The ‘messy middle’ of brand choice -why it’s time to show online shoppers more humanity

Google recently released their latest research ‘Decoding Decisions: Making sense of the messy middle’, which looks to illuminate the actual path that consumers tread online as they navigate purchase decisions across categories.

The fittingly named ‘messy middle’ consists mostly of two mental modes: exploration (the expansive exercise of drawing up a ‘shortlist’) and evaluation (the reductive process of ‘narrowing down’). And the resulting ‘customer journey’ that they have illustrated bears more resemblance to an infant’s first foray into abstract art, than to the neat frameworks that have formed the bedrock of comms planning for over a century.

Source: ‘Decoding Decisions: Making sense of the messy middle’

This is not a summary of their report, nor the 6 cognitive biases that they have identified to help brands ‘triumph’ in the battle of the messy middle. Instead I feel its important to look at the structural and strategic issues that it highlights in comms planning, operations and evaluation. As well as the wealth of opportunities it offers to place real consumer behaviour at the heart of decision making.

This arrives at a crucial time, with the initial three months of lockdown accelerating ecommerce in the UK by up to four years1. In the midst of this online, free-for-all battleground, perhaps ‘now more than ever’ (sincere apologies) we need to treat online shoppers with more humanity.


Since the invention of the AIDA model by E St Elmo Lewis in 1898, the concept of the customer journey and its derivatives has outlasted the recurring fads that have hypnotised many a marketer in the years since. And it still stands to reason that all these years later, people do tread familiar stages en masse as they look to satisfy their needs and wants.

Source: Medium

It’s a simple concept, i.e. that the sequence of steps are designed by the consumer and strategically guide the marketer. But somewhere along the way, the footprints of behaviour that a consumer leaves behind them online has given rise to the sense that the customer journey is, in fact, steered by the various tactics deployed by marketers.

It’s this creeping belief that by applying the right levers, anyone can be ‘converted’. Indeed, if these strategic conversations were to be aired in public, it would no doubt sound more like an acquisition meeting for the Church of Scientology than a gathering of marketing folk.

‘the goal is not to stymie the customer or force them out of the activity they have chosen to pursue, but to provide them with everything they need to feel comfortable making a decision’.

Google highlights the reality, that whilst this constant back-and-forth between these two states can frustrate marketers, it fuels online shoppers. They then nicely resolve this tension: ‘the goal is not to stymie the customer or force them out of the activity they have chosen to pursue, but to provide them with everything they need to feel comfortable making a decision’. 2

It’s the language of converting rather than nudging that has resulted in the customer journey becoming more the product of marketing teams than of actual, non-linear customer behaviour. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why instead of acting as a vital guide for the strategic division of a brand’s resources and efforts, it has now largely come to represent a convenient measurement protocol. As the individual dials shift from awareness through to advocacy, the siloed teams ‘responsible’ for any positive movements are rewarded and the divide between brand and performance becomes further entrenched.


This hard-and-fast mistreatment of the customer journey concept, has also resulted in comms plans often leading with broader-reaching emotion which percolates down to more rational-led messaging. But as Google themselves note, ‘the moment the deal closes’, whether that be for a car, a house or even an expensive holiday, ‘can still be fraught with complex emotion’.

I see this as a challenge to the banal conventions of sales activation techniques. They are mostly focussed around masterful targeting rather than the creative, with the ‘learn more’ or the ‘shop now’ CTAs coming as standard. To overcome this, we firstly treat our clients’ activation needs with the same due care as their wider reaching brand building activity and then consider how their brands can make people feel across these different contexts.

Google’s findings demonstrate the inextricable nature of brand throughout the purchase process. In the majority of categories across the 310,000 simulated purchase scenarios they ran, more than a third ignored Google’s fictional challenger brands (that were ‘supercharged’ with behavioural biases and vastly superior propositions), sticking by their first choice.

source: ‘Decoding Decisions: Making sense of the messy middle’

Brand perception isn’t made up just of TV advertising or press coverage, it’s the sum total. Google call it ‘exposure’. And it forms the backdrop to the messy middle and is impossible to extricate from those decisive moments. In our experience, there’s no need to do away with the customer journey as a guide for measurement, but there is a need to view it more as a holistic reflection of the performance of the brand across different contexts.

Our job, as it’s always been, is to create an all-encompassing brand experience (from TV right down to UX) that is built from the bottom up and communicated from the top down. It entertains and nudges our customers to choose our brand over competitors, not through relentless retargeting and attention-draining web pop-ups, but by perceiving the humans who are on the receiving end. It should be a ‘coping mechanism’ to weather the storm of messaging that complicates the online shopper’s path.


On a basic level, Google firstly champions the ‘power of showing up’. In the case of their car purchase simulation, simply introducing a second brand to the fray saw 30% of shoppers move away from their first preference.

This is a law that brands of all sizes and categories can abide by and in the case of many high-consideration categories, if the war (so to speak) exists above the line, the battles are increasingly fought online.

Everything is up for grabs and this idea, coupled with Google’s evocative image of the online shopper joyously ‘walking’ down ‘internet street’, substantiates the case for a shift in mentality on how we perceive digital tactics. In a recent article, James Hankins argues that the key cornerstones of digital visibility (namely, ecommerce, PPC, affiliates, SEO and online supermarkets) should be bundled together as ‘digital availability’3, the third arm to Byron Sharp’s ‘mental’ and ‘physical availability’.

He reasons that these channels aren’t about improving brand memorability, but rather the ‘breadth and depth of distribution’. This positions digital availability in the realm of merchandising. From that, budgets for ‘digital availability’ would naturally be ringfenced and the cold war that exists between brand and performance would have little reason to exist anymore. Perhaps this is the solution for removing the divide that has undermined the real strategic value of customer journeys.

