Morry Smulevitz, VP, Global Corporate Communications, Walgreens Boots Alliance, shares insights on navigating the relationship between a master brand and more well-known and beloved brands. He discusses how the organization has been integrating the ongoing social justice issues into their CSR initiative. Morry also gives tips on setting stakeholder expectations on different levels and best practices for communicators in 2021.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: MORRY SMULEVITZ
DOUG: So, Morry, I think here in the US, everyone’s familiar with Walgreens. They might be less familiar with WBA or Walgreens Boots Alliance. Can you share what the distinction is?
MORRY: Sure, Doug. So, I’ll take you back for just a minute to 2014. In December, when Walgreens, Boots, Alliance Healthcare, three big brands around the world, merged to form the world’s first global pharmacy led health and wellbeing enterprise. The purpose of WBA, Walgreens Boots Alliance, is to help people around the world live healthier and happier lives. So, if you fast forward to today, more than 21,000 retail pharmacies, over 25 countries, 450,000 team members, all supporting these brands.
Walgreens, a very iconic brand, we all know here in the states, part of communities across the country from more than 100 years. More than 75% of our population of the US live within five miles of a Walgreens. For any of your viewers overseas or those who have traveled to the UK, you’re very familiar with the iconic brand of Boots, which has been a part of UK communities for more than 170 years. But what you might not know, or some other brands in our expansive company, we have a full line of global beauty brands. The first No7, which is the number one skincare brand in the UK, Soap & Glory, Liz Earle and many others. Our pharmaceutical wholesale division operates under that Alliance Healthcare brand. They are an international wholesaler and distributor of pharmaceuticals to more than 115,000 thousand pharmacies, health centres, hospitals and doctors in 11 countries from more than 300 distribution centers. And lastly, we have an emerging presence in China pharmacy.
DOUG: So that’s a challenge, navigating master brand communications, if you will, when these sub brands are so well known. What are some of the key things to do that to make that happen effectively?
MORRY: So, I’ll start by saying that, Doug, we take an audience led approach, regardless of the brand, whether it’s the local brands, if you will, divisions around the world or the master brand. So, we lead with a proposition that is most relevant to a specific audience. So, WBA was not created to compete as a consumer brand, Walgreens and Boots on those relationships, but the local community pharmacy and products and services that support health, the well-being of you and your families, that is a relationship we will never have a role in. But at the enterprise level, our narrative is to help position and promote WBA master brand is greater than the sum of its parts, reinforcing our scale, our reach and the impact we have to communities around the world.
DOUG: So how does that sort of getting the master brand out there helped strengthen some of the individual brands as well?
MORRY: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, whereas most of those individual brands are consumer facing, at the WBA level we focus on investors, our partners, advocates, policy makers and prospective and current employees. So, as an example, for investors, we try to tell stories that demonstrate our performance, our diversity across the company in terms of geography as well as industry to help protect and grow the business, our strategic priorities, how we are a sustainable business and even our diversity inclusion agenda, which of course has become even more important to put forth in this day and age.
DOUG: You talked about the issues of social justice coming to the fore, and obviously in the United States there are very different health outcomes among different populations. How do you try and tie that to your CSR efforts and where have you been able to make an impact in that area?
MORRY: Sure. Well, I’ll say around the country with more than 9,000 stores and some of the best and most high-profile corners in America, it is an absolute priority for our pharmacy and healthcare teams to focus on the disparities that exist in certain communities, especially those of color and those that are underserved in other ways. So, geographically, demographically, psychographically, they spent a lot of time very sensitively communicating with customers and patients to help increase their education on medication, on adherence, on access to medicine. So that’s an absolute priority for the company.
DOUG: Diversity, inclusion, it’s also corporate social responsibility that obviously with many of your brands and even the master brand so much about wellness and keeping people healthy, and in times of a pandemic, that’s such a huge challenge, as well as communicating what’s best practice for people to do when that’s become controversial. What are some of the steps you’re taking in that area and what might be some guidance here for others trying to communicate those types of messages?
MORRY: Yeah, I think it’s a great point, Doug, and for us, foundationally, it’s about health and well-being and those are absolutely the most personal categories to our audiences and even more so during the pandemic. So, as the pandemic took effect in February, March of this year, it was clear very early on that as an essential front-line business, our stores and our pharmacies especially, were going to be relied on more than ever before as part of the healthcare system and patient care teams. It’s really the DNA of a pharmacy led company. We’re at the center of our communities. So, from a communications perspective, it’s really about understanding your audiences and communicating what exactly your different audiences need from you, whether those be customers, employees or even investors. Investors are looking for something very different from you than an employee. For example, they’ve sadly seen the collapse of many retail brands as they’ve watched a sector with more scrutiny. So, they want to be reassured that your business model is sustainable. Employees want to know guidance and how they can stay safe and serve customers, and customers and patients want to know, is my store safe, is it open, can I get my prescription, is my local Walgreens a place where I can get a COVID test? And today it’s really about vaccines. No matter the stakeholders I mentioned for WBA, or the consumers with Walgreens or Boots, it’s about vaccines, and they want to know when a vaccine is going to be available. Are they safe to me, what is the role that you’re going to play? And if you recall in October Walgreens announced that we were where we’re partnering with the CDC and HHS and the administration on operation warp speed to help administer vaccines as soon as they’re available, and that’s really the topic of the day.
DOUG: And obviously 2021 might command different stories. What should communicators be doing? If you had one piece of advice for communicators heading into 2021, what would you tell them?
MORRY: Sure. Well, Doug, I see us entering into kind of a new golden age of communications. If you look at all the significant converging topics of the day, the pandemic, politics, racial equity movement, some would say it’s impossible to meaningfully break through that clutter to drive narratives for companies. So, with that in mind, I think it’s never been more important for communicators to get very close to your business and your business leaders, learn the intricacies of your business, your competitive environment. No longer should we be seen as the PR department. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think where we want to be seen is that we are strategic communicators with an expertise in communications. Our leaders are turning to us to counsel them, to help navigate the environment, pick those right moments in time when we want to lean in to help advance business goals. So, there’s really never been a more important or critical time, a better time to be a communicator.
DOUG: Thanks so much for spending time with us.
MORRY: Thank you. I appreciate it Doug.