Tobacco-Free CVS: Bold Public Health Victory or Savvy Publicity Stunt?

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CVS made a bold move last week when the chain announced that it would discontinue selling tobacco products in its retail pharmacy stores. In an effort to align its merchandise with its mission of, "helping people on the path to better health," the company's decision is a question of ethical business and doing what's right for the customers.

CVS made a bold move last week when the chain announced that it would discontinue selling tobacco products in its retail pharmacy stores. In an effort to align its merchandise with its mission of, "helping people on the path to better health," the company's decision is a question of ethical business and doing what's right for the customers.

In a corporate press release, Larry J. Merlo, president and CEO, CVS Caremark, said, "Ending the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at CVS/pharmacy is the right thing for us to do for our customers and our company to help people on their path to better health. Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose."

In his blog, Don Peppers argues that CVS aligning its functions and processes so that the company's actions are truly "integrated" with its stated intentions displays integrity. "CVS Caremark's stated intention is to meet a higher share of its customers' healthcare needs," Peppers said.

While I applaud CVS' decision because it demonstrates solid leadership, positions the company as an innovator in the industry, underscores its mission, and helps to rebrand the company as a "healthcare" company, I also think there may be more to the story.

While many fans applauded the company the company last week, cynics called for the removal of candy, soda, and alcohol. If CVS' mission is to become a healthcare company, they argued, then it would seem logical to eliminate those products as well. However, the profit margins on these products are likely much greater than cigarettes and the stakes too high.

This points to how the decision to eliminate a product that accounts for 1 percent of overall revenue could ultimately be a savvy publicity and marketing coup that builds brand loyalty with certain demographics and works to forms partnerships with physicians and healthcare facilities.

Look at social media alone. According to analysis from social media analysis technology provider Crimson Hexagon, as of 6 p.m. on February 5, there were more than 139,000 total posts on Twitter (92 percent of the conversation) and Facebook (8 percent of the conversation) posts mentioning CVS. Top hashtags associated with the social conversation surrounding CVS include #CVS (more than 13,000 mentions) and #CVSquits (more than 10,000 mentions) Regarding CVS/pharmacy's Twitter account, @CVS_Extra, from January 29 to Feb. 4 the handle averaged 200 to 300 daily interactions, which includes mentions, retweets, and @replies. February 5 alone, @CVS_Extra experienced exponentially more engagement with more than 17,000 interactions, which includes mentions, retweets and @replies.

In "Six Key Considerations for Socially Responsible Marketing," two of the six steps involve understanding the messages that resonate with customers and ensuring there's a companywide commitment to doing the right thing and practicing what you preach. CVS's carefully crafted decision works to fulfill these steps. The established website, CVS Quits for Good, which includes information on communities and smoking cessation, and its dedicatedTwitter page, looks like a well-designed anti-smoking campaign.

I hope that CVS' decision helps to inspire behaviorial changes on the consumer side and prompt other healthcare providers to work in the best interests of their customers. We mustn't disregard that no matter what the underlying reason for the decision, it was nonetheless a brilliant marketing play.

EXPERT OPINION
EXPERT OPINION