CMO of the Week: Walgreens Boots Alliance's Anisha Raghavan

As one of America’s largest retailers, with over 9,000 locations nationwide, Walgreens has a sizable foundation for new and emerging brands to build an audience. Such was the strategy when the retailer joined forces in 2014 with UK pharmacy chain Boots to form the Walgreens Boots Alliance, with an emphasis on developing global beauty brands that could hold their weight next to the P&G, Unilever and L’Oreal staples that already fill their shelves.

As one of America’s largest retailers, with over 9,000 locations nationwide, Walgreens has a sizable foundation for new and emerging brands to build an audience. Such was the strategy when the retailer joined forces in 2014 with UK pharmacy chain Boots to form the Walgreens Boots Alliance, with an emphasis on developing global beauty brands that could hold their weight next to the P&G, Unilever and L’Oreal staples that already fill their shelves.

To help Walgreens Boots Alliance products like No7, Soap & Glory and Botanics reach even wider audiences, Anisha Raghavan joined the company in September 2020 as chief marketing officer - global brands Americas. Her aim is to establish the collective brands’ positioning as part of what she calls “a modern CPG company.” 

Says Raghavan, “Because we operate at scale, these brands are distributed in mass retail channels typical of a CPG model. But because we’re owned by and attached to retailers, we have access to first-party data, which gives us this unique competitive advantage to be able to grow our DTC business with these brands and invest in mass personalization.”

Boots has already seen particularly strong success with this approach in the UK, where beauty was the only category to gain market share during the company’s fiscal 2021 first quarter earnings. Raghavan will be charged with helping drive similar growth in the U.S., where Walgreens’ beauty category saw a 13.1% sales decrease during the same period in comparable stores, and a 1.3% decline in personal care category sales. New corporate leadership could help further accelerate this growth, too: last week, Walgreens Boots Alliance announced that Starbucks and Walmart veteran Rosalind Brewer will join the company as CEO starting March 15, making her the only Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company

One of the first major marketing initiatives Raghavan has spearheaded is Unstoppable Together, a campaign for Boots’ 85-year-old brand No7 that’s only recently rolled out in the U.S. The global initiative aims to help provide women with tools to rejoin the workforce, following the “SHEcession” that disproportionately affected females’ employment in 2020. A brand spot created by agencies Berlin Cameron and VMLYR and microsite outlining the program debuted Jan. 26, with a No7-branded Unstoppable Together Job Summit scheduled for February 24 with partners Fortune, Hello Sunshine and The Female Quotient to help empower women with actionable resources. “We genuinely believe this movement will lead to positive change in terms of helping women get back to work, and our hope is that people will join us in the movement,” Raghavan says.

Brand Innovators caught up with Raghavan from her home in San Francisco to learn more about how she’s leveraging her extensive CPG background at Pepsico and Unilever for the new role, her three guiding principles as a marketer and why TikTok has already led to surprise sell-outs of several of Walgreens Boots Alliance’s beauty products. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brand Innovators: You joined Walgreens Boots Alliance as CMO just this past September. What appealed to you about the opportunity?

Throughout my career, I’ve always loved both the brand marketing and the digital marketing side equally. You'll see that reflected in my career choices, as I spent many years in CPG at Pepsico and Unilever, but I also took more digitally focused roles at DTC brands. Most recently, I was head of global brand and product marketing at Rodan + Fields. So when I got the call about this Walgreens Boots Alliance role and it was fascinating to me, it was an opportunity to run not only a marketing organization, but it was a perfect combination of all my passions across all the brands in the portfolio and to work within the CPG and DTC models. And I get to be part of a pretty big digital transformation that the company is going through to maximize our competitive advantage around data. It was just the perfect spot for me.  

What are some guiding principles for you personally as a marketer?

One is marketers really need to be bilingual. When I was graduating school, if you wanted to be a CMO it was, “Go to CPG, that’s the end-all be-all.” But the role of marketing has changed so much in the last 10 years. If you want to be a CMO, you need to understand enough how to build a brand that stands the test of time, as well as how to leverage data and tech capabilities that are changing everyday. Because as technology advances, consumers’ attention span goes down, and the way they absorb that content and connect with brands just changes. 

You have to have a wider skill set to be a CMO today, which gets into my second guiding principle, which is marketers need to be agile. There is no way your plans won’t change throughout the year because of how dynamics have changed in consumer behavior. Because of COVID-19, which has changed many behaviors for good, it continues to be very dynamic. 

And the third, which I was taught very young in my career, is the heartbeat of your consumer has to be inside your brand. You need to really get inside your consumers’ head and understand what they need and want from your product, but also emotionally how they feel in any given moment. 

What are some new or emerging consumer behaviors from the COVID-19 crisis that are impacting your business, and how have you adjusted your messaging to adapt to those behaviors? 

Our job as marketers is to remove barriers along the path to purchase, and one of the biggest barriers is fear of exposure in stores. We doubled down on our digital spend to capture ecommerce trends, so we’re also trying to remove barriers to instore shopping. This is where the connection between our brands always comes in handy. Walgreens just replaced My Walgreens loyalty program, and there’s a number of different facets to that relaunch. You can drive through and pick up your order at Walgreens in some locations as soon as 30 minutes, so we’re trying to connect those dots in our messaging to let them know they have more than one way to transact. 

We did a research study of our core target for No7, and what we found is that even though there were fears around going in-store, almost 70% of them still felt like skincare was on the top of things that made them feel normal. We want to be there for our consumers and keep their beauty routines up, that’s an emotionally important piece to a woman. We want to enable them to do that safely and comfortably.

Another way we’ve adapted is we’ve shifted investment in the past year to more addressable media. For instance addressable TV, retailer media — this is all part of our digital transformation strategy to deepen our use of first-party data to drive more personalized experiences. It’s been very successful for us so far, in some cases that’s tripled or quadrupled our sales. 

Consumer behaviors and needs for beauty products have shifted in the past year. How have you embraced new technologies to help tell these new stories?

Because everyone is home, people are spending more time on streaming and social media, and TikTok is one of those channels that’s continued to grow for us. Despite cosmetics overall being in decline, we saw a surge in sales for one our powders and we realized it was because of some organic TikTok content happening with our consumers. Even though people are wearing a mask all day, they’re on these channels talking about products they love. Soap & Glory was sold out of one of our products and we couldn’t figure out why, and it was an organic TikTtok video. 

What behavioral trends do you see impacting marketing in 2021 - and beyond?   

We’re going to be living with COVID-19 for at least a year and half in total, and those behaviors are going to stick. So my prediction for marketers is that some of the things you thought were going to pivot for now, while consumers are staying at home, actually might be long-term strategies. There’s some behavior that will revert back to pre-COVID times, but some will stick. Much in the same way that a lot of companies are talking about a hybrid model of working from home and in the office, how do we think about hybrid models of communications for our consumers? So we’ll see which behaviors revert back and which ones stick, and we’ll adjust our marketing spend accordingly.

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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