Google study highlights opportunities for brands to improve marketing performance.

Whether you are looking to grow sales and win market share, or defend the brand share you have, Google’s “Decoding decisions: Making sense of the messy middle” study oozes opportunity. Here’s what it reveals about preference and how smart brands can intelligently influence purchase decisions.

The seminal study: Making Sense of the Messy Middle identifies pivotal behavioural insights that brands can deploy with intelligence to win a disproportionate share of business in any category.

Google UK conducted the programme of work in association with behavioural science firm The Behavioural Architects. The study is in three parts: a review of search behaviour online and how this has evolved; a deep dive research study into our behavioural biases and how they impact brand selection; and a large scale experiment across a total of 310,000 purchase scenarios designed to test the power of the biases to influence different buying scenarios.

The conclusions reveal profound implications for both established brands trying to defend market share and challenger brands looking to gain a foothold in established markets.

The ‘messy middle’ of purchase behaviour.

As consumers, we face so much complexity, we’ve turned to a range of coping mechanisms to get through. We use mental shortcuts and other techniques to help us remove the noise and make informed buying choices.

Tapping these behavioural biases with intelligence is where the opportunities sit for brands capable of positioning around them.

According to Google, most studies like this look at the journey to a purchase decision, so naturally focus on the touch points involved. However, this does not reveal why shoppers make the choices they do. Google UK’s team wanted to dig deeper to understand what the journey looks like today, and also identify what influences are at play in arriving at a final purchase decision – the essential ‘why’ of the buy.

A new model for the customer purchase journey.

The first conclusion Google’s team arrived at is that there is no typical purchase journey, and journeys are anything but linear. Other models have evolved which reflect this, so while we knew it was the case, this is the first time we have seen it mapped at this scale. It led Google’s team to a new model for buyer behaviour – aptly named ‘the messy middle’.

Google's Messy Middle Purchase Model

The messy middle describes “a space of abundant information and unlimited choice”. We have learned to navigate through this complexity with a range of cognitive shortcuts, switching between two mental nodes: exploration and evaluation.

Exploration is an expansive activity, where we are collating information on the possible solutions available and trying to understand what’s out there.

Evaluation, by contrast, is a reductive activity. We are trying to make informed choices to cut down the number of options to a manageable few.

Given the complexity and level of choice, we often switch between these nodes, reviewing our options and further refining our decisions as we go until we reach a conclusion and make a purchase.

The study narrowed down the shortcuts we employ to six critical biases that help inform our final decisions. Google then devised a large scale experiment to test the power of each of these shortcuts to influence the final brand choice, throwing up some intriguing results.

Merely being present in crucial moments is enough to win brand share.

The next conclusion to come out of this study is that just being present in moments of deliberation can be enough to switch a brand choice away from a preferred brand.

What’s more, several of the most critical biases that we use as consumers are relatively simple to address. Smart brands can potentially win more than a reasonable share of a market by applying these behavioural science techniques with intelligence.

What are the biases, and how can we employ them to win market share?

While Google’s research team started with a basket of many behavioural science-informed potential influences to choose from, their study zoomed in on just six, which proved to be the most powerful. In each case, a relative improvement of the brand’s performance would influence a positive tick-up in the odds of the brand winning the final sale.

The six biases identified were as follows:

  1. Category heuristics – These are the shortcuts that we use to make it easier to conclude our purchases. They are the educated guesses we make, the rules of thumb we apply. Each category has its reference points that serve to help us work out what represents value. For example, “3 years fixed interest” for a home loan or ‘no claims protection’ for insurance.
  2. Authority bias – When we are unsure of ourselves, we tend to look to those we respect to help us make the right choice. Endorsements from well-known celebrities or people with perceived expertise such as medical doctors help us offload the burden of responsibility and short circuit decisions.
  3. Social proof – Things like reviews, testimonials and social media recommendations provide convincing reassurances. However, social proof need not rely on reviews alone. For brands that don’t have access to a wealth of customer feedback, it could be as simple as the words used in advertising – “The first choice for cat lovers” or “the nation’s favourite” (with validation of course). In every scenario in the Google experiment, social proof proved to be among the most important of the biases.
  4. The power of now – Many of us want instant gratification when we buy something, and the digital age has reinforced that preference. We expect instant access online and apply the same thinking to our purchases – even when we are buying physical products. Same-day or 24-hour delivery, instant downloads and drive away today offers are all relevant here.
  5. Scarcity bias – Desirability links to availability – the rarer something is, the more desirable it may become. Google highlights three forms of scarcity: Time limited (available for this weekend only), quantity limited (only available while stocks last), or restricted access (Gold Elite cardholder members only).
  6. The power of free – Including a free trial period, a free download or free access to something of value can be a source of irrational excitement. In Google’s words from the study, this can create an emotional hot button that can be critical in persuading someone to make a purchase decision.

