As a new immigrant to Canada, Vineet Mehra quickly grasped the inequities that he and his family now faced.
He was just 6 years old.
But he saw the unfairness. His parents, who had arrived from India with little money, both worked hard. Yet they lacked the same access to health care as other residents in the town’s more-affluent neighborhoods.
That disparity – health outcomes driven by postal code more than genetic code – became “etched in my mind,” recalls Mehra, global chief marketing officer of Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA). Today, he remains devoted to closing those gaps with fresh technologies that can help democratize health and wellness.
Tuesday, WBA, Microsoft and Adobe launched a cloud platform that will provide WBA customers with personalized health care and shopping experiences. Headquartered in suburban Chicago, WBA owns Walgreens, Boots and Alliance Healthcare.
Transform spoke with Mehra to learn how the new platform and its data-fueled customer connections can help reinvent shopping for health and wellness goods – and make those products available to more people.
TRANSFORM: How will the platform make shopping better and more personal?
VINEET MEHRA: We have two of the largest loyalty programs in the world – our Walgreens Balance Rewards program and our Boots Advantage Card program. Between them, there are well over 100 million primary customer profiles.
The work we’re doing with Microsoft is critical as we organize that information and data in a cloud-based solution. This new cloud platform puts our most valuable data in one place and allows us to orchestrate experiences that meet people where they are, giving them what they need.
TRANSFORM: Can you give me an example?
MEHRA: Imagine a customer named Annie who receives an email through her loyalty membership for Vitamin B offers. Based on her purchase history, we know she’s a Vitamin B shopper. We know she typically runs out of Vitamin B after 30 days.
Annie visits walgreens.com and Vitamin B options are prioritized for her viewing. We don’t show her anything but Vitamin B because we know she’s in the market for that now. She buys it. As she’s further browsing the site, Annie adds Emergen-C (a Vitamin C supplement) to her cart. But let’s say that Annie doesn’t finalize her purchase online – it remains in her cart.
Later that day, she’s walking by a Walgreens store. We now have the infrastructure to allow Annie to control how and when we communicate with her. So, when we identify that the Emergen-C that she left in her online cart is in stock at that Walgreens location, she receives a text message notifying her. She goes in to buy it.
TRANSFORM: How does the platform connect the retail and pharmacy experience for customers?
MEHRA: Let’s go back to Annie. As she enters that Walgreens store to buy her Vitamin C, she gets a real-time alert on her phone: The prescription that she was supposed to pick up tomorrow can be ready today at that store. This is because we now know she’s in the store with us.
Annie heads to the pharmacy to pick up the prescription. The pharmacist also reminds her she’s due for a flu shot. We know from our cloud-based customer data that she gets the vaccine each year.
With customer information thoughtfully organized, we can create these seamless experiences around health and wellness that allow our retail offering to complement our pharmacy offering. But that can only be enabled if all that data is in one place, not scattered in many data warehouses all over the country.
TRANSFORM: You have previously talked about the need to democratize health care, to make it more human and more personal, to treat each customer and patient as a complete, unique individual. Does this platform help WBA meet that mission?
MEHRA: Absolutely. It’s something that I personally and our company are passionate about.
The recent events around the racial equality movement are showing there are “haves” and “have-nots” in our society. Your postal code, in some cases, dictates your health outcome more than your genetic code. We have pharmacy deserts in America. We have food deserts. We have areas without access to health care. But imagine if we knew who you were, we could offer those experiences to you in multiple ways.
So health outcomes don’t have to be defined by the fact that you may live in a lower-income area or that you don’t have access to public transportation or a car or that there’s no pharmacy around you. If we knew who you are, we could say to you, “Hey, it’s time for your Vitamin C to maintain the health of you and your family.”
We can offer up an experience to deliver it direct to your door. And we’ll set up delivery lockers in certain neighborhoods where people can pick things up.
TRANSFORM: And through these innovations, you are democratizing access to health and wellness products?
MEHRA: Yes, to products that families need but may not always have access to just because of the structural challenges we have in our society in America. By knowing who people are, we can provide them access that may not always involve heading to a store.
In other cases, you have families with two working parents or single moms or single dads. How do they even get out of the house when they’ve got three kids at home and one of the kids is sick? You start to see how this information will allow us to get people health and wellness the way they need it when they need it.
TRANSFORM: When and how did this mission become so important to you?
MEHRA: I grew up as a first-generation immigrant kid. I was born in India. My parents came to Canada, to a blue-collar town, with relatively little. The experiences some of my friends and I had there are still etched in my mind – like this idea of access to health and wellness being defined by where I live, it never made sense to me.
It comes from those roots, from realizing that some people had more than I did but it had nothing to do with how hard we worked. Health care should be one of those rights that everyone has access to.
TRANSFORM: At their core, these innovations are all about people, is that right?
MEHRA: It’s important that we don’t just talk about this as digital technology. It happens to be digitally hosted but with the idea of human kindness and digital magic coming together. That applies to the side of the business with our pharmacists – humans you interact with in critical ways. We’re mashing together human kindness with technology.
TRANSFORM: How will Microsoft Dynamics 365 benefit the new platform?
MEHRA: The best part of Dynamics is that it acts as a tool that is constantly giving us better signals.
If you think about health and wellness and taking care of your family, these things are constantly evolving. You can be diagnosed one day with something. You can go from having a cold one day to allergies the next. Dynamics 365 is a great customer-data platform because it’s so real time. It’s processing data constantly then turning that data into insights that allow our pharmacists to more efficiently treat patients.
TRANSFORM: Before joining WBA, you were the chief marketing officer at Ancestry.com. There may be nothing more personal than genealogy and genetic testing. Do you think of yourself as an evangelist for truly personalized customer service?
MEHRA: In my experience working deeply in consumer genetics, I got a deep appreciation for the fact that while we all may be more similar than we think, we’re all wired up very differently. The medicines that work for you may not work for me.
We have to meet people where they are – this idea of personalization is becoming absolutely critical in health and wellness.
Brands like Walgreens and Boots are the front lines of health and wellness access to much of the population. If we can be in the business of personalized health services for people, that’s going to make society healthier. It’s going to give people access in ways they’ve never had before.
Top photo: A Walgreens store in downtown Chicago. (Photos courtesy of Walgreens)