While the last year has been one of turmoil, for many businesses it reinforced their priorities. Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) was one such company as the pandemic elevated the importance of entrepreneurial thinking blending with corporate social responsibility. I sat down with Annie Murphy, SVP / Global Chief Commercial Brands Officer and International Retail at Walgreens Boots Alliance to talk about their approach and the issues that are top of mind for the business.
Dave Knox: How has the pandemic impacted the prioritization of corporate social responsibility for Walgreens Boots Alliance?
Annie Murphy: WBA is uniquely positioned; our scale, solutions, global partners, and our passionate and dedicated teams together enable us to keep making a positive impact in the communities we proudly serve. CSR has not only been a key priority for our business, but it is also the fabric of who we are as a company. If anything, this pandemic has reinforced our approach to CSR and elevated our top issue of healthcare access. As outlined in our newly released CSR Report, we are continuing to step up to help people across the world live happier, healthier lives because it’s imperative at all times, not only in times of crisis.
I think these unprecedented times have underscored the critical role that we play at WBA as a leading global pharmacy retailer. Patients, consumers and businesses depend on us for medications, expert information and care, essential items, and – now – for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.
Our businesses are helping the world emerge from the pandemic by testing millions of people for COVID-19, vaccinating patients in the U.S. and the U.K., and helping to store and distribute vaccines globally.
We are committed to driving equitable access to vaccines and prioritizing communities of color, many of whom have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. In the U.S., our vaccine equity initiative is focused on addressing common access barriers, including vaccine hesitancy and lack of transportation. Efforts include partnerships that remove access barriers, educational outreach and rolling out new care models, like off-site clinics.
In addition, WBA’s businesses also supported communities through numerous campaigns, donations and ongoing charity work to continue to prioritize our CSR efforts. We improved healthcare access and raised awareness on health issues through COVID-19 testing in underserved communities, outreach to more than a million vulnerable patients in the U.S. to help them stay on their medications during lockdowns, programs in Chicago to address health inequities, safe spaces for victims of domestic violence in our Chile, Ireland and UK pharmacies and online pharmacy and beauty support for people living with cancer in the UK, all while managing and reducing our waste and emissions to help mitigate climate change.
Knox: To no surprise, COVID-19 has greatly impacted retail, causing a large shift from in-person to digital sales. How has the pandemic changed customer behaviors and expectations?
Murphy: The digital world exploded as a channel for research, for inspiration, and for purchases during the pandemic, and we’ve seen a huge uplift in the use of our online resources. The convenience of our resources and digital tools has taken on new meaning for patients seeking to access medications from home or to consult with a pharmacist through an app on their phone.
The MyWalgreens app and the Walgreens Find Care digital platforms are great examples of that. We rebranded the Walgreens customer loyalty program while redesigning the mobile app entirely, and it’s become an even more powerful health and wellness tool that features a range of services for customers and patients, including 24/7 pharmacy chat, access to find and book medical care and vaccination appointments, personalized health and wellness advice and real-time flu alerts. The Walgreens Find Care digital platform also recently expanded to more than 45 U.S. healthcare service providers to help patients navigate their healthcare experience from the comfort of their own home.
In the UK, community pharmacies such as Boots UK are the biggest healthcare provider in underserved areas, where patients can consult with a pharmacist without an appointment and receive expert advice on clinical conditions and medicines as well as referrals to the appropriate support. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the capacity of the Boots UK online repeat prescription service was increased to enable customers to have their medicines delivered to their homes for free.
What we’ve done at WBA is adopt an entrepreneurial mindset through this period, challenging our conventional marketing models, ramping up our focus and investment in digital channels, mass personalization and the development of our online service options and resources.
We’ve embraced this mindset with our brands, too – including beauty. We pioneered with our first online-only product launch for No7, which was very successful and generated a lot of excitement. We have also mobilized our beauty advisors, who conducted online consultations with consumers during lockdown. As we begin to look forward to a return to “normalcy,” there is no doubt that the digital dynamic we have seen through this period is here to stay and we must think omnichannel in everything we do.
Knox: With this shift, how do you see WBA and its brands continuing to play a role in consumers’ lives, both in-store and online?
