Blooms The Chemist CMO’s lessons from the COVID-19 frontline

The chemist group has been at the forefront in this health crisis and its marketing chief details the importance of communication, trust and the changing focus of its marketing

For Blooms The Chemist, the last few months have been an exercise in being up close to a health crisis and fulfilling a crucial role in ensuring the supply of medication to the Australian community during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are a community pharmacy group and our pharmacies have been on the front line of this health emergency, classed as an essential service,” Blooms The Chemist CMO, Pamela Bishop, told CMO

At the same time, Bishop said the group had to manage its ad spend and completely rejig marketing plans in response to the all-encompassing pandemic. “We know from research that those businesses that continue to invest in marketing do come out better off at the other end,” she said.

The team started with a decision early on to overhaul regular products promotions and reinvested those marketing dollars into a campaign that was focused on education around COVID-19. Bishop explained first and foremost it was about informing the customer and helping pharmacy teams stay on top of the fast-moving situation and all of the advice and information coming at them on a daily basis.

“There was so much information and there was actually quite a bit of misinformation as well,” she said. “Customers were really confused by it all.

“For the pharmacy teams, they were struggling to keep on top of all the updates. So we just tried to streamline everything and provide our customers with the most up-to-date and relevant health information, such as how to gain access to medicines, particularly for those in rural communities. And, of course, educate on social distancing and all of the appropriate hygiene measures."

For marketing departments, the name of the game was being able to adapt and be agile. Like many brands, Bishop said teams needed to change everything quite quickly.

"We had all of our marketing dollars booked in and all of our campaigns then changed at short notice. And it became much more about communication whereas previously it would have been creative-led and our typical marketing is focused on product,” she said.

Managing spikes in demand, led by panic buying, meant Blooms The Chemist had to have unusual conversations with customers too. Bishop recalled how in March, the group at one point was communicating to customers to stop buying.

"I never thought I'd ever be in that position as a retail business," she continued. “We had this whole new concept, where we flipped the communications on its head, and we had to reassure customers that things would be OK, there would be enough medicines. We were really trying to educate our customers and use the marketing that way to create a sense of calm."

The result was a whole campaign talking about the new home delivery services to vulnerable customers, pharmacists working closely with GPs on access to medicines and the pharmacists talking to and reassuring customers about the situation.

Communications pivot

Leading the communications for Blooms The Chemist throughout the crisis, Bishop found it an extreme exercise in juggling many priorities, from staying across a fast-moving channel of information and a rolling health crisis to adapting to a radically altered way of working and managing the toll on everyone because of the challenging times. 

Bishop has overseen the rollout of new communication initiatives because of COVID to support its more than 100 pharmacies across the country and get the feedback from those on the frontline of the pandemic. “I think one of my big learnings has been just how critical the communication efforts have been,” she said.

A daily bulletin to pharmacists with all of the latest updates kept the information flowing and helped take some of the pressures off the pharmacies in having to do this themselves. This also ensure they could be across all the relevant information each morning quickly and simply and by ready to deal with the customers and their needs.

“That transparency really does build trust in us, both internally and externally, with our customers. Just being upfront about what was going on and what challenges we were facing,” Bishop explained.

A new platform introduced in the crisis sends important critical information directly to the pharmacists or owner by text message to ensure it would be read and understood quickly. A new intranet also publishes all information to make it available to every staff member across the network. And, like most businesses, Blooms The Chemist has tapped Zoom for its business meeting to come together face-to-face.

“What we find is, it's really been a bit of a support system so they’re not feeling like they're alone and going through all of the challenges,” Bishop said.

Looking ahead, Bishop saw trust as being a key theme in customer communications. “Everything we did was to reassure customers and make them feel like they had a safe and trusted environment if they did want to come into the pharmacy,” she said.

“I do think that element of trust and safety, particularly because we’re a healthcare business, is going to be here to stay and it's going to become more and more important moving forward. And our communications will need to continue to support that.”

Meanwhile, each pharmacy being locally owned and functioning as a destination for people’s health will be a theme which will feature in future marketing efforts, strengthened by the experience of the pandemic. While promotional marketing and product marketing will still have its place, the experience of COVID and the changing emphasis on community wellness will see the people within the business feature much more in its marketing going forward.

“We’ll see more of ‘heroing’ those local pharmacists and pharmacy teams as champions for health in their community, and helping in the community in general, with what they're doing to support them,” Bishop added.

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page, or join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia


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