What the Messy Middle & Supercharging Mean for Financial Services Marketers


Google released a huge piece of research in 2020 that brought a whole new perspective to consumer behaviour online, purchase funnels and the power of cognitive biases. It’s one of my favourite studies since I started in marketing some 20+ years ago, I thought it was going to be massive and that we’d all be talking about it. Unfortunately, it came out around the same time that Covid did, so it was largely missed and didn’t get the recognition it deserved.

It’s a hugely insightful and useful piece of work. Even the summary alone is nearly 100 pages so that’s why I wanted to write this blog, to condense it for you and highlight the main considerations that a financial services marketer should know and start weaving into their work

It starts by looking at consumer buying decisions online and how the path to purchase is a lot more complex than it ever used to be. It also covers what a brand needs to do to stand out in crowded spaces, which is what the “supercharge” bit is all about – what you can do to hack into the subconscious things people care most about so that you not only stand out, but also stand the best chance of generating that enquiry or making that sale.

The Messy Middle

How it started

The research started after considering the traditional AIDA (Attention, Intrestm Desire, Action) marketing funnel and asking the question of whether people still follow that linear path of Attention, Interest, Desire, Action.

An example of how the AIDA funnel might work for someone looking for an ISA. They start with very broad “long tail” searches as they don’t know what they want. During this search about saving money they learn what an ISA is. They then search for more info on ISAs to decide if it’s right for them. Later on down the purchase path they start making more commercial searches like “best” or “cheapest”. They have decided on an ISA, now they need to know what one is right for them. When it comes to action they may well search for the brand as they’ve made up their mind and it’s time to commit.

The AIDA marketing funnel was formalised 126 years ago and whilst the underlying human behaviour is largely the same, marketing has changed a lot in that time. Whilst funnels like AIDA are undoubtedly useful and are a good way for marketers to plan out their activity. They don’t reflect today’s complex user journey across the many digital and offline channels.

This is where the new Google study comes in. In order to create this model, Google carried out extensive research, and with the help of behavioural science experts, they started on a journey into decoding how consumers decide what to buy today.

They conducted literary reviews, shopping observation studies, search trend analysis, and a very large experiment. The experiment’s aim was to understand how consumers make decisions in an online environment of abundant choice and limitless information.

In the experiment, shoppers were asked to pick their first and second favourite brands within a category. Then a range of biases were applied to see if people would switch their preference from one brand to another. To test an extreme scenario and make sure there was no brand bias, the experiments also included a fictional brand in each category, to which shoppers had zero prior exposure.

The findings from this research, Google ended up creating a new marketing model – The Messy Middle. It’s designed to reflect the complex way that people make decisions. As such, it is tightly focused on the consumer, rather than on marketing or sales processes.

There are 4 elements to the messy middle…


The first element isn’t necessarily a step in the journey, but rather an overall awareness of brands. Exposure may come from various things – a magazine review, a mention from an influencer in a social media post, or it might be a YouTube advert. How the buyer first hears of you, or the products/services you offer.

It’s difficult to say how much exposure causes or influences a trigger moment, the importance of brand recognition is already well documented.

Exploration and Evaluation

This is why the model is described as the Messy Middle. The research showed that across many categories, after a trigger (or triggers) users flitted back and forth between discovering brands, products or services (Exploration). They then started narrowing down their options by searching for more in-depth information that will make them comfortable with a decision (Evaluation).

What’s important to consider here is the change from the ‘normal’ AIDA purchase funnel that many marketers and business owners have become so familiar with. Rather than neatly move from stage to stage, users often perform a loop until they’re comfortable with making a purchase. We go back and forth, back and forth until something really resonates and pushes us into the next stage.


A customer’s experience during and after purchase plays a dual role here. Firstly, their experience with a product will impact both their perception of the brand and can influence future trigger moments. For example, if a customer loves the experience with your car insurance division, they may be inspired to explore other products you offer. Additionally, it can positively or negatively impact other people’s exposure due to their own social media posts, reviews and videos. 

