CVS Health’s Marketing Chief on Turning the Pharmacy Brand Into a Healthcare Player

And why ending tobacco sales was only the beginning

When CVS Health announced two years ago it will no longer sell or stock tobacco-related products, it was a game-changing move for the Woonsocket, R.I.-based brand, one that even received accolades from first lady Michelle Obama. But, according to Norman de Greve, CVS' svp and CMO, the step was part of a larger strategy that had been in the works for the last decade to shift the brand from being the proverbial "drugstore on the corner" to a "multifaceted healthcare company." In 2006, CVS acquired MinuteClinic, a walk-in clinic provider; the next year it merged with pharmacy benefits manager Caremark; and in 2013, it bought home infusion services company Coram. Earlier this month, CVS revealed its latest initiative to combat tobacco addiction with its "Be the First" campaign, a five-year, $50 million effort through education, advocacy, tobacco control and healthy behavior programming. Adweek's Kristina Monllos spoke with de Greve, who joined the brand last year from DigitasLBi, about CVS' brand shift, Obamacare and what's next.

Adweek: CVS' decision to change its position on tobacco has helped distinguish the brand from its competitors. Why do you think that was right for the company, and why do you think it resonated?

Norman de Greve: When you want to be a healthcare company, it's really hard to sell cigarettes. What's interesting to me about that and what was compelling to me was I cannot think of another example in corporate America where a company sacrificed $2 billion of revenue for what they felt was the right thing to do. It's a stunning thing. And we know these facts are true, that more purpose-driven companies, a) millennials and consumers want to do business with … and b) it's great for recruiting. It proved out for us in both of those ways.

Do you think it's worked in getting consumers to view CVS as a healthcare brand?

We came out with this idea of helping people on their path to better health. We launched the [CVS Health] brand, we got the exit of tobacco, and people gave us credit for that. I think the question is how do we keep the momentum with consumers so that they truly perceive us as differentiated?

Is there something in the works to keep the momentum going? Is that where the "Be the First" initiative came from?

Well, we have a couple of things. We launched this "Be the First" initiative, and we just committed $50 million to creating the first tobacco-free generation. I'd say there's a couple of focuses we have. One is driving the brand into all of the [customer] experiences. So it's a little different than advertising, but it is marketing—how do we make sure people feel the differentiation and not just a story? The second is on the advertising. We're really focusing on all of the different ways we can help people. It's a little bit more tangible than the brand. [For example, if] you are on a page researching allergies, we'll highlight how MinuteClinic has ways to help you, or a pharmacist can help you. And so it's getting a little bit more specific about how we help people on their path to better health.


How has the shift to a healthcare player been received?

There are a number of ways we can see the impact of our branding strategy. We see it in our financial success, particularly our sustained growth. We see it in how much of the prescription market we are capturing. At the same time, our internal brand research shows that we're viewed as a health leader among influencers and large employers, and that helps enhance our reputation and attract new business. We also see it in key marketplace rankings. For example, we were recently ranked No. 27 on Fortune's Most Admired Companies list, and No. 3 on Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies list. Certainly brand building is an ongoing process, but we're pleased with how CVS Health is being viewed in the marketplace, and our success bears that out.