Google experimented with these six biases across 310,000 purchase scenarios. Products were selected to represent a broad cross-section of purchases, covering different levels of risk, complexity, emotional and financial investment across different sectors and verticals.

In each test, consumers who were actively considering a purchase were selected and asked their first and second choice brands before the start. These were presented back in each scenario. The researchers then introduced a third fictional brand, enabling them to remove the influence of brand awareness or preference to assess the power of the biases.

Even a brand you’ve never heard of can significantly disrupt a category and win sales.

Given the application of the biases, all brands are susceptible to consumers switching from the first to second choice brands.

Indeed, competitors were able to switch up to 90% of brand preference, even in the most resistant categories by supercharging their brand across all six biases.

But as mentioned, this test went further than just testing a first choice brand against a known competitor. To remove the influence of brand building, they introduced a fictional third brand into each scenario.

Brand Preference and Influence of Six Behavioural Biases on choice

They found that a brand that you’ve never heard of can significantly disrupt a category and win a high proportion of sales even when just some of the biases are activated.

When supercharged across all six biases, these fictional brands were able to steal as much as 87% of preference away from a first choice brand.

A fictional car insurance brand was able to take 87% of brand choice when supercharged across all six biases.

Simple behavioural biases can powerfully undermine strong brand preferences.

In every category Google experimented with, many shoppers did remain loyal to their first choice brand preference even when offered a superior proposition. However, the results demonstrate that the application of these simple behavioural biases can powerfully undermine even strong brand preferences.

Even a brand you have never heard of can severely disrupt the leading players and steel marketing share.

And sometimes, all it takes to shift preference is being present at moments of crucial importance.

How to respond to these insights:

My brand is a category leader. What do I need to do to defend my market share?

This study highlights what they termed the ‘overdog’ effect. Even when people have a stronger alternative, many brand aficionados refused to let go of their first-choice preference. However, we cannot rest on our laurels.

A well equipped competing proposition will win share, and this is true even if it comes from an unknown challenger.

To overcome this threat, look at ways to shorten the cycle from trigger to purchase. Keep track of your competitors and the plays they are making across each of the six biases – is their messaging evolving? And of course, explore ways to bring to life your own story across each of the biases in the most powerful way you can.

My brand is a new challenger in a well-established category – What do I need to do to win market share?

Disrupt the space by being present whenever possible while people are exploring or evaluating options in your category through searches online. Where possible, use data to qualify those who are in each part of the journey, tailoring messaging appropriately.

Invest in tactics like search marketing (SEO and SEM) and social marketing. Identify the keyword phrases and search terms people are using to find your competitors, and ensure they see you along the way.

Once you have engaged someone, invest in remarketing and database marketing techniques to keep your brand relevant and present. Be smart about how you nurture opportunities through the sales cycle.

Differentiate yourself by using each of the six biases to your advantage. In each case, identify how your key competitors are positioning themselves, and look at ways you can authentically and ethically improve on their proposition.

Talk to us about how you can implement these strategies to win more business.

Twenty CX gives you access to expertise in data, digital and customer engagement strategies. If your revenue is $5m to $100m now, and you are looking for sustainable growth with smarter ways of finding, converting and retaining customers, let’s start a conversation. Click here to connect or email


Author: Simon Breed

Simon is an expert in data-driven digital and direct marketing with 25 years of experience working with major global and national brands. He runs Twenty CX, a multi-award winning customer engagement firm helping Kiwi organisations drive incremental growth through better marketing performance.