You need to show up

In the many tests that Google conducted in over 300,000 purchase simulations, one of the most important elements was the power of showing up at the right time. In a wide range of categories, they asked consumers to state a first-choice brand preference. They then introduced a second brand and asked them again to state their preference. These consumers were chosen carefully and were users that haven’t already chosen a brand.

Just by simply showing up at the right time in the loop and giving the user another option, a number of people changed their purchase decision.

  • 35% of people in the market for a credit card swapped brand. In other words, just by appearing when people are looking for a credit card, you can take over one third of the business from the brand they would have gone with!
  • 39% of people seeking an Individual Savings Account (ISA) switched.
  • 40% for car insurance.
  • 33% for mortgages.

It’s interesting to note here how much higher these figures were for financial services brands than other categories. From smartphones to shampoo, from whiskey to hotels, people were far less likely to change from their first-choice brand in many areas than they were to switch mortgage provider, insurance company, credit card or ISA.

If nothing else, this research shows that financial services marketers need to keep reminding their customers they exist and why they should buy from them, as they are very easily taken by rival brands.

These are the wider categories researched:

Succeeding in the Messy Middle

There are a number of digital marketing tactics, channels and ready-made audience options that can be employed to maximise your changes to success within the areas of this new funnel.


Exposure has been proved to be massively important, especially within financial services, but how do you make sure you show up at the right time?

This is good old-fashioned brand awareness at work. We want to find new buyers who don’t know about your brand or may have forgotten what you offer. You probably want to employ more display ads and social rather than spending all your money on performance marketing areas like search ads. You may well look at impressions here as a metric whereas elsewhere that wouldn’t matter so much.

Long-tail content plays a part here, for people learning about the products and services you offer before they know they need them, as does employing Digital PR to get into the finance publications.

For audiences, maybe you’d use ones like the Google Ads Affinity audience, as that’s people with long term interests and passions for certain things, perhaps the automotive  affinity audience, if you are offering car insurance or breakdown cover. You might also employ Similar Audiences to prospect for people like those who currently buy from you.


When people are in the Exploration phase, they are a little more interested in what you offer, a little more aware of what you can do for them. They might not yet have a brand in mind, but you can start to use very different tactics.

There will be lots of “how to” searches. “How to save money”, “how to improve my credit score”, “how to lower my car insurance costs” etc. Big informational pieces are important here so make sure you’re looking at your content strategy and that you are producing keyword research led pieces of content to satisfy these potential future customers.

One great way of grabbing the attention of these people is via things like the Google Ads Custom Intent audiences. You could show up for people currently searching for your rivals or having recently visited their websites. Or if you want a less covert way of trying to take their customers, you could just bid on their brand in search.


You probably want to consider remarketing here, and bringing back some of those past visitors who were in the previous stages and didn’t convert. They are now getting closer to making a purchase so are worth the extra spend and effort.

From an organic SEO perspective here, we are optimising for products rather than longtail keywords we’d see in the exploration stage. You want your product pages appearing high here as intent has increased and people are far more likely to use search to find suppliers now.

From a Paid perspective, you’re focussing on channels that are effective for you lower down the traditional marketing funnel. There are numerous in-market audience you can take advantage of within Google Ads. For the B2B brands reading this, there is a Business Financial Services one waiting to be used. If you are a B2C there are a number of categories to choose from:

Within most there are further sub-categories which make these audiences quite powerful and very targeted. Here are the insurance sub-categories as an example:

  • Car Insurance
  • Health Insurance
  • Home Insurance
  • Life Insurance
  • Travel Insurance

Supercharging your financial services brand

The study has shown the importance of simply showing up at the right time, but we marketers know from experience that it takes a lot more than to have your brand chosen over your competitors. If I already have a brand that I favour, then it’s going to take some work to tear me away from them.

This next section explores the research that uncovers what we can do and say to make our businesses even more compelling.

As part of the same study, Google looked at what factors are more powerful in terms of making people swap from Brand A to Brand B. If you’re looking to build market share then this is important.

