Getting Past the Brand-name Bias in Our Brains

Two prescription drug bottles—one blank and one with a brand name printed on the outsideI came across a great opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times recently on a topic I think all consumers can relate to: the perception that more expensive equals better.

We see it in everything from clothing and footwear to food and wine and practically everything we buy—including healthcare and prescription drugs. And that’s a problem.

The author, Robert Pearl, asserts that our brains are so wired to “more expensive means better” that we’re incapable of making economically rational choices in healthcare.

Pearl is a physician who was CEO of Kaiser Permanente for 18 years. He also wrote a book titled “Mistreated: Why We Think We’re Getting Good Healthcare—And Why We’re Usually Wrong.”

Pearl opens the article with an admission to buying Extra-Strength Tylenol for $7 when he knew full well that the $5 generic right next to it was just as effective. He’s not alone, of course. He cited a German study detailed in the journal Science last year in which people were asked to evaluate two anti-itch creams. Both products were exactly the same, but one came in fancy packaging and the other in a white box with lousy print. What the subjects didn’t know was that both products were fake, yet they reported much better results from the phony product in the fancy packaging.

This is what we’re up against.

There’s no denying that branding is powerful. Take two identical golf shirts, same fabric and stitching, but slap a Nike logo on one and it’s suddenly worth more money. Sometimes more expensive does indeed equal better. The free breakfast at a Hampton Inn is better than what you get at Motel 6. A rain jacket with Goretex® in it is more effective than one without.

There are very few Goretex jackets in pharmacy, but there are Nike logos everywhere. The difference is we lack the objective information that tells us the two golf shirts are exactly the same aside from the logo, so we act on our brand perceptions.

I know it’s not that simple. We buy certain brands because we want to make a personal statement, a reflection of who we are. But it should be easy to overcome our brand-conscious brains and make rational choices in pharmacy.

Nobody knows or cares whether you buy Tylenol or generic acetaminophen. Why should we care about a brand-name prescription vs. a generic? They both come in the same non-branded vials from the pharmacy, and so do therapeutic alternatives that cost less. After all, we don’t wear these products for the world to see. They either work for our condition or they don’t.

Pearl closed the article by suggesting it’s time we nudge consumers toward wiser choices at the point of purchase. We couldn’t agree more. He said if the FDA required a message on the Tylenol label such as “This product is no better than the less-expensive generic,” he probably would’ve put it back on the shelf.

Aside from images of fairly non-descript tablets, capsules and other dosage forms, a member won’t see any branding related to medications on the Rx Savings Solutions portal—just objective clinical information and prices. When decisions come down to cost rather than branding, it’s that much easier to make the rational one.