When Brands Confuse Their Priorities Customers Die
By Dante Pannell
In December 2018, an 85-year-old Florida resident was prescribed an anti-depressant by her doctor, just like millions of Americans each year. She filled it at her local Publix, as she had before. Five days later, Mary Scheurman was dead. During the last agonizing days of her life, spent lying in a hospital bed, she was told what sent her to the grave: instead of an anti-depressant, Publix had given her a robust chemotherapy drug.
For Scheurman’s son, Alton James, discovering his mother’s prescription was mishandled was a shock: he had been the one going to the Publix in Lakeland, Florida to pick up her medication. It was Alton who noticed that after giving her this new batch of “anti-depressants,” his mother turned pale, and that her blood pressure dropped. He was the one who brought her to hospital.
When doctors told him about the toxic levels of chemotherapy chemicals in his mother’s blood, he reached back out to the Publix where he’d picked up her prescription. The employee on the other end of the phone confirmed the mistake: His mother’s prescription had been mixed up with one for a cancer fighting pill. Why?
Mary Scheurman is dead because Publix cares more about revenue than people.
Publix isn’t the first business to confuse its priorities; revenue is a reward for delivering customers value, not an independent objective. Few executives would challenge the philosophy that brands should do the right thing for customers, like prioritizing customer experience. But under the pressure of quarterly results, it’s too easy to prioritize short-term revenue as the primary goal. This exploitative approach seems innocuous to most businesses, but its peril is clear when it costs customers their lives.
Pharmacies were originally found in hospitals or as stand-alone, specialty locations. The lineage of the chain pharmacy—often tucked into the back of a larger retail location—traces to a small discount beauty and health store in Lowell, Massachusetts, founded in 1963. Four years later, Consumer Value Store introduced an in-store pharmacy . More than just differentiating it from other stores, CVS’ in-store pharmacy tore down the barriers that stood between patients, doctors, and their medication. Not surprisingly, more stores followed suit and the modern pharmacy was born.
Within these retail stores pharmacists gained the trust of their communities. As their customers came in to pick up odds-and-ends, along with medication, they began to see the pharmacist more than they did their own physicians; in turn the in-store pharmacy provided customers an experience that kept people out of the hospital, and even aided in lowering costs for all involved in the healthcare system.
As the draw that attracted customers over other convenience stores, the pharmacist was central to the CVS customer experience; pairing a specialty service with everyday retail and beauty goods allowed the brand to spread throughout the United States and become the largest retail pharmacy in the country. Alongside that growth, though, the relationship between the pharmacy and the retail footprint that hosted it became inverted.
Over the years CVS pharmacies have seen their once customer-centric position change. Instead of being a convenient point of care or customer-friendly option to purchase necessary prescriptions (paired with a store), the pharmacy became an aggressive, standalone driver of revenue growth. The historical focus on the care of patients and in-store pharmacist relationship was replaced with rigorous sales initiatives that placed growth figures ahead of the well-being of customers.
To their credit, CVS’ own pharmacists appear uncomfortable with this change: one ex-CVS employee sued for wrongful termination when he was let go for complaining that the new corporate direction was endangering patients. Other employees CVS pharmacists have complained to their State Boards of Pharmacy that they were not only being misled, but that this dangerous shift in culture put their patients at risk.
Employee time is an organization’s most valuable resource, and how it is allocated communicates priorities more clearly than any memo. At CVS, the time previously dedicated to the primary role of the pharmacist—filling prescriptions—was largely displaced with cold calling old patients, changing 30-day prescriptions to 90-days ones (without notice to physicians), and other tasks which emphasized creating new sales, even when not in the best interest of the patient. CVS’ is helping people on their path to better health; pushing unnecessary prescriptions to drive sales does not achieve that purpose.
Just as other retail chains followed CVS’ lead in establishing the in-store pharmacy, they have been all-too-eager to embrace this same revenue-centric approach. Converting pharmacists to salespeople played a role in the mistake that killed Mary Scheurman, and similar pressures have appeared in Rite-Aid, Walgreens, and other major US chains.
This misplaced elevation of sales results hasn’t fully impacted CVS and its American peers, yet. The recent travails of UK-based retail pharmacy chain Boots may be a harbinger of things to come.
Boots has been supplying customers with everyday items for generations. Established in 1849, its story very much mirrors that of CVS. Run as a family business, it grew rapidly to become a staple not only in the Nottingham community where it was founded, but throughout the UK, and even parts of the Caribbean and Asia.
It also experienced the same shift in focus to revenue over customer care, much to the dismay of those who had been loyal to the brand for decades. This change was so dramatic, and the customer experience was so abysmal, that the Guardian, in 2016, covered the journey it underwent from a service-driven organization with local roots, to a strictly profit-driven firm.
In response to the piece, Boots denied all “allegations” made by the Guardian. But the Guardian investigation resonated with customers; it evoked the brand they once loved.
Following Boots’ statement, letters, emails, and calls flooded into the Guardian from former and current Boots employees loudly supporting the points the article made; grievances in the letters ranged from putting customers in danger with sales goals, to managers directing staff to purposely provide customers medicine with that they didn’t need.
Two years later, the BBC followed up with another investigation, which exposed errors at Boots similar to the one that killed Mary Scheurman. Frazzled pharmacists made prescription errors, some fatal, while under pressure to meet revenue targets. Boots had not only ignored the public response to the 2016 article—it doubled down on its approach. This short-sighted approach may finally have a consequence on the brand: in 2019, Boots announced the closure of more than 200 stores. Unfortunately, that’s no consolation to the family of Richard Lee, a customer who died after being given the wrong prescription.
Brands who neglect their core commitment to customers in pursuit of profits cannot remain viable. So while many large retail pharmacies struggle, others are being rewarded for remaining focused on the vital connection between the pharmacist and customers that they serve.
Wegmans follows a similar blueprint to CVS and its ilk: a grocery store, with an on-premise pharmacy. Where it differentiates is a focus on customers that is lived as authentically as it’s expressed in the brand story.
Wegmans, like CVS and Boots, began as a family push cart produce business. To remain close to those 1916 roots, Wegmans put company values in place, the very first being: “We care about the well-being and success of every person.”
While the Wegmans story and values were designed for its grocery business, they extends to the pharmacy as well. Introduced until 1972, Wegmans pharmacy became just another place to deliver the customer experience that makes the brand unique. This deliberate approach has paid off, as the brand posts continual growth, while maintaining high customer satisfaction. Wegman’s pharmacies are the most highly rated by customers in America—and significantly outpace CVS, Walgreens, and other drug-story competitors.
No doubt this approach is not as immediately lucrative as those taken by other brands, but the long-game Wegmans is playing for customer loyalty and market share is far more sustainable—it’s built on authentically living the story it tells customers.
Mary Scheurman trusted Publix to put her needs first, and Richard Lee put the same trust in Boots. In both cases, they were failed by brands who valued revenue growth over commitment to customers. A company’s story only matters when its fully integrated into the entire organization, particularly the sales operation—customers have and always will reward brands and companies that they believe and trust in.
While the stakes are often lower—few brands kill their customers by failing to deliver on the brand promise—delivering value for customers must be the priority for all organizations. Revenue is an earned reward for meeting this commitment, not an end in and of itself.
Dante is an associate at Woden. Want to stay connected? Add Dante on LinkedIn, read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.