Pharmacy & Healthcare

A sweet partnership

Walgreens and Tootsie Roll teamed up to reward young COVID-19 vaccine recipients with iconic Tootsie Pops—at lightning speed.
Steve Rausch, Walgreens Stories
Vaccinations aren’t on any kid’s list of their favorite things. Lollipops definitely are.

So when two iconic Chicago-based brands saw an opportunity to partner and create a less stressful COVID-19 vaccination experience for children with a post-vaccination Tootsie Pop, it took just minutes to put the deal together.

In late October, anticipating government approval that would broaden vaccination eligibility to kids between ages 5 and 11, Walgreens’ retail team members began brainstorming ideas to make the process more pleasant, particularly for younger children for whom the process might be a bit scary. Lollipops were always a welcome reward after a visit to the doctor’s office as a kid, they recalled, so they thought it would be a good idea to replicate that for children getting vaccinations in Walgreens stores.

That was the idea, and Brian Rinker, Walgreens Division Merchandise Manager, had a partner in mind to help make it happen. Remembering discussions with Tootsie Roll Industries to partner on a promotion over the past several years, he thought this was the perfect opportunity to finally bring the two companies together.

“Tootsie Roll felt like a great fit for this, but typically they don’t do a lot of promotional partnerships,” he said. “So, I picked up the phone and called Tricia Johnson, who is with C.A. Carlin as the sales agent for Tootsie Roll at Walgreens, to explain what we wanted to do. Coincidentally, the marketing team at Tootsie had had similar discussions based on memories of how a lollipop had made them feel at the doctor’s, so within five minutes we had an agreement. And a couple hours after that we had all the details worked out.”

One of America’s largest candy companies, Tootsie Roll Industries is the manufacturer of iconic candy brands like Tootsie Roll, Dots and Junior Mints. And like Walgreens, Tootsie Roll has been based in Chicago for decades. When Ken Naylor, Tootsie Roll’s Corporate Vice President of Marketing and Sales, was approached by Johnson with the plan on October 26, he knew immediately this was something he wanted to do.

“We had been engaged in conversations with Walgreens since the pandemic began to understand if there were opportunities for us to help the cause, but the timing or circumstances were never right,” he said. “When Tricia told me about the proposal to distribute Tootsie Pops to kids getting vaccinations at Walgreens, I thought it was a natural partnership that spoke directly to our customers. We were excited for the opportunity, so we acted quickly because it was the right thing at the right time.”

With the agreement in place, and vaccinations for the younger group beginning in just a few days, the team had no choice but to move fast. The plan was for Tootsie Roll to fund the giveaway of 1.5 million Tootsie Pops across 3,000 select Walgreens stores nationwide. It was ambitious and required creative thinking from all involved.

According to Johnson, the biggest challenge was figuring out distribution logistics in a difficult supply chain environment. So, she leaned into the relationship she had built with Charlie Salgado, Walgreens’ Director of Supply Chain.

“We knew we had just a few days to get this done, so it was invaluable to have Charlie’s engagement and direction in the process,” Johnson said.

The decision was made to use Walgreens’ existing Tootsie Pop inventory for the initial phase. But Walgreens made it clear the program would require more than was currently available in stores, so accommodations were made on both sides to deliver the right quantity to the right places quickly enough to meet the wave of early demand and avoid missing out on momentum. That required Olympic-level logistical gymnastics from both partners.

“There's no way we would typically bring in an item then release it into stores two weeks later,” Salgado said. “We had to agree upon the item, set it up in our system, get the purchase order out, then have Tootsie ship to us. We've never done anything like that in just 14 days. I mean, that's fast.”

Mr. Owl coloring pageTootsie Roll’s first order of business was ensuring they could switch enough inventory to cover their supply commitment. They were also concerned about shipping directly to 3,000 Walgreens stores, which would have been inefficient, costly and slow. Instead they worked with Walgreens to deliver the candy to a central Walgreens distribution point, which was then distributed to the stores. “Working at this speed was a combined effort and all parties stepped up to the challenge,” said Naylor.

With Tootsie Pops set as the post-vaccination reward, the Walgreens team also wanted to provide pre-jab distraction for the kids that would make their pinch a cinch. They landed on a tried-and-true solution: activity pages in both English and Spanish that included coloring, tic-tac-toe and a word search, but with a Tootsie-twist that starred Tootsie Pop’s longtime brand ambassador, Mr. Owl.

“The activity pages were a great idea that helped to distract kids and lessen their anxiety while waiting to get a shot,” said Naylor. “And when we included Mr. Owl, who’s our Tootsie Pop mascot, that spoke to children and brought in some happiness and fun.”

A different set of distribution challenges faced the team with the activity pages. Unlike the candy, there was no existing inventory of activity pages to send out to stores. In reality, the pages didn’t exist at all, so they had to quickly be designed. With speed the critical factor, the decision was made to distribute the design files to the stores and have them printed on-site.

Despite myriad obstacles, the program was up and running by November 6, the day vaccinations began, and mere days after Rinker made the initial pitch to Tootsie Roll. Within several weeks Walgreens had handed out all 1.5 million Tootsie Pops and activity pages. Looking back, the people involved in the partnership at Walgreens and Tootsie Roll view it as a success and the gateway to future opportunities to work together again.

“We were able to pull this together in a matter of days and make a lot of kids and their parents happy, and more importantly, make a potentially difficult and stressful process for them less so,” Rinker said. “Tootsie Roll was the right fit for this because their products are classic and comforting. I mean, what kid doesn’t love a Tootsie Pop?”