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Brand Building: Interview with Walgreens CMO Graham Atkinson

November 13, 2013

Graham Atkinson joined Walgreens three years ago and took over as CMO in 2012. Job No. 1 was brand building– transforming the Walgreens brand, a 112-year-old household name that had outlived the consumer’s definition of convenience in a wellness-obsessed, digitally empowered world. This is the first video in a two-part series.

orange: What has been your No. 1 priority as you focus on rebuilding the Walgreens brand?

I am old enough and wise enough to know that the days of marketing being simply treated as a necessary expense are past, and you have to earn your way into the business, earn your way into the C-suite and earn your way with the customers. When you actually look around and diagnose where you’re spending money, I think that helps you to much more clearly see where you are optimally spending money and where you are maybe spending money because you’ve always spent money. We needed to invest and reinvest our own abilities and capabilities, rather than come with our cap in hand and ask for more money.

So that’s where we started; at the same time of course we were spending a lot of time talking to customers, understanding the research and trying to find that sweet spot of the unique position that we can, will and should own.

orange: How have consumers reacted as you’ve transformed a brand that’s more than 100 years old?

You have to link the brand to the experience. As the brand is changing it’s got to have proof points, and we found at a very early stage that customers have some resistance to change, and that when they came into the new store they had what we call “puzzle moments.” They couldn’t find what they used to be able to find where they used to find it. That actually influenced our customer experience strategy, which obviously was an integral part of our brand reinvention.

We have built into both new hire training and recurrent training explicit customer service training to look out for puzzle moments, to build in a mindset of more proactive help to customers when they see them searching for things. And generally to acknowledge that we have to take the customers on the journey; rather than simply talk to them, we have to talk with them.

orange: How has this journey changed the way you think about your job?

The Walgreens transformation process, I think I can honestly say is changing everyone at Walgreens. I think we truly are becoming more customer-centric,

thinking about our business and what we offer very differently even from when I joined three years ago.

Walgreens was founded on the principle of convenience, and the fact is the meaning of the word “convenience,” certainly as a retailer, has changed. It doesn’t just mean brick-and-mortars, it doesn’t mean 8,000 stores on 8,000 corners—although that is still an important point—it also means showing up to people where they want it, how they want it and when they want it.

That may be on their computer at home, it may be on their iPad, it may be on their mobile device, it may be when they’re phoning us, it may be when they’re in the store, or it may be when they’re in the drive-through. We need to make sure all of those sing together in harmony if the brand is really going to punch its weight and the experience is going to be what we want people to see and recognize Walgreens for.

You can check out part 2 of this interview with Walgreens CMO Graham Atkinson about brand building here. To read the full interview with Graham Atkinson request the print edition.

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