As Rite Aid, the national drug store chain, moves forward with a dramatic redesign of its more than 2,400 stores, including swapping out its old red and blue logo for a blue and green one, it will be a Norfolk advertising agency’s design affixed to signs.
Sway Creative Labs, a small 15-person firm that has rebranded Norfolk International Airport, led campaigns for Colonial Williamsburg and VisitNorfolk, and has worked with Sony musicians, ultimately bested bigger, national firms to create the store’s new brand.
“When it comes to creative, it’s not the size of the firm, it’s the talent and the strategic design thinking of the agency,” said Erik Keptner, chief marketing officer for Rite Aid.
From start to finish, Sway’s role in changing a decades-old logo happened in a quick few months, but the origin of the firm’s involvement can be traced back several years when it was first hired by Heyward R. Donigan as she led ValueOptions Inc. When that company merged with Boston-based Beacon Health in 2014, Sway was brought on to rebrand it. In August 2019, Donigan was hired to be CEO of Rite Aid. By December, Sway had gotten the call from the drugstore giant that it was interested in the firm’s rebranding ideas.
“We got lucky,” said Bryce Picard, Sway’s owner and creative director. “We were always sort of on the radar for Heyward.”
He called the timeline to produce a new logo “incredibly aggressive,” with sprints of work before handing off each iteration to a consumer focus group. It started in about December and wrapped up in February. The plan was to have a live March launch in New York, but it turned into a webcast with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Picard said his firm had designed hundreds, if not thousands, of variations on the logo before one took the top spot.
The Pennsylvania-based retailer has more than 2,400 stores across 18 states, including 70 in Virginia. It’s far smaller than its two largest competitors, CVS with more than 9,900 stores and Walgreens with more than 9,200 stores. Walgreens tried to buy Rite Aid outright in 2015, but amid antitrust concerns, was only able to buy a little less than 2,000 of the chain’s locations by 2018. A bid by grocery store Albertsons to merge with Rite Aid the same year also fell through.
Started in 1962 in Scranton, Pennsylvania as Thrif D Discount Center, the drugstore changed its name to Rite Aid in 1968. Throughout its history, it has almost always had the familiar red and blue shield logo.
The rebrand is part of a $700 million, two-year plan to overhaul the drugstore’s image and operations. It will include store remodels and a renewed focus on its pharmacy and pharmacists, acting more as a “wellness concierge,” according to the company’s explanation to Wall Street analysts in March.
In one slide, the company told analysts it intended for the new branding to shift consumer perceptions from indifference to warm and welcoming, “old/stodgy” to fun and fresh, from being known for “selling everything” to “wholesome curation.”
The drugstore chain’s core customer, not surprisingly, has skewed older (50-plus) and has multiple medical conditions.
“We’re not backing away from supporting our current customer,” said Keptner of the rebrand, but the company realized in its research that it had been underestimating the potential of its millennial and Generation X customers. The company thinks mothers who care for children, aging parents and pets could be ripe for future growth.
Those younger customers balance wanting traditional medical fixes with alternative remedies, Keptner said. Self-care is important, including learning ways to eat better, exercise and use natural remedies, he said. To appeal to them, the company determined it needed to dramatically rebrand.
“We needed to show that strategy in the icons also,” he said.
Rite Aid brought in five advertising agencies, including Sway.
“We didn’t want to leave any stone unturned,” Keptner said.
The Burns Group of New York developed the initial concept, but Sway’s design boosted it “to the next level,” Keptner said, ultimately winning over consumers in the company’s focus groups and surveys.
“Not only did they have the talent and creativity, but they move quickly,” Keptner said of Sway. “They’re very scrappy, and they do a great job.”
Thousands of consumer data points, from in-person focus groups to online surveys, led the company to its new logo, he said. Bridging traditional medicine and alternative medicine is baked into the new design and color choice.
Blue, typically representing calm and trust and used by many healthcare companies, represents the traditional, he said. Green represents the natural. The company wanted to keep the shield insignia, too, signifying protection. The leaves represented alternative medicine while the pestle and mortar represented traditional pharmacy work.
The logo and color change is just the beginning for the company, Keptner said, with it acting as a signal to a deeper transformation.
The rebranding will also include changes to its line of products, with a shift toward cleaner ingredients.
“It’s not just about changing a logo. That logo is a signal of all the other changes we’re embarking on,” Keptner said. So far, fewer than 100 stores have been rebranded in what Keptner said was just the beginning of a “multi-year journey of transformation.”
“This is just a continuing evolution of the brand, and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said.
Norfolk isn’t exactly known as an advertising industry hub, but along with fellow marketing firm Grow nearby, Sway has found itself on the radar of big-name companies as its built brand recognition of its own.
“It’s great to be able to compete with these national, global brands,” Picard said. “And prove that we can do it. That’s something we’re pretty proud of.”
Last year, the firm worked with Sony musicians, including developing a digital Advent calendar for Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” The album eventually hit number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 for the first time.
The firm has also done work for artists Miranda Lambert, Lauren Hill and Nas. It’s been working with news publisher Politico on sponsored content as well as NASDAQ and JP Morgan Chase.
As far as rebranding a national company with recognizable iconography and 2,400 stores, though, this task was Sway’s most visible.
“It was very exciting, rewarding, stressful,” Picard said. “That’s the kind of work we really enjoy doing.”
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