Did I ever mention that I’m a bit of a Spurs fan?

Yes, I know, just the odd 10,000 times.  So I have to say something about my team’s brave but ultimately unsuccessful performance in the League Cup final at Wembley yesterday.

A year ago we played in the same fixture, and memorably beat Chelsea 2-1.  Yesterday, we drew 0-0 with Manchester United, and lost in the penalty shoot-out.  You might imagine that the departing fans would have been pretty down in the mouth, but in fact our mouths were horizontal at worst and even slightly upturned at best.

The thing is, if there’s one cliche much used in the world of marketing and communications that really does express a great truth about life, the universe and everything, it is that the secret of success is to exceed expectations.   We thought we were going to get stuffed by Man U yesterday:  in fact, we matched them, and probably marginally outplayed them, right up till the penalties at the end.  And the fact that we were hopeless in the shoot-out is no disgrace – having appeared in so few major finals, we’ve had incredibly much less practice. 

Of course there is a surge of adrenaline-fuelled pleasure in winning that you don’t get from anything else.  Man U’s fans, even though they expected to win, were still delighted (and, if they’re honest, a little relieved) when the decisive penalty went in.  But we cheered our losing team off with genuine enthusiasm.

As always with football, there are exportable lessons here.  If you intend to go in for this expectation-beating business – and I strongly think you should – it’s clear that the process consists, in short, firstly of understanding what those expectations actually are, then if necessary adjusting them (i.e. downwards) and then beating them.

If you can do this, then your achievements can be positively perceived even if they’re not objectively all that brilliant. HSBC’s financial results, for example, have been greeted with wild cries of enthusiasm this morning even though they’re down something like 70% on last year’s, simply because they’re a) better than their peer group’s, and b) a bit better than we were expecting.

If you can’t, then your achievements are likely to be negatively perceived even if they’re objectively quite good.  As I’ve said before, as a fund manager you may be second quartile, but if you’ve lost half the value of my pension fund in the last year I’m still some distance from delighted. 

This may seem a bit unfair.  To some extent, our enthusiasm in the face of a positive expectation gap rewards people, organisations or indeed football teams of which we have low expectations.  You could even argue that an organisation looking for the biggest possible boost in market perception would deliberately lower expectations to rock-bottom, just so that it could benefit from the surge in positive reactions when it started doing things half-decently again.

In fact, hang on, come to think about it, maybe….well, maybe that’s what the banks have been doing for the last year or two, encouraging us to think of them with a mixture of hatred, contempt and hopelessness so that when they suddenly reveal that actually they’re quite competent, sensible and nice they benefit from the greatest positive expectation gap in history!

You don’t think so?  You think we view them with hatred, contempt and hopelessness because, on the whole, they’re hateful, contemptible and hopeless?  Well, OK – unlike my brave, battling and surprisingly well-organised football team, I’m afraid you’re probably right.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *