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. 



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