Perfect PR? A standing O and slow clap for CVS Health

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We love to talk about public relations and branding missteps. What’s more fun than shuddering at Market Basket’s month-long debacle, or how the media wages war on itself over racial issues?

Thoughtful, well-executed PR isn’t as sensational, but it sure does paint a prettier picture. And CVS just dropped the mic with its name change to CVS Health.

I know, I know – Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper aren’t exactly fighting over who’ll play the lead role in the explosive blockbuster detailing the subtle CVS rebrand. To watch the ginormous brand successfully shift its model without stepping on a single PR eggshell, however, brings a tear to the eye.

The real PR execution came to light months ago, when the Company announced it would stop selling tobacco. The move was reflective of a gradual shift away from the convenience store model and closer to preventive health. As EZG client Reynders, McVeigh pointed out in this Barron’s article, CVS is “in a prime position to benefit from the ongoing revolution in American healthcare.”

The Company is aiming to become the leader in consumer-facing preventive healthcare, which is a far cry from the foundational goals inherent in the name (Consumer Value Stores).  Such a wholesale shift could have inspired a public relations backlash from both media and the Street – unless it was handled with:

  1. incredible foresight,
  2. careful alignment with corporate goals,
  3. buy-in at every level of the organization,
  4. patience, and
  5. a message that featured restraint and sensitivity to an enormous global audience.

It seems that CVS was equal to the task.  The Company went loud with its plans early in 2014 with the tobacco draw down. It was the perfect segue into the big picture, as CEO Larry Merlo noted in The New York Times that “we have about 26,000 pharmacists and nurse practitioners helping patients manage chronic problems like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease, all of which are linked to smoking…We came to the decision that cigarettes and providing health care just don’t go together in the same setting.”

Did you hear that in the back, there?  It’s not about cigarettes, people.  It’s about HELPING PATIENTS MANAGE CHRONIC PROBLEMS.

Fast forward to September 2014. After absorbing the reaction to its tobacco move, CVS announced  simultaneously that it would accelerate the removal of tobacco from its stores and change its name to CVS Health.

There are a dozen ways these steps could have been mismanaged. CVS could have make smoking the issue, creating an air of judgment and a forum for debate – instead it made it clear that tobacco simply conflicted with its focus on health. Executives could have led with the name change, then eliminated tobacco – instead it made a powerful connection with consumers before changing the brand.

The way it was played out, this brand and strategy shift couldn’t seem more natural. That’s just great branding, PR, and corporate strategy working together. Well played.

As the late, great, George Peppard would say (yes, fully recognize the irony of George’s trademark cigar here):

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