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ignite a trend with a down-to-earth marketing campaign?

done before you've finished your double espresso
How do you ignite a trend with a down-to-earth marketing campaign?
Rita Thomas

Brand Strategist and owner at 110 North

As the second-largest pharmacy chain in the U.S., Walgreens is the go-to place for health and wellness products and select groceries. Besides this, the store boasts a large selection of beauty products, riding the wave of drugstore makeup popularity. 

But before vloggers capitalized on the budget beauty trend, Rita Thomas remembers the challenges Walgreens faced in marketing this department to its customers. Most customers used to walk straight past the cosmetics aisle just to fill their prescriptions, perhaps getting a little snack while on the go. 

Although she now runs her creative agency 110 North, Thomas was formerly part of Walgreens’ in-house team that partnered with ad agency GSD&M on the campaign “Whatever makes you feel beautiful.” Looking back on the project, she sheds some light on the importance of understanding and honoring your target audience.

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How do you humanize data?

Before founding her creative agency 110 North in Charlotte, North Carolina, and working on Walgreens’ marketing team, Creative Producer and Brand Strategist Rita Thomas worked for Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions among other television and radio broadcasts.

With storytelling at the core of everything she does, Thomas reminds us that the key to effective communication is first understanding who your audience is so you will know how to build a relationship with them.

Whenever her team brainstorms how to make their target audience feel seen and heard through campaigns, they try to see the people behind the collected data and numbers.

“We spend a lot of time humanizing them and developing personas. We quickly give them names. What do they like, dislike, watch, listen to, and where do they hang out? We make it a really fun exercise and you start to see the personas as some of the people you have in your own life,” Thomas explains.

How do you pinpoint the pain points?

Walgreens has always been trusted by millions of Americans as a household brand, plus the makeup selection has always been broad and extremely affordable. So where was the disconnect? The team carried out extensive research to find out.

Thomas reveals that most people historically never thought of Walgreens as a place to get makeup. They would rather go to a specialty store like Sephora. The team’s research showed that customers would only occasionally buy beauty products from Walgreens that they had tested and bought before.

“There aren’t a lot of samples available at Walgreens, and most of the beauty products are packaged and sealed so people couldn’t try them,” Thomas says. 

Knowing which makeup products to buy without testing samples. title=

“Customers would hold packages up comparing shades to their skin in the little mirrors. Yes, the products are inexpensive, but it’s still an investment, right? You don’t want to buy a foundation only to discover at home that it’s the wrong shade,” she continues.

The goal was clear, Walgreens wanted to highlight its beauty department and become more known for it, but the team had to find a way to tackle this pain point first. 

How do you create awareness among your customer base?

The team now knew they had regular customers locked in who counted on Walgreens to stock up on beauty items from brands they were already familiar with. 

But how could they introduce them to additional items, and even make Walgreens known as the place to discover beauty brands for a wider audience?

“We rolled out a whole new beauty experience with trained beauty experts in the stores who could advise customers in finding the right products. We were also able to work with some of the brands to supply these beauty experts with enough samples and testers,” Thomas explains.

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Rolling out this service across Walgreens locations in 2016, the marketing team liaised with advertising agency GSD&M to launch a marketing campaign that communicated this new in-store beauty experience. 

“There were multiple agencies involved,” Thomas says. “Besides GSD&M there was also a media purchasing agency, and another working on activations, and so on. I learned so much working with great colleagues like Metra Giliard and Sandy Renteria. My job was to make sure that all the teams understood and implemented our marketing strategy in a way that would translate well to the audience.”

While high-end beauty brands often run ultra-sleek campaigns showing an almost unattainable level of glamor, this just wouldn’t strike a chord with this target audience. The message was not to tell them what to do or buy to make them beautiful.

“We wanted to keep in mind the emotive nature of the messaging we would put out, making sure it’s accessible, friendly, and deeply emotional,” Thomas adds.

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How do you make sure your messaging is relatable to the target audience?

The result was the “whatever makes you feel beautiful” campaign, translated into various print ads and video ads. 

Thomas explains how the ads were meant to highlight the individual, “We wanted to show people having fun and living full lives, highlighting how beauty looks and feels different for different people.” 

The print ads featured three products at a time, showing people in different situations and their beauty routine preferences. For some, this means a bold lip color, a natural look with face cream only, or simply eating ice cream in your loungewear. 

Several short video ads showed fictional friends Kate and Heather talking about common beauty issues in a lighthearted, often comedic manner. 

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Thomas emphasizes that the power of the campaign lies in the fact that its message is not solely transactional. Something that is still very important in how she currently runs her creative agency and its projects.

“Whether we’re working on a PSA or campaign to drive revenue, we always think through who we’re speaking to and how we can honor them in the message we’re putting out. It shouldn’t feel simply transactional. We want to speak to them with the purpose of building a relationship and providing them with a service with no judgment.”

As for the campaign for Walgreens, this relationship meant honoring the customers by helping them do whatever makes them feel beautiful, embracing the uniqueness of each.

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How do you spark a burgeoning trend?

In the months after the campaign launch, Walgreens stores across the country saw significantly increased foot traffic and sales for the beauty department, while the video ads were voted “Ad of the Week” by US Creative Works readers.

Steadily, Walgreens updated its assortment of beauty products with new and premium brands alongside trusted favorites. As the in-store beauty experts advised customers how these items compared to other brands, Thomas attributes the rise of the subsequent ‘budget beauty trend’ as another example of the campaign's success. 

“Suddenly, you had all these influencers sharing tutorials and reviews about drugstore makeup and how it compares to luxury beauty brands,” she explains.

Suddenly countless beauty vloggers were reviewing drugstore cosmetics, including Walgreens title=
Suddenly countless beauty vloggers were reviewing drugstore cosmetics, including Walgreens

“Countless vlogs and posts showed influencers with half their face glammed up with expensive products while using products from Walgreens on the other half of their face. This directly shows how Walgreens sparked a revolution in the public perception of drugstore makeup.”  

From humanizing data to empowering their target audience, the “Whatever makes you feel beautiful” campaign is an example of how brands can achieve their goals while making their customers feel heard and valued at the same time.

Watch a compilation of the Kate and Heather videos for the "Whatever makes you feel beautiful" campaign below.

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