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.

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