5 Questions with Walgreens CMO Pat McLean

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Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. As an “essential business”, Walgreens has rapidly pivoted to meet the current needs of their customers and patients. And while much of the world is on pause, kindness and giving is not. The pharmacy giant was challenged to reimagine Red Nose Day, the fundraising campaign to end child poverty. Interbrand’s Andrew Miller talks with Chief Marketing Officer Pat McLean about how the brand is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and supporting the health and well-being of America’s communities.

How are you adapting to the crisis?

It’s been an unprecedented experience for Walgreens and all of our team members to go through. I can certainly tell you that when all this started it was clear from the beginning that we were going to be declared an essential service.

Operationally, it’s been incredible to watch. We have a massive retail operation with more than 9,200 stores across the country and swinging into action was done almost overnight. We implemented some significant changes to the store environment so that people could not only feel safe but be safe. For the people who wanted to avoid going into the store we went to things like free shipping on our e-commerce site Walgreens.com. We started to execute some services that build on the strength of our operations/brand like offering retail essential products through drive-thru, and we’re also in the process of rolling out some other pick-up and delivery options. We’ve got testing sites rolling out across our footprint and we’ve been working extensively with the government on what that needs to look like over time. A lot of change in a short period of time — and I couldn’t be more proud of all of our team members throughout the country, for all of their efforts on behalf of our customers and our patients, but also on behalf of the brand. As a marketer and as the guardian of the brand, it’s been great to see what we’ve done in proof of what we stand for.

Walgreens has been and continues to be an “essential business” during the current crisis providing customers with medicines and retail services. What was your experience in navigating this period?

We’re just trying to do the best we can to make our customers and patients as happy and healthy as possible, given the environment. We’re living on the front lines of this and we’re learning every day in dealing with the crisis itself and people’s new behaviors and expectations. We’re applying that to what the future looks like for Walgreens both as a brand, as an experience, and really as a company. I think that will be to our advantage — being able to adapt in real time.

For brands who are less on the front lines at the moment — my advice would be trying to get as much learning in as you possibly can. Observe what others are doing, as there’s a ton of insight work and data and a lot of chatter on how we’re going to emerge from this as a country and as consumers.

Have you seen any shifts in customer behavior over the last months?

Customer expectations and customer behavior changed virtually overnight. What was very much a self-serve in store experience, especially the retail part of our business, became a flipped service model, with people expecting convenience in a very different way. Our company had to ensure orders, produce rapid innovation, and develop new experiences to be able to serve those brand new customer needs.

One new behavior that we’ve seen is trip consolidation. People are being thoughtful when they’re going to a retailer or a pharmacy by taking full advantage of that trip and purchasing more. The other piece we’ve learned is that the expertise of our pharmacists has really been valuable not just to us but to our patients and our customers. We’ve created the “Ask a Pharmacist” series about the top questions that we get either in store, on our website or via social media. This series answers our patients’ questions directly and provides health expertise into the marketplace. Our pharmacists have also worked closely with patients on changes to prescription refills so they are able to make fewer trips.

One of the strengths of Walgreens is our operational prowess, as it has demonstrated to all of us that when we choose to do something, we can pull off miracles on behalf of our customers and patients.

What aspects of the Walgreens brand and purpose/beliefs have you leaned into during the crisis?

I like to think there are rational benefits that a brand delivers. The knowledge that’s embedded in the pharmacists and other areas of expertise that we have as a company is very important. Convenience is also a massive part of our rational benefits – we’re within 5 miles of 80% of all Americans just in terms of our physical locations and then we add omnichannel capabilities like delivery, drive-through, curbside pickup, etc. We’re a very community-oriented brand, and there is a remarkable kindness that I think is the emotional connection that people have to Walgreens. When you come in it’s a very personal place, it’s a very friendly place. People refer to “My Walgreens” all the time…  We’ve got a real personal connection with people and that shows up in the way we treat our customers and patients. We treat them in a kind way, and we’re also a kind brand.

From a community perspective, we’re in the middle of Red Nose Day –one of our big charitable campaigns for the year. The mission to raise money to end child poverty remains more important now than ever. Think about people who’ve been displaced from unemployment going to shelter at home and just making it very difficult to even feed their children. There’s lots of really kind initiatives that we can do as a company and that’s going to be an anchor for our brand. You’re going to see the rational benefits coming through in even more concrete and differentiated ways. Then you’re going to see us dial up the emotional side of our brand which I would sum up in this notion of being kind. 

How did you reimagine the Red Nose Day to continue supporting its mission to keep children safe, healthy and educated during the COVID-19 pandemic?

For the past five years, we’ve raised over 100 million dollars by selling the iconic Red Nose in stores nationwide. We really wanted to keep the program, so we had to get creative. This year was going to be incredibly challenging for us because not as many people are physically going into stores and we didn’t want to encourage people to put something on their face when we’re also supporting CDC guidance telling people not to touch their face.

We had to go digital and found a really exciting and fun way to support the program. The idea is that when you make a donation online at Walgreens.com/RedNoseDay it unlocks a digital Red Nose filter for Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat so you can have fun with a picture of yourself. We’ve had a number of stars in the Comic Relief network do it. We’ve also had a lot of our team members engage in it online and so far it’s going very well. I’ll just put in a plug hoping that people tune into the Red Nose Day special on NBC. It’s coming up on May 21st at 8/7c, comedians and celebrities will come together for a night of fundraising to help children in need. Since we don’t have sports events on television, this should be something new and fun!

How can you help?

Now, through May 30, consumers can donate online, to unlock the new Red Nose filter to be shared on social media. Share your selfie wearing the new digital Red Nose with your social network, tagging @Walgreens and #NosesOn. One hundred percent of online donations will benefit Red Nose Day grantee organizations that support children, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic.

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