The Sandy Lyle Principle

I have a confession to make. I love Along Came Polly. And I love it for three simple words: Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The man gave many Oscar-worthy performances during his brilliant acting career, but there may be no greater role than that of Sandy Lyle, former child actor, in Along Came Polly. The basketball court scene alone is poetry in motion, but my favorite scene in the movie is at the end when he is standing in for his friend, Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller) to make the case before a gaggle of insurance-granting suits why their client, billionaire businessman and daredevil Leland Van Lew, should be given high dollar term life insurance.

The reason I love this scene is the argument that gets made on his behalf. Their client is reckless. He lives an incredibly dangerous, adrenaline-fueled life that anyone else would immediately deem as unsafe. He base jumps, wrestles crocodiles, and volcano luges. He’s a ticking time bomb. So how do they argue he should be insured? This is where the genius comes in. They argue that without those reckless behaviors, he would never be able to operate at the level he does in business — that his risk-taking mindset is exactly what allows him to be great at his job and to make such bold decisions. Without that adrenaline-fueled lifestyle, he is not the same man.

Let’s get back to reality here. Would that ever work? Of course not. That’s dumb. However, there’s an amazing application for strategy that’s worth applying. And if I’m being honest, I cite this line of reasoning often when arguing the merits of a brand strategy with teammates. But at its very core, here’s the truth of the Sandy Lyle Principle: brands that are unwilling to take risks and unable to be who they really are will never succeed.

At its simplest level, there are just some things that you should never take away from certain brands. Let’s take Harley Davidson, for example. Ever since Easy Rider came out in 1969, freedom has been a core tenet of Harley’s brand, even when they were part of a bowling company in the late 70s. But there is no effective strategy in the world that would ever remove the notion of freedom from that brand. You just can’t. The same can be said for other great brands. You can’t take service out of Chick-fil-A, simplicity out of Apple, or imagination out of Disney.

But here’s the thing for planners and strategists, though: every brand has something like this. Some of these truths are not self-evident from the outset, especially when you’re working on a brand that is not among the top 5-10 brands of all time (which is most of us). But it can most certainly be unearthed. It takes time, effort, wrestling, and creativity, but it’s almost always there. Don’t get me wrong, though. CX is a gigantic piece of this, and marketing alone cannot make it manifest just because we say so. But the greater brand picture, which strategist should always be thinking of, has so much more to do with undeniable core truths of a brand than it does anything tactical or physical.

Take a brand like Nissan, for example. Even though they make great vehicles, their brand perception has struggled mightily in the last few years, largely due to C-level leadership challenges. And in such turmoil, dealer networks typically speak the loudest and push a brand to focus so much more on price considerations than brand ones. Nissan also allegedly has 4 different tag lines, with “Imagination that Excites” being the one most often used recently. Their most recent round of tv/pre-roll has no tag line used at all. As a strategist and planner, this screams brand chaos. The brand is mightily wrestling with who it really is, and because of that struggle, it’s been reduced to feature and benefit advertising, followed by a dealer rebate. And as a car-loving person, this is particularly hard to watch. I’ve always been a Nissan fan. The first car I ever bought was a Nissan. Of the 8 cars I’ve either purchased or driven, 3 of them have been Nissans. The reason I love the brand is far from the shell of what’s being put out there right now.

After transitioning from Datsun, Nissan was 1 car in the minds of every boy in the 1980s: the Z. Sure they made other cars, but the Z was everything. This little Japanese pickup truck maker made this great looking sports car. It was cool. Then when my brother went off to college, he bought a used Maxima and that boxy thing could absolutely fly. It had this frumpy sedan exterior with a nice little engine under the hood. It was surprising. Then the 300Z came out, just dripping with sex appeal. You see, deep within the Nissan brand is this element of surprise. You’re surprised by what they produce, what they have under the hood, how well they are made, and in some instances, how little they cost. If they’re ever to return to their greatness, it’s going to require unearthing and perfecting that brand value.

Unfortunately, they’ve been held hostage by its management challenges while doing “me too” brand work for decades. And that’s no slight on their agency. Breaking a model like that takes a courageous client.

Back to the original point, though.

Sandy Lyle is right.

He’s always right.

A brand that’s unwilling to take risks and be who they really are will never succeed.