Ask the expert: Accelerating digital and strategic plans to cope with COVID-19

An interview with Brian Tyrrell of Walgreens

The emergence of the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the adoption of new marketing technologies and strategies to improve customer experience initiatives within many global companies 

Walgreens, the American retail pharmacy giant with 100M loyalty customers and almost 10,000 stores operating across the United States, is one such company. Culturally – and from a leadership perspective – Walgreens has excelled in recent weeks / months, which has shown Walgreens in an incredibly positive light. The brand’s “customer & patient first” ethos has helped Walgreens become even more trusted and admired by its customers through this difficult period.  

The way Walgreens approached the COVID-19 pandemic is a masterclass in management during times of crisis that is worth looking into for any company hoping to prepare more effectively for times of difficulty. 

To that end, Phrasee caught up with Brian Tyrrell, Director Loyalty and Personalization at Walgreens, to hear his views on exactly how Walgreens navigated the uncertainty around COVID-19 so effectively, and what advice he has to share with others hoping to do the same.  

As Director Loyalty and Personalization at Walgreens, Brian is responsible for enabling the delivery of personalized experiences in Walgreens’ digital channels for customers across all its business units. He leads Walgreens’ CRM team and is responsible for customer contact strategy all the way through to direct channel build out.  

Here’s what Brian had to say…

Phrasee: What strategies and tools did Walgreens have in place that helped it adapt to the COVID-19 crisis so effectively?  

Brian: Interestingly, the strategies we launched last September for the 2020 fiscal year turned out to be aligned almost perfectly with the role we needed to play during the pandemic. This incoming alignment allowed us to rapidly accelerate our existing roadmaps as opposed to developing new strategies to reflect the changing environment. 

The plan’s key points included: 

i) Accelerating the digitization of the company
ii) Transforming and restructuring our retail offering
iii) Transforming our existing brick-and mortar locations into neighborhood health destinations  

Each of these key points proved to be well-suited to the shifting needs of Walgreens’ customers as the COVID-19 crisis began to take shape.   

Phrasee: That’s incredibly timely. What changes did you implement to these plans as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a legitimate concern in the US? 

BrianWhat we realized early on in this pandemic was that our goals/plans were largely sound, but that we’d need to accelerate them to meet the very real emerging need.  

Key COVID-19 initiatives were supported by rapid mobilization of new ways of working in the following areas:  

Meeting customer needs: 

– Ensuring all our locations remained open and safe
– Working to ensure our customers had access to critical products
– Expanding use of drive-thru services
– Focusing on existing & new delivery methods
– Connecting customers through digital services to help them find appropriate care 

Working with Government: 

– Partnering with U.S. Government health officials to provide drive-thru testing
– Making substantial donations to critical services
– Providing health advice to customers on behalf of the U.S. Government
– Collaborating with health plans, physicians, and governments to provide access to medications  

Moving forward: 

– Leveraging our broad community footprint
– Supporting the health and wellness of our team members
– Ongoing efforts to meet ever changing customer needs

"What we realized early on in this pandemic was that our goals/plans were largely sound, but that we’d need to accelerate them to meet the very real emerging need."

Brian Tyrrell, Walgreens

Phrasee: What measures were put in place to ensure that all of this happened in a timely and efficient manner?   

BrianWe had to pivot the way Walgreens and its teams worked rapidly. We broke down our silos and created “squads” amongst our digital and marketing teams. To make us more nimble and adaptable, we empowered our squads to implement changes as the customer need surfaced. 

On the retail front, the priorities of our squads were to make online pickup/delivery more efficient and effective, streamline our online purchase process, and test the most effective ways to implement parking lot pickup options. 

In the end, we were able to offer increased service and follow social distancing protocols while meeting the needs of our customers, which was a big win for us. 


Phrasee: How did you get the word out to your customers about the changes Walgreens was implementing to ensure maximum safety during this dangerous period? 

BrianOne of our core direct channels is email and it has been one of our most effective marketing channels during the COVID-19 crisis. Due to our ability to listen to customers in this channel through their engagement and clicks, it allowed us to have a direct channel to our customers. 

With no 3rd-party interference, Walgreens was able to deliver important information about our new protocols and offerings right to the inbox. It’s not that we were sending more emails, but rather that the engagement with the emails we were sending increased measurably. 

We used this engagement to find out what would help make our customers feel comfortable when getting the essential products they needed, and to disseminate important information from The Centers For Disease Control, which our audience seemed to appreciate. 

With the help of AI-Powered Copywriting, we’re getting a lot more eyes on some really rich content within the email channel. That’s the place where we’ve landed first.  

We’re using this advanced AI technology to help us deliver subject lines that drive open rates within our email program so our messaging has maximum reach. Thus far, we’ve seen double-digit increases across the board where we’ve activated AI-Powered Copywriting in our subject lines.   

As we move forward, a big initiative for the team is scaling the use of this technology across all emails that we’re delivering. Today, it’s really been focused on the retail product side of things but there’s a big opportunity to bring this type of tech into some of the messaging related to health and wellness and pharmacy-related communications, especially in times like these.  

"We’ve seen double-digit increases across the board where we’ve activated
AI-Powered Copywriting in our subject lines."

Brian Tyrrell, Walgreens

Phrasee: What have you, as a brand, learned from this situation?    

BrianPre-COVID-19, most in-store visits to Walgreens amounted to a “fill in” trip, so to buy toothpaste, for example, and 4-5 things, many of which could be found at the local corner store. Post-COVID, people are consolidating their trips. We realized early on that it was important to give customers a sense of safety for their one trip into town, as going out to shop was no longer an appealing proposition.  

We also saw that online purchase and curbside pickup have gained more widespread consumer adoption and will remain important to our success moving forward. People like the convenience of curbside pickup, even if it’s just a roll of paper towel. 


Phrasee: How is Walgreens preparing for the tough days ahead?  

BrianIt’s becoming increasingly clear that the US is likely to be heading into a challenging financial period. We reviewed insights from other tough financial times and their ensuing recoveries. We looked in-depth at consumer trends and what Walgreens can prepare now to prepare for the months to come. Offering consumers value will be crucial in the coming months, and we can address that through things like our chainwide launch of Prescription Savings Club which will help patients who might lose access to insurance coverage save money on their prescriptions.  

We will also continue to optimize new services that enhance the convenience of our offering through curbside, drive-thru, and delivery options.  

Our customers want to feel comfortable that what we are doing is in the interest of taking care of them above all elseWe have known that our best marketing tool was trust, and through this pandemic, we proved that again. 


Phrasee: Did you encounter any problems implementing the changes that the COVID-19 crisis demanded?  

BrianOf course! As we all know, nothing is perfect and this crisis magnified our opportunities.  

However, from a big picture standpoint, we were steadfast in our belief. Put the customer first. Listen to what they are saying. And react appropriately.   

Companies who had a strong brand purpose went into the COVID-19 crisis strong and will come out stronger. The pandemic hasn’t changed Walgreens’ “customer & patient first” ethos. Rather, it magnifies it. Our goal is to remain a health care ‘North Star’ in the minds of consumers.  

I’m proud of how we rose to meet this unprecedented challenge as a company, as a brand, and as individuals. 

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