They tested these 6 cognitive biases when introducing the new brand into the mix and measured their effectiveness. These six biases are:

  • Category heuristics: Short descriptions of key product or service specifications can simplify purchase decisions. (For example, for mortgages it could be” 5% deposit”)
  • Power of now: The longer you must wait for a product or service, the weaker the proposition becomes.
  • Social proof: Recommendations and reviews from others can be very persuasive.
  • Scarcity bias: As availability of a product decreases, the more desirable it becomes.
  • Authority bias: Being swayed by an expert or trusted source.
  • Power of free: A free gift with a purchase, even if unrelated, can be a powerful motivator.

Not all biases are created equally. Across a wide range of categories, the Google research found the following:

  • Social Proof (tested by displaying 3 and 5 star reviews) was clearly the strongest bias out of all 6. Encouraging reviews and comments from customers is very worthwhile.
  • Authority bias is less impactful. However, it can be more effective when the consumer feels less knowledgeable about a particular topic. Endorsements or features from independent sources are also more convincing than industry specific sources.
  • The ‘Power of Free’ (Buy One Get One Free (BOGOF) deals, free upgrades etc.) was the third most effective bias and proved particularly effective with FMCG goods.
  • Category heuristics are obviously important, but their importance is impacted by displaying the information that consumers most associate with the product or most care about.
  • The ‘Power of Now’, often demonstrated by rapid delivery wasn’t as effective as other biases but again proved powerful for FMCG products.
  • Scarcity bias was the least effective bias and can in some cases actually cause negative reactions to brands.

The research found that adding these biases to messaging had a positive impact on moving customers from Brand A to Brand B, in some cases this effect was profound. The example below shows that by adding the ‘Power of FREE’ into the messaging for products increased the chances of swapping massively (from 42% for just showing up to a massive 70% by adding this bias).

Here is how things were impacted by adding the ‘Power of Now’ into the messaging. It increased the chance of swapping by half again (from 28% to 42%). Over 4 out of 10 buyers samples were more likely to change to the 2nd choice brand because what they wanted was available right away.

Each bias being used by the 2nd choice brand increases the likelihood of that brand taking the business. But what happens when you add ALL the biases to messaging?

Google called this Supercharging, and as you can see here, it had a ridiculous impact.

The example above is from an FMCG brand and by supercharging it, they managed to move a massive 90% of people from Brand A to Brand B. This is from 10,000 simulated shopping scenarios, and the results were similar across many products and verticals.

Even in an uninspiring market like detergent, where brands tend to be resilient, supercharging the second favourite detergent brand with a range of powerful expressions aimed at our cognitive biases, such as a BOGOF offer, five-star reviews, and an endorsement from Which, the impact was profound. 78% of people made the switch.

Across all 31 categories tested, when second-favourite brands were supercharged with all six cognitive biases, the result was an overwhelming shift away from the favourite.

Earlier we looked at what the likelihood of taking the business was just by showing up. These figures were:

  • 35% for credit cards
  • 39% for ISAs
  • 40% for car insurance
  • 33% for mortgages

When those categories have been supercharged the change is huge:

  • 89% for credit cards
  • 91% for ISAs
  • 94% for car insurance
  • 76% for mortgages

We are seeing a 2-3 times greater likelihood of winning the business from your rival if you not only turn up for the fight, but you use these “heuristic hacks” as your ammo.

Here’s how all categories, not just finance ones, faired:

Applying these Biases

There isn’t too much I can say here that is revolutionary. We all see various uses of these biases every day, but most brands aren’t using more than one or two of them and almost nobody uses them throughout their ads, their landing pages and their content.

Hopefully inspire you to start thinking about which of these you could use and how to implement them more in your marketing activity, both online and offline. 

Social Proof

The research found that giving people evidence that other customers have already had a positive experience with a brand, product, or service is extremely persuasive.

The prevalence of review websites such as Trustpilot has made this quite an easy thing to implement on your website but are you displaying it prominently, and are these scores just shown on your website instead of on every landing page that people visit?

