How to create and destroy a masterpiece. A case study of Twin Peaks’ content marketing and creative compromise.

“I don’t think it has a chance of succeeding. It is not commercial, it is radically different from what we as viewers are accustomed to seeing, there’s no one in the show to root for.” – Paul Schulman, Senior Media Analyst

This radically different show was Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks; a series that would go on to be listed as one of the greatest ever made; described by Time magazine as “the most hauntingly original work ever done for American TV.” Without giving too much away, its success lay in taking a typical TV drama format and turning that format inside out in the most strange and oftentimes hilarious way. Creative insight in the form of relate-ability was also a critical factor: Lynch held a mirror up to society… and then completely messed with everyones’ heads.

Now, after 25 years, Twin Peaks is coming back for one last season. And there’s a reason for this, which we’ll get to later.

But first, Twin Peaks is a compelling case study in excellence as well as pitiful failure. And on the eve of its return on May 21, 2017, I’d like to share a number of lessons I’ve taken from it, as it’s influenced my approach to content marketing strategy over the years.

Lesson 1: Don’t be afraid to do things differently… so long as it’s impactful and relevant

From the get-go, Twin Peaks refused to give the game away; and the launch marketing campaign reflected that. Rather than tell the public what was coming, the campaign teased and aroused curiosity, in order to drive WOM. It did so using unconventional marketing mediums for TV, such as pole posters. It gave people a personal motivation to watch, rather than simply saying “watch this”. With a curious audience psychologically primed ahead of its very first broadcast, Twin Peaks scored ABC’s highest ratings in four years for the time slot. 

Twin Peaks credit Twin Peaks Archive
Tactics include poles posters with hotline numbers. Credit@TwinPeaksArchive 

This time around it’s no different – only digital and social media are here. There are hotline numbers with bizarre recorded messages, podcast readings of Laura Palmer’s diary, clues and challenges in snippets of video. The show’s marketing tactics alone are generating media attention. 

Their strategy is interesting and effective. Twin Peaks takes a very grassroots, granular approach to its marketing, rather than applying a blanket, mass media approach. On one hand, it’s less expensive from a media buy perspective; on the other, it takes more resources to apply. The show’s marketers respect the intelligence of its audience, by providing content that gets fans to think, work and discuss together. It was a brilliant strategy in 1991 and it remains so in its digitally updated form, today. 

Lesson 2. BE BRAVE.

There’s no doubt that the second series of Twin Peaks was a massive failure. Despite international critical and public acclaim, despite the ratings, television executives remained determined that they knew better than the show’s creators. They forced Frost and Lynch to reveal the biggest plot mystery. And Frost and Lynch agreed to. 

Big mistake.

Twin Peaks’ ratings plummeted, the plot unravelled and the public – other than the die-hard super-fans – walked away. As did David Lynch. The entire production disintegrated until the last few episodes where Lynch returned to try and salvage what was left.

You see it all too often – clients or senior stakeholders watering down a big idea or brave strategy and creators allowing it to happen. I have a plea for both parties on this point:

Senior stakeholders – we are all in this together. Our success is fundamentally tethered to yours. So stick your neck out a little. Stop trying to be so controlling. Trust your experts and be brave.

Content strategists and creatives – hold your nerve. Draw on insights and be prepared to defend your case with a proper rationale – with relevant supporting data/info where possible. Don’t back down unless you really have to. Be prepared to walk away. Be brave.

This time around, Frost and Lynch took no prisoners. When Lynch didn’t get the funding he needed from Showtime, he simply cancelled the deal, walked away and apologized to fans. A few weeks later, the deal was back on, Showtime found the additional budget to meet Lynch’s creative requirements. Clearly everyone had learned the lessons from 25 years ago. Brave move on both parts.

Lesson 3. Persevere in the face of failure and play the long game

Who on earth would have thought that when Laura Palmer creepily told Special Agent Dale Cooper, “I will see you again in 25 years,”  that it would actually happen! That it has, is a masterstroke in storytelling, coupled with a strong audience relationship.

In our previous post on the United Airlines’ crisis (mis)management scenario we talk about how brands can develop authentic relationships with their audiences that endure, how to create advocacy and how it sees brands through good times and bad. In the case of Twin Peaks, the hard work that was put into developing authentic relationships with viewers has endured a disastrous second season and a 25 year hiatus.

Through the years, a slow but fascinating stream of content continued, trickling down through books, music, art, film and even a Festival of Disruption. Influential appearances were made by unusual and high-profile people, such as Trent Reznor and David Bowie in unusual but high profile settings, such as NY Fashion Week, with Julee Cruise. It’s a very interesting long play, when you look at it through a content marketing lens. 

Bowie, McLachlan and Lynch in the prequel film, Fire Walk With Me.

Ultimately, in playing the long game, the creators of Twin Peaks are looking to win the war, rather than the battle. For marketers this means thinking in terms of a long term marketing calendar/ program rather than on a campaign-only basis, by being brave and giving deep thought to the content distribution strategy.

Crisis management and tone-deaf CEOs: How brands are creating untold losses through introverted communications

While it could be Game Over for United Airline’s CEO Oscar Munoz, it’s Game On for Emirates Airline and others.

