The Drunkard’s Search Effect In Positioning Development And How To Avoid It!


Most people suffer from an observation bias called The Streetlight Effect (also sometimes referred to as the drunkard’s search) where they only look for the solution in the easiest places, rather than the ones that are the most likely to yield results.

The name of this principle is inspired by a joke about a drunkard searching for his keys (or sometimes wallet) under a streetlight rather than where he actually lost them, because that’s where he has more light.

This principle also applies to strategists and corporations. In fact, we tend to look for the solution to a positioning or strategic problem by looking in the easiest places. This can be the strategist’s own experience (this approach or model has always worked for me, so I’ll stick to it), an over-reliance on rigid brand frameworks or research methodologies or by focusing exclusively on the available and existing data (instead of asking the right questions first and then trying to find the right data to answer them).

For example , who hasn’t witnessed a social media strategist deriving an entire brand strategy (including new product ideas and marketing tactics) solely based on one social media listening exercise. This drives me crazy.

Your agency tells you, you first need a brand purpose (without knowing what your brand problem is)? Drunkard’s Search effect. You are a proponent of cultural branding? Drunkard’s Search effect. You believe in the need for hardcore functional benefits or purely emotional benefits only (I’ve had clients in both camps)? Drunkard’s Search effect. You believe that big data is the cure to all a marketing problems? Drunkard’s Search effect. You answer all your research questions through focus groups? Drunkard’s Search effect. You use news headlines to come up with a brand strategy for a pitch (don’t laugh, I’ve seen this happen)? Drunkard’s Search effect. You’re a fan of design thinking? Or neuro-science? Or behavioral economics? Drunkard’s Search effect.

Now here is the thing. None of these assumptions, beliefs or methodologies on how brands can succeed are necessarily wrong. In some cases, they are actually the perfect solution to solve your brand problem. But these beliefs, assumptions and schools of thought are like streetlights. They shine a light around them, making everything very clear and easy to spot within their parameter. However, this doesn’t mean that they’ll be the right solution to addresses your brand’s specific problem. If you lost your keys two blocks away, those streetlights won’t help you, no matter how bright they shine.

The best way to avoid falling victim to the streetlight and the drunkard’s search effect is, in my opinion, to use a model that enables you to focus on what is right, relevant and proven successful rather than on what is easy, convenient or readily available. A model that “forces” you to explore options that aren’t necessarily the most obvious ones, or the easiest one to follow, a model that basically turns every single streetlight in the city on. If the whole city is illuminated, all you have to do is remember the corner where you’ve lost your keys and go there. The lights will be on. Or wander around the illuminated city until you recognize the right street corner, knowing that it will be lit.


Positioning-Roulette, our unique methodology for positioning development and storytelling is that model. It identifies and captures the 26 universal approaches to successful brand storytelling and positioning development and is based on the analysis of over 1200 case studies of effective brand building. Each of these 26 approaches represents a streetlight. All 26 approaches together illuminate the whole city, i.e. represent the whole spectrum of potential solutions.  This enables you to wander around the illuminated city until you come across the right corner, i.e. the most promising perspective on how to solve your business problem or brand challenge.

Street corner brand heritage? Check

Street corner consumer rituals? Check

Street corner brand purpose? Check

Street corner brand archetypes? Check

Street corner category conventions? Check

Street corner usage context? Check

Street corner category paradox? Check

Street corner brand weakness? Check

Street corner cultural trends? Check

And so forth, until you’ve worked your way through all 26 “corners”.

Once you’ve identified the right corner and are confident that it is the one where you’ve lost your keys, you can get on your knees and start looking for them.

If you want to avoid the Drunkard’s Search effect next time you are positioning a product or brand or are crafting or re-crafting your brand story, reach out and let us tell you more about how Positioning Roulette can help you illuminate the whole city and find the right solution. Our clients who have used this methodology loved it, leading to a 100% referral rate.

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