Marketing Secrets From the Grateful Dead

“Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right tamiflu dosing.” – The Grateful Dead, “Scarlet Begonias”

I’m a Deadhead. When the Grateful Dead were touring, I attended nearly 70 shows. Even now, as members hit the road in various combinations and solo efforts, I still get to shows.  But even the most die hard fan could not have foreseen that, today, business gurus would be lecturing and writing about the marketing techniques pioneered nearly 50 years ago by this most iconic of music bands – and “brands.”  What a long, strange trip it’s been.

A new book, Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History, makes a good case that  business and marketing decisions the band made to increase its fan base “pioneered many social media and inbound marketing concepts that businesses across all industries use today.”

Some examples:

Free Your Content

The Grateful Dead defied industry practices and allowed fans to record concerts.  The original intent was that the taped music would be heard by non-fans and inspire them to buy records and attend concerts. Upgrades in technology have converted those old tapes into new digital files and a new generation of fans are buying the band’s catalog, purchasing merchandise, and downloading the songs to iPods everywhere. In today’s business world, think about all the legitimately free software you download. Software providers – just like the Dead – are delivering free content in an effort to create customer loyalty so people seek out their other paid services.

Build a Following

The band put a postcard in one of its records requesting that fans send in contact details for a database so the band could provide periodic updates on band news – including new records, concerts and general information. The mailings also encouraged fan participation, asking Deadheads to call radio stations and request songs from new albums. The return was astronomical, creating a community of Deadheads whose loyalty to the band was fostered by their sense of belonging to a truly special group.   What the Dead were preaching, which is much easier to practice in the digital age, is that  providing a flow of information to customers involves them in ways that transcend mere  transaction and builds true engagement.

Bring People on an Odyssey

The Dead felt it was important to celebrate the journey of all its fans, including the various subgroups that emerged over time. Spinners – the name for Deadheads who retreated to the hallways of concert venues and twirled to the music – were eventually rewarded with speakers placed in the concourse to make the music more audible. The Dead also embraced a group of deaf fans who could appreciate the music through vibrations felt through the floor and by holding a balloon in their arms. A section was created for them with a sign language interpreter signing the song lyrics.

A more modern example of niche customer engagement is Burton Snowboards.  As the sport’s first manufacturer, Burton was happy to convert one skier at a time until the company had a small, but loyal following. But when ski resorts refused to allow snowboarders use of the chairlifts, founder Jake Burton organized boarders in protest. Later, to advance the legitimacy of their sport, the snowboarders created their own championship event, allowing further acceptance and greater access to the resort slopes. With Burton at the helm, the company elevated one man’s inspiration into a full-fledged sporting craze and a leadership role in the industry.

Loosen Up Your Brand

The Grateful Dead inspired some iconic images: dancing bears, skulls and roses and the “Steal Your Face” skull and lightning bolt. But the band never kept to those images exclusively and major variations on these themes emerged on album covers and concert posters. The book points to a black and white concert poster from 1970 featuring the band members in a western theme that was followed by a poster from a concert held just ten days later that featured a volcanic and oceanic landscape theme with brilliant colors. The branding used for these concert posters was just as improvisational as the band’s music. As a business example from today, the book points to Google and its use of “Google’s Doodles.” Google is known to be extremely protective of its logo and how it is used away from its search engine. Yet, the company has given its designers the ability to create modified Google logos to commemorate holidays, worldwide events such as the Olympics, artist and author birthdays or pop culture references. Like the Dead, Google has let its corporate personality shine through.

The book provides many additional references to the Dead’s marketing strategies and it amazes me just how many of them are applicable in today’s business world.  So, go ahead, give it a read and find out how you can keep your business truckin’ on.

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