Without a doubt, health care brands play an extremely important role in our lives; they are often the proxy for us to identify health care products and services we would trust with our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Health care brands help us contextualize that promise, even when we have no experience with the brand. For example, Johns Hopkins Health System consistently receives the highest rating for quality among consumers, even though the vast majority of consumers answering the question have little idea about the work the organization does or the treatments they offer. Even the location of their campus is a mystery to consumers (Johns Hopkins’ main campus is in Baltimore).

So, the idea is that a person could derive from this that there is powerful link between health care brands and “quality.” That person would be right; according to Phillip Kotler, Marketing Professor at Northwestern University, there are only three factors consumers think about when considering health care brands: access, value and quality. At SMS Research, we researched the health care market on the key attribute drivers for health care brands. What we see over and over again is that quality is the most important functional attribute. However, our research ALSO shows that health care brands can’t successfully differentiate using quality as a functional attribute. How can quality be so important, yet brands be unable to differentiate on quality?

The answer is this: consumers expect quality as a requirement for consideration. Consumers assume that a given health care brand is a quality brand until they are told otherwise. Think about it this way: the average consumer would not buy a new car without an engine, without seats or without a chassis. In the mind of the consumer, these things define a car. The addition of these things does not make the car a better new car, but the lack of these things diminishes the appeal of that new car. Quality functions for health care in the same way.

What makes a brand like Johns Hopkins a leader is this: quality is not an explicit function of their brand, it’s an implied promise their brand makes. Johns Hopkins does not boast that it has the “best doctors” or the “most locations” or that they “accept your insurance.” Instead, Johns Hopkins’ brand promise is that they will do everything possible in the world to make you better. By this brand promise, Johns Hopkins defines what quality health care is for the rest of the market.  

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