Whether you love the Grateful Dead, hate them or don’t really care either way, the band offers a masterclass in marketing, building community and making a lasting impact.
Coworking space operators can learn quite a bit from the Grateful Dead. If that last sentence makes you squirm, stay with me—I promise there won’t be any spin dancing or acid flashbacks. Probably.
In Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History, authors David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan illustrate how the Dead went far beyond being just another touring band to become a cultural movement—a way of life.
The band members grew a global fan base of loyal deadheads, and they did so on their own terms. Much of what they did flew in the face of music industry norms and was counterintuitive to business practices. But it worked.
Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead is full of examples of the band bucking trends to carve a niche of their own. Many of the lessons can be applied to your marketing strategies for your coworking space or community project. Here are some of my favorites:
Build a Diverse Team
The Grateful Dead was a ragtag collection of artists from a variety of backgrounds, including bluegrass, jazz, rock, blues and R&B. Together they created something extraordinary.
One thing the Dead was not was a polished, artificial music industry creation. The band played and performed as who they were: hippie-leaning, everyday-looking stoners from San Francisco.
“Band members appeared on-stage looking a lot like their fans: donning long hair, scruffy beards, and Birkenstocks, and their look didn’t change much over the years.”
Experiment, Experiment, Experiment
The Dead improvised and experimented every time they played. No two shows were ever the same. This experimental ethos allowed the band to grow in new, unexpected ways and connect with their fans on a deeper, more vulnerable level.
“Unlike most live concerts, which were highly orchestrated, repeatable events, the Grateful Dead’s concerts were completely unscripted, which meant that band members often made mistakes…Their fans understood and accepted this as part of the Grateful Dead experience…Like the Grateful Dead, marketers today need to experiment in their craft in order to make big breakthroughs. Instead of seeing failure as something to be avoided…teams need to free their marketers to experiment, learn quickly from failure, and experiment again.”
The whole Grateful Dead experience can be off-putting to some due, in large part, to the over-patchouli’d, slightly burned-out fans wearing Dead shirts that have…seen better days. But, the band embraced eccentrics and wanderers into the family, which only served to strengthen connections and create undying fans.
“Eccentrics take on many forms. When everyone else is carrying nylon computer bags and sporty backpacks to the office, the eccentric insists on an ‘old-fashioned’ leather briefcase. The eccentric spends six hours on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in a dingy rec room playing Dungeons & Dragons. The eccentric connects chewing gum wrappers and has over 2,000. The eccentric reads instead of watching television. The eccentric rides a bike instead of driving. The eccentric is us. And the eccentric is you…In other words, eccentrics are a huge market.”
Put Fans in the Front Row
If you’ve ever had to play that early-morning ticket grab game, or paid way too much in service charges, you know that music fans are at the whim of the music industry. Recognizing this imbalance, the Dead controlled ticket sales for their concerts and even built an in-house ticketing agency. Fans had access to a special phone number where they could get updates on shows, news and tickets. This way, the best tickets were given to the biggest fans. The band also cut out music industry middlemen wherever they could, going directly to fans with everything from concert tickets and music to merch.
Build a Following
Word of mouth was at the heart of the Grateful Dead experience. The band wasn’t played on pop radio, they didn’t have a top 10 hit until “Touch of Grey” in 1987, and they weren’t exactly the type of band you’d stumble upon in a mall music store. But they built, cultivated and nurtured a massive following.
“From the outside, the Grateful Dead looked like they didn’t have a clue about business, but in reality, they were forward-looking, especially when it came to building their database and connecting with their fans—a lesson companies today can readily apply.”
Photo: Shelby Bell (CC-BY)
Free Your Content
The Dead encouraged fans to record and share their concerts. They even established “taper sections” behind the mixing board where fans could get the best sound. This was absolutely counter-intuitive to a music industry that says you have to nickel-and-dime every fan for everything you can get. But it helped created a Grateful Dead subculture like no other and built a community around sharing music.
“Rather than prevent their audience from taping their concerts, as every other band did, the Grateful Dead set their music free by allowing and encouraging these tapers. You would have thought that giving their music away would have diminished their success, but setting it free fueled it. Despite the fact that people could get their product for free, the Grateful Dead found themselves playing in larger and larger stadiums as their fan base swelled and, ironically, their generosity fueled album sales, too: 19 gold albums, six platinum, and four multiplatinum.”
Loosen Up Your Brand
Who hasn’t seen a Grateful Dead t-shirt? Chances are good that you’ve seen the classic “Steal Your Face” skull logo, but even more likely, you’ve seen a hundred different varieties of Grateful Dead shirts, no two the same. Rather than lock down the band’s logo and brand, the members opened it up to be remixed and reinterpreted—both by fans and by the band itself. You never knew what to expect from the band, in terms of branding, but it always felt like the Dead.
“Too often companies hold tight to their branding. Marketing communications departments dictate how a company is to use a logo and corporate colors…Of course companies need branding guidelines…holding tight to branding, however, stifles creativity.”
Photo: Tyler Merbler (CC-BY)
The Grateful Dead regularly played benefits, donated the proceeds of projects to different causes, and put their collective weight behind organizations they believed in.
“‘Giving back’ was not just limited to benefit concerts. At the band’s regular shows, they invited favorite organizations to set up tables in the hallways and educate fans on issues like organ donation and voter registration. Concert-goers knew the Grateful Dead’s commitment was authentic and that added to the perception of the band’s positive and supportive approach to making music and helping people improve their lives.”
Do What You Love
Circling back to the beginning, where a bunch of regular guys enjoyed playing music together, the Grateful Dead models that, to be successful, you have to do something you love.
“We are taught as children that work and play are opposing forces in nature. This teaching is incorrect—it is possible that your work can be like play! In fact, if you do what you live the way the Grateful Dead did, you’ll never ‘work’ a day in your life.”
The Grateful Dead is not for everyone, and you definitely have to be in the right mood for a 20-minute, tripped-out jam, BUT, you can’t argue with the fact that the band created something extraordinary and built a culture around music, community and sharing. Not a bad model for any business.
Get Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead from your local bookstore, the library or on Amazon.
Top photo: Rusty Clark (CC-BY)
Bonus: For those who do like the Dead, here’s my favorite song. What’s yours?
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