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Both of these teams won bronze, but only one was happy. Why?


Last night, I saw two completely different reactions to winning a bronze medal at the Rio Olympic Games and I was reminded of a landmark study conducted by my former professor Victoria Medvec. Her research proved that amongst those who medal at an Olympic Games, it is actually the silver medalists who are least happy.

At first, this might sound counterintuitive. After all, in a world obsessed with numerical rankings, we are taught that being number 2 is surely better than being number 3.

But if you think about it, her findings make perfect sense. The gold medalist is happiest for obvious reasons. The bronze medalist is almost as happy as the gold medalist because he or she just made the podium. The silver medalist, however, is significantly less happy because of what might have been.

The findings, which were based on analysis of the 1992 Barcelona Games, were replicated by another study of the 2004 Athens Games.

So, why then, did I witness something very different in last night’s final of the Men’s Team All-Around Gymnastics competition?

As the final scores were announced, the television cameras quickly showed the reactions of each team. As expected, the gold winning Japanese gymnasts were overjoyed. Surprisingly, though, the silver winning Russian gymnasts were equally thrilled and the bronze winning Chinese gymnasts looked devastated.

The answer doesn’t have anything to do with what happened inside of the stadium. In a very close competition (six of the eight teams still had a realistic chance to medal going into the sixth and final round), Russia spent most of the evening in first place. So when its lead slipped away, you would have expected them to be disappointed. Similarly, China started slowly and was not even in the top three until after the fourth round. So, when it held onto a coveted podium position, you would have expected them to be ecstatic.

The answer instead has everything to do with expectations going into the stadium. Russia hadn’t medaled in this event since it won bronze in Sydney 2000. China, on the other hand, won gold in this event in Sydney 2000, Beijing 2008, and London 2012.

A basic tenant of psychology is that a person’s actual achievements matter less than how that person subjectively perceives those achievements. For Russia, the silver medal was a great success. For China, however, the bronze medal was a great disappointment.

The same can be said about brands. A consumer’s expectation of a brand will determine how that consumer actually reacts to a brand experience. Which is why it’s so incredibly important for brands to deliver consistent brand experiences across touchpoints, geographies, and time. And it is why the stronger a brand becomes, the higher the bar will be to keep delivering those consistent experiences.

In the world of sport, winning gold may be the culmination…but in the world of branding, it is just the beginning.

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