If you’re interested in decoding the ‘messy middle’ of your category and the implications it has for your brand, get in touch to discuss your project. 



Further Reading

Birds without a nest – generation rent and the homeware boom

Latest figures from Mintel indicate that the ‘Homeware’ sector saw a 2.5% rise in sales in 2018, primarily driven by so-called ‘Generation Rent’. But for a generation known for its inability to put down roots, why are Millennials so obsessed with home décor?

Many moons ago, I moved with two of my friends into a rented house in Withington. Pretty much the first thing we did after signing the lease was arrange a trip to Ikea, spending an eye-watering amount on cushions, throws, knick-knacks and trinkets to make the place feel like ‘ours’; and it seems we weren’t alone.

Whilst renters have traditionally been viewed as a low-value target for home interest brands, Mintel suggests that many private renters are actively buying furniture, decorating products and homeware in order to personalise their homes and better reflect their sense of style. So why are renters suddenly so invested in homeware?  

We’ve all heard of “nesting instinct”. It’s often associated with pregnant women decorating and organising nurseries for their new arrival, however the same instincts have been identified by psychologists at other times – particularly during periods of stress and transition. With 1/3 of Millennials expected never to own their own home, and nearly half living in their current property for less than two years, the rental experience could certainly be described as a state of “transition”.

The impact of this is seen most often after a move, when updating home furnishings and décor can help people to feel that they are restoring some order to their lives, moving them out of the ‘transition’ state faster. With renters tending to move much more frequently than homeowners, that creates a much shorter purchase lifecycle.

On top of this, the so-called “endowment effect” has an important role to play. This hypothesis suggests that we ascribe more value to things just by owning them, with possessions becoming a way to assert our identity to ourselves and others. Many Millennials grew up in a society that taught them home ownership was the ultimate status symbol, signalling a transition in to ‘true’ adulthood. However, if many can’t buy the house, are they instead placing higher importance on the objects they use to furnish and decorate the property instead?

For home interest brands, there are a couple of key things to take away from all of this.

Firstly, don’t ignore the rental market. Fair enough – they’re unlikely to be undertaking any major kitchen refurbishments or ripping out the bathroom, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have value in the homeware market. Don’t assume that your audience are all homeowners and consider which product features might be more appealing to an audience of renters. If they can take items with them when they inevitably move again, the data suggests that they are prepared to invest in creature comforts that make their rental spaces feel more like home. Think décor and accessories, small domestic appliances and furnishings that are easy to pack up and move.

Secondly, think about the key role that inspiration plays in marketing to this audience. Renters are actively seeking ways to express themselves and their individuality, but they are also actively looking for brands and products that help them to bring their style to life. Research shows that 36% of 25-34 year olds enjoy sharing pictures of their home online, and many follow relevant content on channels such as Pinterest and Instagram, so consider how you are currently using social media to appeal to that frame of mind.

Is your content visually appealing? Are you showing your audience how products can be used to achieve different looks and suit different tastes? Are you tracking the performance of different styles and aesthetics in order to understand which your audience prefer?  

These are the key questions you should be asking to maximise your appeal and ensure this audience isn’t left behind.

If you’re interested in growing your audience by appealing to Generation Rent, get in touch to discuss your project. 

Leading KBB brands join our virtual roundtable to discuss the sector’s future

A first for our agency, we recently hosted our inaugural roundtable event, looking at how brands and retailers in the home interest sector can unlock success post-lockdown.

It goes without saying, that the impact of Covid-19 will be felt across all aspects of our lives for a long time to come. But as many businesses start to find a way forward after lockdown, what exactly will the landscape look like for brands in the home interest sector over the coming months and years?

To help give us a picture of how businesses in this vertical have been impacted by the pandemic and how they must react and adapt accordingly, we teamed up with Mustard Research to chair a virtual roundtable event.

Hosted on Zoom by Client Services Director, Will English, and Mustard’s Colin Auton, the discussion featured senior figures from across the KBB (kitchen/bedroom/bathroom) world, representing some of its biggest brands including Blum, Franke, Moduleo and Ideal Standard.

Kicking off with a summary of the latest research and commentary on the outbreak, the panel went on to discuss a number of topics – from assessing the economic impact, changing consumer behaviour and Covid-19’s impact on living and working spaces, to rebooting retail channels and defining a future marketing strategy and brand messaging.

From a conversation that covered the growing importance of digital marketing, the ongoing evolution of ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers and why brands shouldn’t go dark – despite a looming recession – five key insights emerged:

  1. The customer journey is evolving – as consumers spend more time researching renovation projects at home, brands should consider dialling up digital activity.
  2. The acceleration of digital marketing looks set to continue even as lockdown eases – home interest brands and retailers must work together to create ‘digital showrooms’ to inspire and educate consumers.
  3. The crisis could see a further evolution of home interest retail models with the ‘remote studio’ concept set to disrupt the market.
  4. Bricks and mortar retailers must provide unique store experiences to lure customers back to the high street.
  5. Don’t pause marketing activity – evidence from previous recessions suggests that brands which under-invest take years to recover.

These findings are important as they will help to inform how the agency can support our KBB clients going forward. As Will put it: “By gathering senior figures from the industry on one call, we were able to share insights and ideas that we believe can act as a rudder for other home interest brands and retailers to help navigate them through these uncertain waters.”

Informative, insightful and beneficial to all those who took part, this inaugural roundtable was a success and we look forward to hosting similar events in the future – whether virtually or face-to-face.

To download a report of the key take-aways from the roundtable and the original research presentation, please complete the form below.

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