Matt Harker balances privacy with personalization at scale for Walgreens Boots Alliance

Experience Maker Matt Harker.


“Every interaction or moment you have to be there for a customer or patient has the chance to earn their trust, create value for them and earn brand loyalty.” — Matt Harker, VP of Global Marketing Strategy and Transformation, Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) and 2021 Adobe Experience Maker Executive of the Year, Americas

Long before our new digital-normal, you could go to a drugstore or pharmacy and see a friendly face — someone you trusted to answer your questions and give their advice.

Such an experience is difficult to replicate at scale, especially in a world that has now gone digital.

The shift to direct, relevant, one-on-one communications became more urgent during the global pandemic — but one of the world’s largest retail and wholesale pharmacy brands was already moving towards a new strategy of mass personalization in early 2020.

Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) serves over 120 million customers with over 11,000 storefronts across the US and UK. The company competes with an increasing number of online and brick-and-mortar retailers who serve consumers directly for health-related products and services.

Below, Matt Harker, winner of the 2021 Experience Maker Executive of the Year for the Americas talks about the ingredients behind his win, and his advice for all on the journey to personalized experiences at scale in industries as highly regulated as healthcare.

Balancing privacy and personalization

The healthcare industry has been faced with rapidly shifting expectations — patients and shoppers want that same relevant experience that other industries have made standard, giving providers, payers, retailers, and pharmacies an opportunity to engage in more personalized ways.

However, personal health information is federally protected by HIPAA and there are important controls over whether and how this data is used for marketing purposes. When the COVID-19 pandemic created a global health crisis, Harker led the conversation at WBA to leverage Adobe Experience Cloud to create and send messaging about getting vaccinated.

To ensure compliance, the chief privacy officers of WBA were involved from the beginning, under a mantra Harker described as “privacy by design.”

“We call it privacy by design — they shape it from day one, because there are so many choices along the way that, that if you start as a team, you get there faster and have a stronger outcome that meets everybody's requirements,” Harker explained.

The team negotiated an approach that would remain HIPAA compliant while supporting large-scale individualized messaging based on the first-party customer data provided through experiences like their highly effective customer loyalty program, myWalgreens.

The myWalgreens app and website offer highly specific and relevant experiences that encourage the sustained engagement of customers, driving brand loyalty, repeat business, and revenue while honoring preferences and protecting customer privacy.

The glue between technology and marketing

Harker’s focus as VP of Global Marketing Strategy and Transformation is to bridge the gap internally as both an advocate, champion of change, and facilitator.

“I am a connector and glue between Marketing and Technology,” said Harker. “These teams can speak two different languages (both love their acronyms) and my role is to make the conversation flow between them. In the end it’s about a unified experience for the customer.”

Harker and his colleagues retain a critical focus on the customer throughout the process. “We start with the customer and the patient experience,” he said. “And then we ask what should that ideally look like to better their life? Then we seek capabilities and tech and tools and people needed to pull that off. That's our north star in everything — you can't go wrong if you're making a positive impact on somebody's life.”

Working with partners to facilitate transformation

Harker was an early advocate for Adobe Experience Cloud at WBA, driven by the opportunities he knew a modern, unified experience platform could deliver for the company’s massive customer base and trove of first party data.

“Transformation usually means new territory,” he explained. “Look to outside partners to help you create excitement and momentum.”

WBA used the Microsoft Azure web services platform to handle massive volumes of data and help create a unified view of customers across channels, while seeking the help and guidance of experts at Adobe to bring their vision of mass personalization to life.

“Adobe played a key role here with a connected suite of products including Adobe Analytics, Adobe Audience Manager, Adobe Campaign, Adobe Experience Manager, and Adobe Target that allow you to be present in all those customer journeys, because otherwise it's impossible. We would have to have a company of a hundred million people in order to effectively do that and communicate with customers in a one-to-one way. That’s really how we got started with a rally cry of mass personalization. And then that meant transforming the way we do things.”

Honoring the Movers and Shakers. Learn more about the Adobe Experience Maker Awards.