CVS Pharmacy made national news with its announcement that it would phase out tobacco sales at its pharmacies by October. Selling tobacco is inconsistent with the chain’s mission of improving the health of its customers, according to the CEO. The decision will cost CVS an estimated $2 billion in revenue (though that’s compared to more than $120 billion in total revenue in 2012).
Public reaction to the announcement has been generally positive, though a significant number of comments suggest that the move is “just PR” and that CVS will continue to sell sugary drinks, fat and salt-filled snacks, and other food items that contribute to the nation’s epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic ills.
That may be true, but critics are missing the point if they dismiss what CVS has done as “just PR.” As a PR move, it’s brilliant: it’s brought positive national attention to CVS, and immediately differentiated the company from other pharmacies and convenience retailers. In the overall context of the nation’s serious health challenges, CVS’s move may be mostly symbolic, but symbols are important. They create awareness and perceptions among consumers.
When Pope Francis washed the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday, some critics grumbled that he was being overly praised for a mere gesture while not making any substantive changes to Church doctrine. Savvier Church observers, however, understood the value of symbolism. “If it’s just for show, I say keep showing it,” said one.
Smart companies and organizations understand that PR supports their strategic business goals. Sometimes those goals are simply to draw positive attention, build awareness, and distinguish your company from competitors. We’d say CVS has played it perfectly.