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Ex-Calvin Klein CMO Linh Peters shares plans for revamping Walgreens

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By Hannah Bowler, Senior reporter

July 26, 2023 | 9 min read

After leading the marketing for one of the most famous fashion brands in the world, Linh Peters sits down with The Drum to explain why she jumped ship to join the less-sexy drugstore sector.

Lihn Peters senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Walgreens

Linh Peters, senior vice-president and chief marketing officer at Walgreens

At Calvin Klein, Linh Peters was widely acclaimed for overhauling a stale marketing strategy across digital and physical channels that ultimately delivered over $10bn in global sales. Speaking to The Drum during her tenure, she revealed how she wanted to redefine what sexuality and sensuality meant for a brand that had been at the cutting edge of defining it just a few years prior. She pushed the boundaries on gender and inclusivity, notably before Bud Light ignited a culture war, and laid the foundation to create a “platform for customers to express themselves.”

So, it was a surprise when she left in May 2022, just a year into the role, to join Walgreens as senior vice-president and chief marketing officer.

“For me personally, it was very much a decision to take the role based on my values,” she tells us. As an immigrant and refugee, Peters has spoken of her background growing up in a supportive community that helped her family with housing, school and navigating public services. “If you think about Walgreens’ mission and purpose, which is really redefining healthcare and focus on community and building equity, it is very near and dear to my heart.”

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Prior to Calvin Klein, Peters had built a career on the loyalty side for brands including Target, Best Buy and, more recently, Starbucks. “All of the experiences I’ve had running full stack marketing organizations, going deep in loyalty, going deep in brand, has really culminated very nicely in this role at Walgreens.”

Walgreens is one of the largest drugstore chains in the US but is also a health care operator, owning businesses including VillageMD, Shields and CareCentrix. A customer could be using Walgreens to buy shampoo, candy or multivitamins or be supported by a physician for chronic disease.

The biggest challenge ahead of her is trying to unite those various businesses to create a single ‘brand’ that consumers and B2B brands will connect with.

“When you’re looking historically at our business, you have front-of-store customers, which is retail, then you have back-of-store, which is pharmacy and then health care, and we are trying to bring that segmentation together.”

Peters’s primary focus after stepping into the role a year ago is to create an “interconnected customer experience” in terms of products, services and offerings to make it easier for customers to navigate. “Walgreens’ ad business model is meant to be fully encompassing – we can call it the digital flywheel, so everything works together.”

Crucial to this endeavor is adtech partner Epsilon. The Publicis-owned data giant won the multi-billion dollar account in 2023 and will partner with Walgreens to solve this business challenge. “Epsilon has been a part of helping us navigate that journey in terms of just better understanding sort of like the fuller picture of our customer versus a siloed approach,” says Peters.

Grocery retailers laid the groundwork for personalized media networks, but pharmacy companies are now starting to catch on. Despite only accounting for 2% of the global retail media market, according to MediaRadar, the opportunity for personalized pharmacy is significant with retailers’ access to both purchase history and health information.

There is a huge opportunity when it comes to personalized healthcare, says Peters. “The unifying piece around healthcare is that it is very personal, so in those moments our opportunity, our job, is to create a level of trust and allow us to be part of their healthcare journey.”

The central part of Walgreens’ personalized healthcare plan is its retail media outfit, which it set up in 2020 with help from Epsilon, collecting data from its 100 million loyalty members, tracking 4m daily transactions and 4bn loyalty requests a year.

“Our retail meeting network has just been on a huge growth trajectory. There is a lot of richness in terms of data and insights that we get from it to leverage in a number of different ways, from marketing to merchandising.”

Since the launch of Walgreens Advertising Group, the operation has been bolstering its offering to attract advertisers. Last year it added a self-serve programmatic function through The Trade Desk and OpenX, as well as a clean room via Epsilon.

For the year ahead Peters will be squarely focused on growing the loyalty program and enhancing personalization while continuing to “reposition and elevate” Walgreens by embedding trust as the central brand value.

“The brand is over 110 years old, so it has very much been rooted in community and trust and if you go back to the history of Charles Walgreen, he was focused on personalized and one on one care. And so that has really been at the heart of everything that we’ve done as a brand.”

Pivoting the Walgreens brand

While her personalization and retail media ambitions will take time, a more pressing and immediate change she wants to make to the brand is a pivot away from humor or light-heartedness in its advertising toward marketing that communicates trust and empathy – qualities rooted in Peters’s upbringing.

“I have been focused on repositioning the brand from a creative expression standpoint. To focus on humanity, focus on empathy and trust, which if you look at a lot of healthcare brands doesn’t necessarily come through.” She says the “fun part” is translating that notion into the creative and the brand’s tone.

At the start of 2023, Walgreens rolled out a series of emotionally driven ads – one, for example, featured a woman putting on a prosthetic limb and an elderly couple who needed help remembering what medications they needed to take. The spots are in direct contrast to an ad from October that followed a grandma doing a viral dance routine with her granddaughter.

“In the past, the branding that we had was very much focused on fun, levity and a little bit of humor. But if you look at our spots now, we are focused on humanity, empathy and trust. The style and tone we approach it is very different.”

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Along with the traditional ad spot, Peters is always looking for new ways to communicate with customers differently. For the year ahead she’ll be thinking about how Walgreens can play a bigger part in public conversations.

“Health and wellness are hot topics not going anywhere anytime soon, so it is about just making sure that we’re actively a part of those conversations and helping customers navigate that whether its through products or services or other healthcare options.”

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