Upon winning the accolade of PR Week’s Communicator Of The Year last month Oscar Munoz, United Airlines’ CEO, said “Communication and communication strategy is not just part of the game, it IS the game.” In our industry, never are truer words spoken. After Oscar Munoz’s response to a crisis this week, one can only imagine his giant facepalm.

April, it seems, is the season for kicking corporate own goals. In just a matter of weeks we’ve seen all manner of corporate and senior spokesperson public mishaps, from Sean Spicer to United Airlines. Crises that are mismanaged and subsequently  inflamed by internal stakeholders are sending stocks plummeting, drastically impacting both revenue and business continuity, giving rise to popular boycotts and creating media feeding frenzies.

The United Airlines Crisis

Just a few days ago, a Chinese doctor on an overbooked United Airlines flight was violently removed – on the airline’s command – and was left bleeding from the head, on a stretcher. His crime? He was a paying customer declining to leave on the basis that he had patients to see at the destination. The reason for his removal? United needed his seat – any seat – for their own employees. You can read the sordid story here. As you can imagine, passengers and public were shocked; the incident, recorded by other passengers, quickly became viral.

Rather than taking a humble step back, apologizing and demonstrating action and compassion for the victim, Oscar Munoz, the company’s CEO went on the offensive, describing the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent” and stating that the airline had simply followed company procedures. This, from the CEO named “Communicator of the Year”….

Cue: a 6% stock nosedive – roughly equating to $US1bn.

Cue: social media outcry and savage trolling. Like the fake image you see as the header on this post.

Cue: the media frenzy.

Cue: claims of racial profiling.

Cue: an international boycott, particularly in China, which is a key market.

Cue: a scathingly witty and on-point response by their nemesis, Emirates, which not only delivered a brilliant attack but also hijacked United’s tagline of “Fly The Friendly Skies” (with Emirates).

…And didn’t everyone have fun with the memes!

United Airlines satire

…Not to mention that wickedly funny parody ad from Jimmy Kimmel.

For United, this won’t just go away. What we are witnessing is just the beginning of  what is likely to be sustained financial and reputation damage and exposure. We are yet to see just how this impacts the airline over the longer term (it’s further compounded by the public outcry to the airline’s “leggings ban” just two weeks ago).

While the situation on-board was ghastly, the CEO’s response made matters worse; his was selfish, cold and astonishingly tone deaf to the situation and public sentiment. The fact that he backtracked with a softer statement – after the stocks had taken a tumble mind you – was not interesting to the media or public and at any rate, it appeared commercially motivated and insincere. 

There’s also a bigger play here. It’s in the context of the Open Skies dispute – a ‘Dynasty’-like saga between the Gulf airlines and US airlines. United has handed this disaster to Emirates on a golden platter. Emirates, with their relatable and ongoing campaign featuring “America’s Sweetheart” Jennifer Aniston are winning the battle for American hearts and minds. And this is a point so many senior executives fail to remember; ultimately, we are in the business of winning hearts and minds.

It doesn’t matter how many lobbyists and lawyers and politicians the US airline consortium throw at the Open Skies scenario, travelers are going to vote with their feet. If the public believe that they are going to get better, kinder, more attentive service from the Gulf airlines, then attempts at hurting them will just create a bigger backlash toward the US carriers – and we’ve seen signs of this with the recent laptop ban.

Certain other brands must be breathing a sigh of relief. Finally the attention has turned a little from them. But that’s another story entirely… or is it?

Brand Extroversion vs. Brand Introversion

Looking at the recent spate of crises, from brands such as United to public figures such as Sean Spicer, there is a common thread worth noting. At Bravo Romeo, we talk about introversion and extroversion in communications. By definition, introversion is the act of directing one’s attention toward or getting gratification from one’s own interests, thoughts, and feelings. In an age of economic uncertainty and hard revenue targets, it’s seemingly too easy for executives to get caught up in the day to day and lose sight of the bigger picture. Placing this in the context of United’s response, you can see an introverted communications mentality at work. They’re blinkered, they can’t see the woods for the trees, they are simply caught up in their own world instead of listening to the perspectives, needs and wants of others.

This is not best practice for a modern day business. A business operating in the technological world of new media must be responsive and proactive. They must be Brand Extroverts.

Why Your Brand Should Be an Extrovert

For brands, extroversion is all about forming positive, authentic relationships with customers and stakeholders. Relationships that endure. It’s about having a public that love you when times are good and still stand by and defend your brand when times are bad…. because the public know you have a proven history of caring for them and that you demonstrate interest in them.

Being a Brand Extrovert is a process that is incremental; and it takes hard work. It requires a long term communications program, not a “hit-and-run”, on/off campaign-based approach. Think of your communications activities as milestones in a long marathon, rather than individual sprints and having more granular, more two way conversations with the public.

Being a Brand Extrovert means having a communications and a content marketing strategy that gives equal priority to both the needs of the audience and the business. It involves listening to the customer, reaching out proactively and developing products, services and communications around their needs.

This is a business strategy we’re talking about here – not “just” a communications strategy – and subsequently it must have buy-in at the highest level with the communications lead given a permanent seat at the boardroom table.

The mentality of brand extroversion needs to run through the company, from the CEO to the Receptionist; as an internal and external communications culture. See it as part of your corporate DNA – because the minute a company looks to serve itself ahead of its customers, it is setting itself up to kick an own goal.