Marketing strategies from the Grateful Dead

SMM staff

This summer’s Fourth of July weekend marked the two-year anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” three-night curtain call at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The surviving members of the band, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, continue to play and tour in various iterations, but the July 2015 shows were, according to the band, the last time the core four will all play together.

“Like other daring visionaries, the Grateful Dead rejected conventional wisdom. They had a willingness and confidence to take a chance on something new and different,” states NBA legend Bill Walton, a fan of the band from the time the big redhead was a concert-going teen growing up in San Diego. “They cut themselves loose from their fear of failure and the unknown. They worked and they played on the edge, and did both loud, fast and free of traditional constraints.”

Walton’s comments were written for the foreword of “Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead,” by David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan. Fellow Deadheads, Meerman is the author of “The New Rules of Marketing and PR” and Halligan is CEO and cofounder of marketing software behemoth HubSpot.

The band’s “passion, creative spirit, imaginative soul and industrious commitment to promote truth, fairness, justice and the Grateful Dead way led them through the evolutionary transition where they went from playing for silver to playing for life,” Walton writes.

“In the band’s never-ending battle against the dire wolves of deceit and false prophets (and profits), the Grateful Dead — a shining star, a beacon of hope on a bleak landscape — have been able to rise above the blinding madness with innovative promotional techniques, viral marketing, a commitment to customer service, personalized ticket and merchandising plans, a sense of community and team that was unheard of years ago, but is clearly now the standard new path to the promised land. It all seems so simple — yet so frustratingly elusive. We all have two eyes, but still some of us can’t see.”

If you find Walton’s proselytizing as entertaining as we do, there’s plenty more to be had in his own 2016 memoir, “Back from the Dead: Searching for the Sound, Shining the Light and Throwing It Down.” In the space we have left here, we’ll share three of the marketing insights that Scott and Halligan gleaned from the Grateful Dead.

Build a diverse team.

Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s lead guitarist, also played bluegrass banjo, an influence that added to the Dead’s category-defying sound. Bassist Phil Lesh began his career as a classical jazz musician who played trumpet; he learned bass guitar “on the job” after joining the band. He didn’t bring preconceived notions to his job. His willingness to experiment and learn resulted in his playing a significant role in defining the Grateful Dead’s distinctive sound.

The mix of unique backgrounds unencumbered by conventional wisdom proved to be a powerful combination. In today’s world, things are changing fast,
so, like the Grateful Dead, you need a marketing team comprised of individuals with diverse, unique talents that didn’t necessarily originate in a marketing department, PR firm or ad agency. Consider people who are completely unencumbered by the “best practices” developed during an era when your marketplace watched ads, answered cold calls, opened email blasts and attended trade shows.

Create a unique business model.

The Grateful Dead turned the traditional business model of touring to promote album sales on its ear. Rather than focus on selling albums, they focused on generating revenue from live concerts. Each show had a unique set of songs, and each song was played in a unique way, giving fans a strong incentive to see the show for several nights in a row (or weeks, or months or years), because every night you were treated to a different musical experience.

Today’s big business winners typically win because of unique business model assumptions, rather than some new technology or complicated product improvements. Think Netflix versus Blockbuster or Zipcar versus Hertz. Their rejection of core assumptions in their industry allowed them to really stand out from their competition and create a cascade of benefits for their customers.

Free your content.

Unlike other bands, the Grateful Dead encouraged concertgoers to record their live shows, establishing “taper sections” behind the mixing board where fans’ recordings gear could be set up for the best sound quality. Giving their music away didn’t diminish their success, it fueled it. Their fan base swelled. They played to larger and larger crowds, and their generosity fueled album sales as well.

The way to reach your marketplace is to create tons of remarkable, free content like blogs, videos, white papers and e-books. Each piece of content you create attracts links in from other websites. Those links send you traffic and those links inform Google how important you are and move that piece of content up in the search rankings.

Create a great e-book about your industry (not your product) that people will want to share with others. Create a brilliant video about how your industry will evolve over the next 10 years and post it on your blog and on YouTube. Conduct an industry survey to collect information about an interesting topic and create a remarkable report on it that your industry will love. If the content you create is remarkable, it will draw visitors to your business in a far more dramatic way than the product or services page on your website will ever do.