This week Google launched its long-awaited Google Health, a free online service that people can use to store and manage their personal health information. Google Health marks a watershed for Google, because it is first and foremost a brand play, where brand trust—not technology—will spell the difference between success or failure.
Google Health is thus is a different breed from the usual “beta” applications that make up many of Google’s offerings. A brand is a carefully-crafted joint venture between a company and its customers. Brands are responsible. They’re built to last, with dedicated, long-term commitments. While there may be lots of “beta” in product development, there is no “beta” in brands. That’s how brands earn trust.
By all appearances, Google Health is beginning life as a somewhat reluctant brand. It needs deep customer trust in order to grow, but it doesn’t yet act like a brand that could earn that trust.
“Terms of service” in place of a brand
Brands are an embrace, full of feeling, flush with touch. At launch, however, Google Health steps forward as a lifeless “terms of service” assembled by lawyers. As a brand it leads with its terms of service—which is mind-boggling. These rather intimidating T’s and C’s are rudely inserted between Google Health and its users, as if the T’s and C’s are the essence of the brand. While they may be necessary from a legal perspective, their up-front imposition puts the brand on the defensive from the get-go, and they suck life from the brand relationship. In a worst-case scenario, they reduce the brand from a happy joining of equals to a legalistic, “you’re on your own,” “we guarantee nothing,” and “buyer beware.”
That’s hardly the way to build brand trust.
What Google Health aims to deliver
Google Health has great brand potential because there’s a great deal of value innovation in the Google Health site and service. It might be a game-changer in health management. With Google Health you could document and track your medical history, learn about your medical conditions and symptoms, and check possible prescription drug interactions. Best of all, you could import your medical records from participating doctors, hospitals, labs and pharmacies. Using Google Health you could organize all this information into a meaningful medical profile of you.
Your medical information stays in your online Google Health account, so it’s available to you whether you’re visiting Natchez or Nome or Noumea. All of this potentially adds up to a very valuable package—especially one that’s free.
A new context of health
Here is how Google VP Marissa Mayer describes what Google Health aims to deliver:
It offers users a safe and secure way to collect, store, and manage their medical records and health information online. How many of us have touched, or even seen, our medical records? In this day and age of information, isn’t it crazy that you don’t have a copy of your medical records under your control? You could use those records to develop a better understanding of your health and ultimately get better care. It’s your data about your own health; why shouldn’t you own and control it?
This is the right approach: Google positions Google Health as a new context of health, where you and I can control our health information to maximize its value to us, while using highly efficient digital tools to make the process easy, personal and portable. There’s a powerful vision here of a new kind of citizen (and health customer), one that’s better informed, more empowered and more proactive, who just might re-define health practice.
Customer privacy drives customer trust
What’s clear is that Google Health can only become a trusted brand of health information services after it first becomes a (trusted) brand of customer privacy and data security. Google must earn this trust based on its ability to keep one’s personal medical records completely secure and private, with zero chance that the records will be compromised. Thus, Google Health will need to become the paramount brand of customer privacy. And I mean bulletproof customer privacy.
Customer privacy: the defining brand issue
In many respects, the defining brand issue of the digital age won’t be “rich media,” customer interaction or “user generated content.” It will be customer privacy. This is an integrity issue that will separate the brands customers can trust from paper brands that are little more than pictures and promises.
As I noted in a previous post, :
Yes, customer privacy is a brand issue, and a critical one. Simply stated, safeguarding customer privacy is a key part of a company’s strategy for building brand trust in the digital era. Customer privacy and brand trust are deeply intertwined. As products, brand programs and customers increasingly interconnect, interact and share information, customer privacy issues will increasingly determine which brands emerge with customers on their side.
As I also noted, brands that lead in safeguarding customer privacy can create significant market opportunities and gain strategic advantage as strong privacy platforms.
Google’s three-part brand challenge
For Google Health, protecting customer privacy is essential to building brand trust. Without that trust there won’t be many users—even if the underlying Google technology is strong. In this sense, Google Health ushers in a new era for Google, one in which brand values come to the fore, leapfrogging bits and bytes.
As I see it, Google Health’s brand challenge is threefold:
- Elevate the Google brand beyond the search and online application technology that’s taken Google this far. Google Health needs a strategic brand context that’s several steps beyond “user + computer.”
- Craft a context of customer privacy and privacy protection that’s a league above boilerplate privacy common to online sites. Google Health must lead in protecting customer privacy, to the point that its privacy protections become a major element in its brand differentiation.
- Transform the Google brand itself from an inanimate bot to a flesh-and-blood body. Trust is a feeling between people. Users of Google Health will need a personal Google presence to trust. They will certainly need more of Google as a person.
In other words, Google Health cannot be just another “line of business” for Google. It’s a brand, and it’s destined to play by brand rules.
Media analysis of Google Health’s Terms of Service
Google is not a “covered entity” under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act [HIPAA] of 1996 and therefore, the provisions of that law do not apply to what Google does with your info. That means if you disclose details such as whether you have AIDS, HIV or any sexually transmitted disease, have been treated for drug an alcohol abuse, have had an abortion, or have a genetic predisposition to any diseases, you just have to trust Google to keep that information secure.
Google Health makes it very clear that it is not covered by HIPAA regulations, but implies that its privacy and security policies are adequate. As a brand, however, there’s nothing stopping Google Health from adopting provisions equivalent to those of HIPAA, if that’s what it takes to build brand trust. After all, the purpose of a brand is to reduce customer risk, not to dodge it or shift it to the customer.
As one commenter remarked regarding the lack of HIPAA protections:
All I can say to this is YIKES! I work in the medical field and I can’t imagine having my data housed anywhere that HIPAA rules don’t apply. Just look at the nightmare of financial data which is either stolen or inappropriately shared by corporations. Why would anyone risk their medical data in the same fashion?
Additional privacy concerns
The Washington Post cautions its readers to hold off on Google Health because of “serious privacy risks,” one being that Google Health employs the same login name and password that one uses for Gmail and other Google services. Thus, “anyone you’ve ever sent e-mail already has the username, and would only have to guess your password to gain access to all your health records stored in the service.”
Another concern (from CNet) is that as Google Health expands it will have only limited control over the applications and services provided by its thousands of partners. User health information may be shared with these partners. However, as things now stand there will be only limited legal remedies for users if privacy or security breaches occur downstream. This raises the question of whether Google Health can become a coherent health ecosystem. Becoming such an ecosystem would be a goal of the Google Health brand.
Trust comes from the brand, not the terms of service
During the Google Health launch event an executive was quoted: “I don’t want anyone using the service unless they’re completely comfortable using it.” That’s perfectly fine, but it’s the perspective of a lawyer building walls against possible lawsuits, not the perspective of a brand builder paving the way for rapid customer growth. The brand builder would remove obstacles between the business and the customer comfort zone.
In other words, trust comes from the brand, not the legalities.
There are brand solutions to the above “trust” concerns that can advance both Google Health and its users. The bottom line is that if Google Health desires a fast rate of adoption it will need to do more on the brand front, intensifying its customer engagement and pushing its terms of service into the background.
This is not a matter of superficial brand hype or theatrics. It’s a matter of building brand value into the product, and into the customer relationship.
“Trust us” is not a brand strategy
Google Health has created a highly innovative foundation for health information services, one that should be every bit as robust and satisfying as other Google applications. However, just saying “trust us” to users won’t be enough to build its brand, and its business.
“Trust us” is not a brand strategy.