Can you add some customer testimonials? The more specific the better. A testimonial about why your travel insurance is exceptional on your travel insurance page is what you should aim for if you want maximum impact.

Remember that this is huge. This was the largest or second-largest effect in 28 of the 31 categories tested. If there is one takeaway from this blog, it’s do more with social proof. How can you use customer reviews, testimonials and case studies more on your website and then across your marketing activity? Can you weave these into your page titles or meta data to improve organic click-throughs?

Authority Bias

When we’re unsure, we tend to follow the lead of people we believe to be credible and knowledgeable experts, and therefore may use an authority view as a mental shortcut.

One nice example of authority bias in action within the world of financial services I saw was PetPlan, using TV celebrity vet Noel Fitzpatrick to use his credibility to boost that of their product.

If you are using influencers or celebrities, then make sure they are relevant and of course credible. It doesn’t need to be a person though, showing you are in favour with any respected organisation from your marketplace can have a massive impact.

Are you proudly displaying your award wins? There’s a reason why you see things like Which? Best Buy logos on plenty of websites.

Have you been featured in the press? I remember years ago one of our clients was listed in The Telegraph as a top provider in their sector and when we featured that within their PPC ads, it became the highest performing ad they’d ever had. Even after 2 years of split testing other messages, nothing came close to getting a click-through rate (CTR) like that one simple sentence, “Top 10 Provider – The Telegraph”.

The Power of Free

What do you have that you can give away? More importantly perhaps, what do you have that you can give away, that your rivals don’t? Or at least what they are neglecting to show in their adverts and one their landing pages?

  • Free credit checks
  • Free valuation with your mortgage
  • First 3 months of cover free
  • Free ski pass with your travel cover
  • etc

Our eyes are drawn to the word “free” when we’re searching for stuff. Try it out, do a Google search and you’ll spot that word when skimming the page. This plays an additional important role within PPC advertising, as the positive impact it has on your Click-through-rate will mean you start showing higher without necessarily paying for higher bids.

Category Heuristics

There are a lot of elements that can go into category heuristics but it’s important to try and make it easy to digest. To make effective use of category heuristics, marketers need to understand which characteristics consumers most associate with a given product.

Princeton psychologists found heuristics saved brain power through by saving us energy on decision-making. This is all about simplifying the process with easy to digest pieces of information. Category Heuristics in this research are defined as “shortcuts or rules of thumb that aid us in making a quick and satisfactory decision within a given category”. An example of this would be focusing on how much legal cover comes with an insurance product, or that a bank call centre is based in the UK.

Category heuristics can easily be displayed in search ads using things like Call Out Extensions and Sitelinks. This also helps bulk up your ads so you take up more real estate on the first page of Google.

The Power of Now

Retailers use this well, you often see countdown timers on sales and many proudly display messaging about quick delivery. In financial services this could be more like “fast decisions” or “money in your bank within 24 hours” or “start spending today”.

A good example of how this works is with ISAs. You see it a lot within ads running close to the new tax year, informing you to act fast before the window closes to still invest your tax free allowance.

Do you have any offers that you could restrict by time? Any products that are running out or that you are offering for a limited time only? It’s worth shouting about that within your advertising and on your website.


  • Digital has made the path to purchase a lot more complex and we now follow a less linear path towards a purchase.
  • Showing up and getting exposure when people start considering products and services has a massive impact on your likelihood of a sale. 33-40% of financial services brands tested sold to a new customer by being in the mix.
  • Use the right channels and targeting to appear at the right stage of this messy path to purchase. Consider the kind of content, ad placements, audience options that suits buyers as they progress to a purchase.
  • Cognitive biases are extremely effective so think about how you can apply these to your brand messaging. Can you highlight scarcity, or include expert opinion, or use social proof? Any single one of these that you aren’t currently using is proven to have a big impact – and if you can do all six then it can be game changing. That’s where you supercharge and start taking a lot of market share from the current market leaders.