This Christmas season, I had the pleasure of spending time with my family for several days. It was cold outside, warm inside, everything you want Christmas to be, except for one wrinkle: the flu (which each of us had to some degree). So Christmas was spent alternately burning up and shivering and lying prone for hours on end. My family isn’t small, and we weren’t all sick on the exact same days, so it seemed like an endless stretch of illness. During that time I got to know my local Walgreen’s better than I usually do, making runs for all sorts of remedies. Each time as I walked out of the store, I heard someone say “Thank you and be well.”
I’d seen the phrase on signs and posters around the store already, but hearing it spoken stuck with me, even in my flu-induced haze. It got me thinking, “’Be well,’ I wonder if all store employees have to say that? I wonder if they get in trouble if they don’t? I wonder how it sounds to the other customers who heard it?” I have to admit, it actually made me feel… well.
Due to stiffer competition from discount chains and online stores, Walgreen’s has undergone a top-down shift towards a focus on health and wellness. This initiative has led to changes throughout the organization, from store design and layout to marketing and PR. Graham Atkinson, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing and Customer Experience Officer at Walgreens puts it this way, “When I think of Walgreen’s, I think of health. When I think Amazon, I don’t think of health. That is the anchor.” Their “Way to Well Commitment” clearly shows that they take the shift seriously.
Around this time, the company worked with ad agency GSD&M to create the “At the Corner of Happy & Healthy” campaign, which Lewis Lazare of the Chicago Business Journal says captures “both the folksy, old-fashioned Walgreen’s we all knew for so long, while also pointing to a future that is clearly more up-to-the-minute, forward-thinking and – more than anything else – all about establishing the company as a lifestyle brand rather than merely a ho-hum drugstore.”
But even if I get that folksy, charming vibe from their advertising, the spoken word in the store was something different. What are we used to hearing as consumers? They’ve been called “branded salutations” and on one end of the spectrum are all of the customer service-isms that many employees say without being asked to. “Have a great day.” “Come back soon.” Then there are the clear up-sell techniques: “Welcome to McDonald’s, would you like to try our new McWhatever and a shake today?” I’m sure this technique works in the same way putting candy near the checkout line works, but it somehow de-humanizes the person serving me into a corporate speaker-box. So why did I feel differently about hearing “be well?”
The difficulty with any “script” in the retail experience is in the delivery. The same words uttered by a helpful employee come out completely different than when spoken by a bored employee, mumbling her speech while she blankly looks past you. I think “be well” worked for me for one important reason; it’s not an uncommon phrase among friends and family. It’s usually spoken as a sign-off and usually by someone who genuinely means it. Can you make all of your employees “mean it?” Absolutely not, but it seems useful as a tool for helping deliver the company’s brand platform and values to the front lines in a way that it will actually stick.
In 2013, Walgreens PR department said “’Thank you and be well’ has been used in select markets and is expected to go chain-wide this year. Our branded salutations further align our team members to our purpose of helping people get, stay and live well. In general, we’ve found that customer satisfaction increases through such positive interactions, which help make their shopping experience a bit more memorable.”
Clearly not everyone has been charmed by the phrase in the same way I was, and some employees have taken to the web to launch impassioned arguments about how ridiculous it is that the company dictates their speech. I’m not doing much online research for this blog, the level of negativity in blog comments seems to far outweigh positives, no matter the topic, but here is what I would say to a Walgreen’s employee who might find it awkward or inconvenient to read from a script: “The company you work for provides a service to people, and you are the most effective tool they can use to deliver that service. So that means you continue to work there because your values align with theirs. Walgreen’s has chosen to focus on making customers happy & healthy, and is relying on you to deliver. Today’s consumers demand authenticity from the brands they use, which has led many to blow the dust off of their core mission statements. The best thing you can do is decide for yourself if you can embrace that mission on a personal level. It might make the “company line” a little easier to say out loud.
All I know is, I walked into a Walgreens and walked out feeling a little better.