Don’t promise what you can’t keep: Expectation Theory

Expectation Theory - The Shard

Did you happen to watch the opening “laser spectacular” of the Shard yesterday? Were you one of thousands of spectators who felt distinctly underwhelmed? Maybe you even posted on social networks how disappointing the event was? Well, whatever you did, you were probably not alone. But what does the backslash (and critical press) of the Shard to do with marketing? I’d say a lot, especially with marketers who did not pay attention to even the most prolific of marketing theories!

The image on the top right sums it up (taken from the TimeOut London facebook page): The top image was the image that PR and marketing professionals from the Shard distributed to the press. No wonder, many people expected something quite extraordinary – and extremely spectacular. The lower picture is how it looked in reality. Quite a let down. This raises the question: was the show THAT inadequate? The answer is: probably not, but it depends on what you expected – and it most certainly was not what the organisers promised. Zeithaml, Parasuraman & Berry (1985) discussed the problem in detail in their Model of Service Quality, particularly the Gaps Model in Service Quality.

servqualTake a look at the pictorial summary of the model on the left. It provides an excellent way to explain what happened when the Shard laser show got on the way. On the top, we have Word of mouth (people talking about the expected spectacular show, journalists talking about it etc) and past experiences (similar events at Canary Wharf during New Year, maybe visits to Hong Kong, etc…). In other words, expectations were likely to be quite high based on “external sources” already. On the provider side, we find “external communications” – in this case the pictures released before the show, showing a spectacular show across all of London (upper picture above), further fuelling the high expectations.

Of course, what followed was nowhere near what the external communications suggested; let alone what WOM and personal expectations were suggesting. Thus, the problems occurred around the “Gap 5” (circled in red), which means that actual expectations and perceived experience were no match for most people. Further, there may have been further gap-issues, though it is likely to be hard to find clear evidence of this. For example, it may be likely that the management thought that the show was indeed what the “customers” expected (Gap 1). Or maybe the management expected better, but these expectations were not clearly specified (Gap 2). Even when specified clearly, the expectations may not have been met “on the front line” (i.e. Gap 3). Or, maybe the marketing department thought the event would certainly look like what they promoted – although it was not planned to be ever anywhere near as spectacular (Gap 4).

Whatever the various gaps may have been, the outcome is a PR disaster for the Shard (which certainly could do with some good PR!). And what can we practically learn from it? Firstly, of course, there is nothing as practical as a good theory – and secondly, there is nothing as good as an applied cogent theory. Just imagine if the expectations would not have been so hyped? I’m sure today’s headlines would have been more about the outstanding engineering and the tallest skyscraper in the EU…

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