Branded Knowledge: Does This Make Sense for Health?

Commercial products relying heavily on branding to entice their purchase and use in a crowded marketplace. Is this something that the health sector should consider and, if so, what might it look like?

I’ve just spent a rare free weekend in Chicago walking around, taking in the sights, and doing what a lot of other people do when they travel to another country or city: shop. It is hard to avoid some shopping when down in the Loop on Saturday or Sunday as that is what much of Chicago’s core is made for. The same can be true of most major centers, if you exclude the office buildings that are often semi-vacant on weekends.

A brief tour of many of the shops, from the discounters (Filene’s Basement, TJ Maxx, and Nordstrom Rack) to the mid-range stores (Macy’s) to the higher end department stores (Nordstrom) and the many boutiques, one is easily amazed by the abundance of goods on sale. But what intrigued me as I stood and watched what was around me was that many of the branded goods available at all of these places (including many of the boutiques) were the same. Big names in fashion were at all of them. And the products themselves were virtually indistinguishable from one another except for 1) price and 2) seasonality.

The first is perhaps the most obvious, but as one who is not as attuned to the seasons in fashion beyond the warm-weather/cold weather distinction as many, it the second part that I find most interesting. What makes last year’s $150 pair of Lacoste sunglasses worth $25 this year is nothing other than its seasonality. In other words, they are last year’s model and no longer as coveted.

It struck me that we do this in the health sciences all the time. If your reference list isn’t up to date, people question the sources and the validity of the findings. While probably appropriate for work in basic and clinical sciences, it seems less true for health promotion. It also seems less appropriate for areas where there is great complexity.

Brands also matter with regards to where something is published. A premium is placed on scholarly work that is published in journals with high impact factors over those that are in lesser-known journals. The underlying assumption here is that the more people cite something and the more we believe a source to be high quality the higher the quality the knowledge. The strength of the brand of sources like JAMA, Science, the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet exceed the rest of the health field.

While this respect for such “brands” sounds reasonable, there are many problems associated with it. Most notable among these is that they publish a certain type of knowledge in a particular format that adheres to particular models of discovery and rewards particular ways of expressing information. This has advantages, but it also creates path dependencies that shape knowledge itself and restrict the sharing of other forms of knowledge. In doing so, there is some assumption that the “best” knowledge (i.e., that which fits with the brand) looks a certain way and fits a certain way.

An alternative is to create different brands, just as we see in the marketplace for clothing and other retail goods. Apple, once a brand favored by a small, but fervent group of supporters in the early 80’s, is now the world’s most valued brand. It was the small, scruffy underdog and now is the leader. The same might be said for other forms of knowledge. If we were to package health promotion into a form that had the same appeal as other sources, could we create a demand and cache for it in a manner that drew people to it? And would this be a good thing?

I’m not sure. But I do believe it is possible. A colleague of mine once did a study looking at factors that predicted uptake and citation of research knowledge in a particular domain by looking at study qualities across a number of dimensions including design, home institution, discipline and others. After all was considered only one factor predicted uptake: the study used an acronym. Yep, if you branded your study it was more likely to achieve uptake than if you didn’t. To my knowledge this data was never published, presumably because it was so embarrassing to us scientists as it provided evidence that evidence isn’t just what drives our work. Whether it holds over time is worth considering, but it does suggest that brands might matter.

Marketers and companies work hard to distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace. In a world where there are literally tens of thousands of venues for publishing our findings that are chosen every week, the market is filled. And do we want to rely only on the big brands to fill our knowledge? If so, we run into the same scenario as I did shopping by seeing the same brand everywhere and, because of that, seeing its value discounted because there is so much of it and it expires quickly.

The comparison is not perfect, but neither is it outrageous. Could branding knowledge and knowledge translation be coming to an inbox, book, or library near you?

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