Murphy: I think the important thing is remaining customer-obsessed with all the great insights and data we have. We must remain curious and listen to what customers need, and then be extremely agile in innovating products, services and experiences that meet those needs. We have expanded our beauty brands in the U.S. this year, and we are now looking at other parts of the world. We need to expand our global platform, but in a way that is locally relevant.
Knox: How are you utilizing these consumer insights to make healthcare more accessible for communities?
Murphy: Helping people live healthier, happier lives is our purpose, and we’re uniquely positioned to use our scale, solutions, global partners and passionate colleagues to continue to make a positive impact on healthcare access and affordability in the communities we proudly serve.
To develop innovative, accessible healthcare options, we are doubling down on personalization and digitization. Teams across WBA continue to work to improve the care experience and help patients find savings digitally like with our Walgreens mobile app, which now has more than 65 million downloads. We are partnering with companies to create neighborhood healthcare destinations with accessible services as we have done with the Boots Macmillan Information Pharmacist consultations, which are available digitally, free of charge. Our trained pharmacists are providing patient consultations virtually and safely in our stores. It’s through these tactics that we’re combining digitization with personalization to make healthcare more accessible for communities. You can learn more about them in our “At the Heart of Health” 2020 CSR Report.
Knox: How has the pandemic accelerated new and innovative solutions to pharmacy?
Murphy: When COVID-19 hit, our communities went into lockdown, businesses closed down and people stayed home for weeks and months. But not WBA. Our pharmacies and stores, distribution centers and wholesale operations stayed open across the globe to provide essential healthcare services, medications and consumer goods.
We innovated and adapted to meet evolving needs, expanding services such as delivery and pick-up options, offering new products and working to guarantee supplies of essential items and personal protective equipment (PPE). Online purchases soared in our main markets in the U.S. and UK, so we increased our capacity to rapidly fill online purchase orders, expanded home delivery options in both markets and expanded the range of items that could be picked up at our drive-thru pharmacies and enhanced our curbside pickup option in the U.S.
We have also leveraged our existing disaster response programs to help patients access medications during emergencies. Using a predictive model developed by the Walgreens research team, U.S. pharmacy teams identified high-risk patients who were likely to be sheltering in place and assisted more than one million vulnerable patients in the U.S. with obtaining their medications.
Knox: Diversity and inclusion have become an important conversation topic in the world of brand marketing. What is WBA’s approach to diversity and inclusion?
Murphy: Diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the center of WBA. We make sure that our employees, our customers, and the community are taken in consideration before we make any business decisions. And as a consumer-based organization, we depend on customers and patients coming into our stores and utilizing our services, our pharmacies and all that we have to offer. This means we need to understand the community we serve. We need to reflect the community. And we need to continue to give back to the community.
We have focused on initiating conversations about race in our workplace. We are taking specific actions to drive change, working to ensure that managers are held accountable for recruitment, retention and development of people of color at every level of the organization from the boardroom to the store room by tying pay incentives to performance on our leadership diversity goals. Each quarter, in my area of the business, we hold a summit to listen, share and evaluate our progress and across the whole of WBA, our success is measured on it in our objectives.
Knox: Also, top-of-mind is sustainability. How do WBA’s brands embrace innovation in their approach to sustainability?
Murphy: As a consumer-centered business, we know our customers and patients expect all our products to be safe and ethically sourced. They’re also increasingly curious and interested about the sustainability of our brands.
You’ll see in our 2020 CSR report that we have been working really hard to constantly update our ranges to make sure we’re factoring sustainability into all of our thinking – from an ingredient perspective to packaging – to reduce the negative impacts of plastic, ethically source products and materials, and increase the transparency and traceability of ingredients. We have launched a number of products within the last 18 months that I believe are making big steps forward to decrease the impact that we have on the environment.
One example is last year’s beauty and skincare brands’ Christmas range, where we removed 2020 tonnes of plastic from our packaging. Boots and No7 have also teamed together to launch a real pioneering recycling scheme powered by technology that’s incentivizing consumers to bring plastics back that they can’t recycle. Meanwhile in the U.S., Walgreens has launched eco-friendly oral hygiene products such as flossers and toothbrushes and compostable tableware, and entirely removed Styrofoam (polystyrene) from its own brand household essential lines.