payless logo is very conducive to being stamped onto something. Do you think that if Payless created their own shoe line it would be a successful brand?

ASH: I do, yeah, now that you mention it. But not with the new logo. With the old logo. They should put “Payless” on the shoes like Keds does, black on yellow in the old font. The point is, in authoritarian systems, the people in charge constantly change their excuses for doing things, so they can do the same things over and over again. They don’t want to change, they just want to pretend they’ve changed-they have no basic belief in what they do anymore-and the farther along in the process they are, the more they pretend they’re only about one thing. Coffee, in the case of Dunkin’ Donuts. Dunkin’ Donuts is failing in this regard. Just as the war in Iraq is failing. Which has nothing to do with Payless.

n+1: I disagree.

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