George Washington ate and drank here. Now, there’s a Walmart Supercenter in that spot.

There’s an important crossroads in my vicinity where four major highways meet; it’s called King of Prussia, which is the intersection of the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76), the Pennsylvania Turnpike, US 422, and US 202.

A new Walmart Supercenter opens at this intersection today. Across-the-street from the new Supercenter are Neiman-Marcus, Bloomingdales, and Nordstrom, along with hundreds of other retail chains in the shopping mecca known as the King of Prussia Mall.

So Walmart’s on my mind.

Walmart has become a sort of touchstone for me in both health and wellness, and marketing/strategy.

In the past two quarters, as Americans are dealing with juggling the cost of gas/food/health care, the latest news about brand equity is that Walmart’s is up, way up. In September, Advertising Age published an article called, “Top 100 Global Brands Hemorrhage $67B in Value.” According to Brand Finance, a London-based marketing company, Walmart’s brand equity rose $3.6 billion between March and September 2008. On the plus side of the brand equity ledger were Avon, Johnson & Johnson, and AT&T.

Brands that require discretionary income — that is, what’s left over after taxes and basic needs like food, gas, utilities and housing — fell in brand equity. These companies included Starbucks, L’Oréal, Nokia, Nike and Coca-Cola.

On to Walmart’s role in health care. Walmart is expanding its already-large role in health and wellness. This week, Walmart expanded wellness programs for its employees. Starting with its youngest stakeholders, the retailer launched “Life with Baby” for the 2009 health plan which is a sort of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and -Parenting tailored to Walmart employees and families. The program will be staffed by nurses and also includes dental cleanings for moms and babies, and smoking cessation.

15,000 Walmart employees have babies each year.

According to a previous press release, Walmart said that 92.7% of employees had health coverage, including 50% of employees who received that coverage through Walmart.

One of the company’s benefits is access to a free, 24-hour nurse call center through the Mayo Clinic.

Beyond its own employees, Walmart’s also consulting with other companies based on what it knows about managing health costs — particularly in the pharmacy area. I’ve written about their plans previously in Health Populi — see my piece on Retail meds from May 2008.

Now Walmart is assisting Caterpillar (which last week had trouble accessing redit markets to do business).
This is a prescription drug program where employees and retirees, and their families, can receive generic drugs (known as Tier 1) for free (no copay) at all Walmart’s, Sam’s Clubs, and Neighborhood Market stores through December 31, 2009.

This program cuts out the PBM role in the prescription drug supply chain. Typically, the pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) sits between the employer and the pharmacy.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:
The Walmart/Caterpillar pilot project is a natural extension for Walmart’s expertise in supply chain management. Industry eyes will be watching the outcome of that program, which could provide a model for other firms who want to rationalize prescription drug costs.

Beyond prescription drugs — which comprise about 10% of the health care bill in America — the question is how the majority of Americans’ health care will fare in the face of economic decline. Take any yardstick for U.S. health economics and the status quo, and you see declines. Consider “good” jobs with health insurance, retiree cost-of-living and health outlays, governors’ declining tax receipts and the need to cover Medicaid for a growing uninsured population. Can you guess in what direction America’s health-brand equity will go?

PS–in the painting of George Washington, The Prayer at Valley Forge by Arnold Friberg, I’m imagining he’s praying for economic recovery and peace in the world. In this prayerful season, I can dream, can’t I?