I guess it would be hard for Matt Rubel, CEO of Payless Shoesource, a company with over 4,600 retail stores and the nation’s number five shoe seller to build a successful business hinged on a logo that one designer (me) thinks has the potential charms and distinctive peculiarities necessary to communicate at least three out of four of the giant shoesaler’s self-ascribed characteristics, “contemporary, fun, friendly and, above all, stylish.” I guess, but I don’t believe it.
Just recently, in late June, Kansas-based Payless Shoesource, unveiled a new logo and a new direction for their retail stores as a result of new leadership change in the summer of 2005 when Matt Rubel, who previously worked on retail brands like J. Crew, Revlon, Tommy Hilfiger and Nike’s Cole Haan division, joined the company and procured Payless Shoesource in need of a new, more focused direction: to dispel the notion that they only sell “cheap shoes,” to appeal to a more design and budget-conscious customer (in other words, Targetize it) and, ultimately, to somehow deliver on the brand’s promise and strategic direction, “to democratize footwear and accessory fashion and inspire fun fashion possibilities for the family.” And, as we have discussed recently, what better reason for a rebranding than a need to signal change?
The strongest concern with the Payless brand was that it was simply out of date. To pinpoint how out of date it was, consumer research obviously ensued, and what does the logo do for Payless? Says, Rubel, “[it] pigeonholes us and dates us”. A reporter for the Associated Press summed the logo with clearly no design panache as “a 1980s-era bubble-lettered logo.” Logos, apparently, make for perfect scapegoats.
Anyone that has stepped into a Payless store knows that it is not the logo that dates the brand: It is the invariably poorly-lit, once-beige-maybe-gray-hopefully-not-white-carpeted, disorderly environment that does the trick. And, in an impossible-to-prove-bet, I would bet that the logo has little to do with the pigeonholing. Unscientifically, Payless is not where the label- or design-conscious consumer shops. It is low-end, and they should simply accept that fact and keep exploiting that demographic. Stores like Foot Locker and Champs command top-dollar. Payless simply can’t move out of the $40+ shoe, and to offer what their desired target audience wants, it’s going to take more than $40-Dunkman Shaqs. Climbing to the semi-high-end — which is the inevitable mission — could be perfectly achievable with the upgrade of the stores and a thorough improvement of their logo, which I would argue has enough equity and charisma to build into a renovated image.
But it seems arguing in favor of OJ Simpson is easier than for Cooper Black — the cornerstone of the Payless identity. In the past I have professed my love (yes, it’s love) for Cooper Black so it is especially biting to see Payless’ logo replaced with a thoroughly bland and unmemorable sans-serif (a modified Insignia I think) that sadly tries too hard to be stylistic while effortlessly losing all sense of charm and uniqueness. Yes, I may wax needlessly typographic — the latter loss (charm and uniqueness), honestly, worries me more than the typographic — but it is becoming increasingly difficult to lose the skepticism or find much merits in this decade’s major rebrandings that have justified every design decision with a press release. To my point:
Retaining the use of the color orange, for which Payless is well known, as well as the full name Payless ShoeSource, indicates to consumers that the retailer is not a completely different company, but simply a different Payless — still dedicated to its core values of delivering great quality and value. The logo includes an icon, which features a stylized P in a circle treatment to suggest dynamic movement and change, as well as a new fashion-oriented font highlighting the word Payless.
My heartfelt complaint stops at the typography, the icon (and its wordsmithed press releasing) is simply too generic to warrant serious concern or thought.
There is a drum I like to beat, and today I feel like banging on it pretty hard: I admire and find value in research, consumer feedback and defining a strategy that allows work to move forward based on common principles and goals as shared by a creative agency and the decision-makers on the client’s end. I find it inexcusable (and inexplicable) that poor graphic design solutions are being offered by the design firm — in this case dg* Desgrippes Gobe — under the guise of mission-abiding adjectives stemming from said agreed principles. We can keep excusing this work by admitting that we may not know enough about the strategic decisions and implications of the project; but here’s the secret that brand consultants don’t want you to know: It’s not that hard. Seriously. If you read the news, watch TV, go to movies, interact with people, and keep tabs on the world at large you are more than qualified to make understand the context of a rebranding and, more specifically, to make a judgment on the visual manifestation — the only thing that you and everyone else will likely see — of a company, specially a retail company with 4,600 stores, the “largest in the Western hemisphere.” There are things that I don’t know about this project, documents I didn’t read, conversations I didn’t have, presentations I certainly didn’t make, but I can tell you, as a graphic designer — and I really hate that we are so prone to not stand our ground when it comes to our opinions based on the one thing we do well, train for and make money off of: to create and visualize form out of loose ideas, data and desires — that Payless’ new logo is not good. It’s bad. And worst of all: It’s not amateur-bad, it’s professional-bad. Just like AT&T, UPS, Aflac, NWA and many, many more.
But I guess it’s hard for subjective opinions like this to be taken seriously. If we can’t take arguments on graphic design as anything more than subjective and, at the same time, so easily for all involved (specially those criticized) to dismiss them as such, then let me tell you that we are all in collective trouble. That I believe.
The silver lining, however, as Michael Bierut pointed out to me… there will be a lot of discarded, gigantic Cooper Black letters in back alleys as the company rolls out the new stores.