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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Walgreen's Hints At Dropping Cigarettes And Alcohol From It's Shelves

In a puzzling development, through what I intrepret as somewhat veiled messaging, Walgreen's has implied it might be the first major retail pharmacy chain to cease selling tobacco and alcohol products in an effort to keep up with the jockeying for position before the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) takes effect next year. Large health insurance companies like Blue Cross and Blue Shield that never really had to talk directly to consumers except in vague, warm and fuzzy terms to maintain high name recognition during the employee benefit selection process are now faced with the threat of significant and yet undetermined competition. You can expect a fierce battle for share of mind and market.

Walgreen's, CVS, Walmart and other drug stores, (Yes, I still call them drug stores despite their preference to be known as pharmacies resulting from the unsavory connotations associated with the unsuccessful "war on drugs" in this country.) already in fierce competition, will only see their battles escalate as the health insurance war rages.

Walgreen's has been using variations of a clever tag line "At the corner of . . ." for some time and recently it began completing that line with  " . . Happy and Healthy." Apparently Walgreen's is trying to convince its customers it too is part of the health care landscape.

Like its prime competitors, Walgreen's has been partnering with medical care providers to expand limited "doc in a box" services. Millions of Americans get their flu shots and an assortment of other treatments by popping into their nearest pharmacy.

I caught the tail end of a promo for Walgreen's where the pharmacy/general merchandise/liquor store/food mini mart was identified as ". . . the health care partner of the Chicago Cubs." The wording might not be precise, and I apologize for that, but that was the gist of it. As I flipped to the next station, the weight of that statement began to sink in. I found it so absurd I tried to flip back to see if I was mistaken but the spot had ended.

Unless Walgreen's is committed to being the first retailer of its kind to walk away from a huge segment of its profits, it appears the company views branding as nothing more than labeling and messaging. Branding is first and foremost about behaviors. Not just the behaviors of customers but of the company.

If Walgreen's is successful in its stilted branding efforts, think of how the same techniques could bolster attendance at neighborhood places of worship. "Your Spiritual Health Partner" could begin offering a smoking lounge, a full service bar, questionable video rentals and maybe pole dancing if behaviors and messages didn't have to match up. That might be enough to get me going back to church.

Here's a tip, Walgreen's: If you want people to believe you are anyones health care or wellness partner stop selling cigarettes and alcohol. Of course, the chain isn't likely to do that. Failing that, here's another suggestion: Walgreen's could divide its stores into two sections - the "healthy" and the "happy" with all the "sin" products they now carry like booze, smokes, Fannie May chocolates and seasonal fireworks in the latter section. Or they could simply change their message to one that is authentic, relevant, consistent with their practices and product offerings and above all else, believable.

The essence of branding is being clear about what you are not, as much as what you are. Consider the courage it took back in the old days of "full service" gas stations for someone to say, "Let's just focus on oil changes." Jiffy Lube now sits in pretty clear market space and doesn't sell a drop of gasoline. Likewise, it's almost impossible to find a BP station that will sell you an oil change but you can buy all the "fuel" you need including fountain drinks, snack food and lottery tickets.

Giving up unhealthy product categories would separate any pharmacy company. This isn't as far fetched as it sounds. Someone is going to be first. It might as well be Walgreen's. Making a bold decision like this would certainly reinforce the company's claim that they are someones health care partner. It would demonstrate that Walgreen's isn't afraid to declare what behaviors its business supports and which ones it doesn't by remedying its contradictory offerings. It would also move Walgreen's into uncontested market space but I wouldn't count on the cigarette displays and alcohol aisle disappearing anytime soon. Walgreen's is only deluding itself by claiming to stand for something it doesn't. Most likely, Walgreen's will continue to operate at the corner of Profits and Brand Hypocrisy.