Prescription Strength

As a company, you know you have a particularly prickly problem when your own employees refuse to use the in-house services available at their fingertips. That was the case for British pharmacy chain Boots, which discovered that its prescription collection service was being shunned by its own staff.

Filling a prescription is a wearisome process punctuated by 10 to 20 minutes of waiting, paging through an issue of Cosmo and politely seething with resentment. As one elderly Boots customer put it: “Young man, I get really, really angry standing in a queue.”

So when Naked Communications was faced with the task of helping the 150-year-old company boost enrollment in its prescription collection service, which authorizes the chain to pick up and fill drug orders on patrons’ behalf, the London-based planning agency told the client to skip TV commercials. Instead, it advised staff retraining, in-store ads and targeting customers in line.

“It’s a lesson in objectivity,” says John Harlow, founding partner of Naked. Objectivity, or neutrality in the company’s parlance, is how Naked positions itself as an alternative to traditional shops that they say look to advertising as a one-size-fits-all solution.

Boots had tried to sell the service via traditional ads in the past. A few years ago, the company ran a TV spot from JWT in London featuring an older woman trudging back and forth from her doctor’s office to the pharmacy in foul weather. But Boots client communications planning manager Chris Ladd said the effort “didn’t really work.” In 2003, the chain moved its business to Naked, creative partner Mother and media buyer MediaCom.

While Boots’ $120 million marketing budget certainly left room for another mass-media push, Naked, which began working on the pharmaceutical collection brief in January 2005, conducted research that suggested the best solution was closer to home—in the stores themselves. Interviews with staff and customers revealed that the chain was struggling to sign up customers because its own employees did not understand the program or its benefits. “It’s no surprise that if staff didn’t understand the program, they couldn’t sell it to customers,” says Ben Richards, senior strategist at Naked.

In-store ads by Mother, a pill marked “Ready and waiting,” explained in just three words why patrons should subscribe. “Your medicine is waiting for you, not the other way around,” says Richards. While some client executives expected ads based on the idea, Naked knew there was a place customers would be most inclined to listen—at the front of a pharmacy line. “There’s only one place where you get angry standing in a queue … when you’re standing in one,” says Richards. “So we put a huge sign above the queue.”

Most importantly, Naked urged Boots to educate its staff and armed them with strategies for upselling angry patrons. Staffers who signed up lots of customers were granted longer breaks, another Naked idea, according to Richards. “You can’t just give a member of staff a T-shirt and a bunch of leaflets and expect them to sign people up,” Richards says.

In-store efforts combined with Mother’s direct-marketing leaflets, inserted into older-skewing publications, ratcheted signups among the over-60 target by several hundred percent, Boots’ Ladd says, and exceeded the client’s initial brief to propel 10,000 additional signups per week. Nearly 70 percent of that increase came from the operational effort, Richards says. Moreover, according to Boots’ fourth-quarter report, prescription sales increased 6.5 percent.

Now that Boots has tapped into the majority of its 60-and-over customer base, says Richards, it is focusing on stealing competitors’ customers. The chemist is, at Naked’s suggestion, opening 60 “midnight pharmacies” by year’s end and testing all-night pharmacies and home delivery, part of an effort to compete with druggists closer to doctors’ offices. The initiatives are among a few ways Boots can compete in a market where drug price is heavily regulated and prescription collection service is set to go electronic by the end of 2007.

“The van will be replaced by the telephone line. … If they don’t already have loyalty to Boots and have a propensity to nominate another pharmacy, it’s going to be very hard to steal those customers,” Richards says.