Long strange trip: 8 marketing strategies the Grateful Dead deployed to lasting success

Image: Hubspot.com

By Daniel Wilcock

Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History (2010, John Wiley & Sons).

Marketing and the Grateful Dead are  two nouns that don’t sit well in the same sentence—like sticking the positive poles of two magnets together. But do our stereotypes deceive us? Could the suits upstairs learn a lot from the longhairs and bearded iconoclasts of Uncle John’s Band?

Answering affirmatively are authors and lifelong Deadheads David Meerman Scott (who also wrote The New Rules of Marketing & PR) and Brian Halligan (Founder and CEO of Hubspot, a marketing software company).

In this enjoyable pocket-sized volume, they posit that the Grateful Dead were decades ahead of the curve in terms of how B2C businesses should relate to customers.  Their marketing-guru careers have been inspired by the Dead and their passion for both subjects shines through.

Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead (image: Wikimedia Commons)

The band’s actions, from their encouragement of bootleg recordings to their liberal brand licensing practices, foretold today’s social-media-driven world of sharing and consumer empowerment.

By raising a freak flag for millions to follow, they pioneered “inbound” marketing (Hubspot’s specialty), where customers and clients drive themselves to the information they seek.

Throughout the book, the authors use examples of current companies such as New Belgium Brewing and MySQL that demonstrate how such actions can lead to real success in today’s business world.

Meerman Scott and Halligan keep things light and entertaining . They team up with longtime Grateful Dead artist Richard Biffle, who contributes some nifty illustrations throughout.  You can sense the authors’ internet design expertise spilling over into this neatly designed little text.

On Amazon.com, the book ranked #77,450 in books on Oct. 30, 2012. Out of 38 customer reviews, it averaged four out of five stars. The biggest beef of negative reviewers is that, in their opinion, the ideas presented are a simplistic rehash of another writer, business professor Barry Barnes, who one year later published his own book on the same topic, Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead: The Ten Most Innovative Lessons from a Long, Strange Trip.

Some folks think that Barnes is the true expert on this subject and that Meerman Scott and Halligan scooped him by quickly putting out a book first. Since I’ve never read Barnes, I don’t know where I stand on that issue. But the discussion does make me want to read Barnes’s book too.

The greatest value of Meerman Scott and Halligan’s book can be found in the counter-intuitive strategies it presents. Below is my distillation of 8 of these strategies, which are exemplified by the Dead’s long  strange career:

1)      Be yourself and do what you love – by following their own “Dark Star” and indulging their musical (and other) passions, fans came to view the band as not only talented, but also authentic and honest.

2)      Create and nurture a community –  Deadheads often use the word “kind.”  The band encouraged a massive following by putting fans first in many ways. That community soon took on a life – and a momentum – of its own, following the band endlessly around the world.

Grateful Dead fans at Red Rocks (image: Wikimedia Commons)

3)      Don’t control people – one of the best examples of how fans came first was the band’s attitude toward bootleg recording at concerts. Their openness to this practice turned casual fans into evangelists, a precedent for success in today’s file-sharing social media marketplace.

4)      Judge not – this openness extended to the ‘everyone’s welcome’ vibe at their concerts. Eccentric and straight-laced music lovers alike could feel at home (as long as they didn’t mind a bit of wafting smoke).

5)      Don’t rip people off, they are your best customers – The Dead set up their own ticketing system to help ensure that their fans would not be price gouged by profit-driven companies. This gave them a mysterious degree of control to reward the biggest fans (who would mail to the band postal money orders in elaborately decorated envelopes) the best seats. This  built intense loyalty.

6)      Let others riff on your brand  – liberal licensing agreements with vendors using their artwork to sell merchandise at concerts allowed a diverse community of artists to strengthen, refine and redefine the brand. The authors argue that today’s companies should encourage their employees to do the same.

7)      Ride the technological wave – The Grateful Dead were famous for their custom-engineered sound systems, mixing-board recordings and encouragement of sharing. As a result, their business transitioned seamlessly to the web and then web 2.0.

8)      Remain open to all kinds of innovation – the living band members still perform together and are not afraid of pushing the envelope — from creating cutting edge tour apps to selling concert goers live recordings of the performance they just heard only minutes after the show.

If you’d like to experience Meerman Scott and Halligan’s message directly, here are some action items:

Buy the book.

Watch the author’s free webinar on Hubspot (registration required).

Fellow Georgetown University students: Read a digital copy of the book for free online through Georgetown’s library website.

11 thoughts on “Long strange trip: 8 marketing strategies the Grateful Dead deployed to lasting success”

  1. Many current muscians and corporations could learn from the Dead’s respect for their fans and followers. They paid them back one hundred times with their undying loyalty.

  2. Daniel – many thanks for taking the time to do the review! I appreciate it.

    Brian and I have been talking about the Dead as a marketing example for at least five years. That the idea is somehow the property of another author is ridiculous. With that way of thinking, I would ask my followers to trash every book (thousands) out there on social media marketing the way Barnes had his followers trash ours, mostly without reading it. Seems like sour grapes to me.

    The ideas are fascinating no matter which books, articles, or blog posts like yours that you read. I’ve read and enjoyed Barnes’ book and participated on panels with him.


    1. David:

      I’m honored to have your comments on this review. Again, I enjoyed your book quite a bit. I think those who point to Barnes as a better expert are missing the point of your book (and perhaps Barnes’s), particularly with regard to the idea of loosening control over ones brand. If someone else riffs on the same idea, that just validates the idea. Nonetheless, I felt the need to report what I read on Amazon within that context.

      I agree with you. Thanks again for taking a look.


  3. David: Good question. No idea, but I think he’d just go his own way and if he were to react, he would do so creatively. This conversation is a good reminder to treat online reviews with a grain of salt. Amazon has some good techniques to promote authentic reviews, but I guess it’s hard to police against orchestrated negative campaigns. Perhaps the lesson of your book is to let this go and treat it as noise as long as most people who read the book honestly like it.

  4. Top notch review – good presentation in the blog – glad you attributed the photos – I mentioned that practice, but probably not enough. I appreciate your participation in Big Dog Data – helps the other students.

    David Meerman Scott makes a comment! I guess this social media thing works. Do you think he has a Google alert set up for his name? Chas was also contacted by the author he choose to review, Social TV.

    Kind of curious as to how this book reads on a device like a Nook or an iPad. Perhaps future reviews will have this “tablet” component. One has to wonder if the graphics in the book would be rendered differently in formats other than standard paper.

    So, do you agree with David Meerman Scott? Let’s take the dictum “Be yourself and do what you love.” There are people who love to gamble and drink whiskey all day. That could lead to disaster. “Let others riff off you brand,” is probably used at HubSpot — they certainly tons of information on social media they share. “Ride the technological wave,” – let’s hope this didn’t include the Zune . . .

    Does this B-2-C model apply to the cold hard business to business world Are there any other books of this genre? If so, how does it compare with other book of the genre?

    Actually, I was interested in the fact that David Meerman Scott would exchange thoughts with you on Barnes. Would love to have him speak to the class!!!!

    John Gilroy

  5. I agree that it is a good review.

    Yes, I have Google alerts set up for my name and the names of my books.

    Since Brian Halligan, HubSpot CEO is my co-author on Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead, I’m sure he’d agree on the “Let others riff off you brand” idea.

  6. Thanks John and David. I’m loving this conversation. Just to be clear, the list of 8 items in the blog post are my interpretation of the points the authors make throughout the book. It doesn’t totally correspond with the way that the book is organized or the phrases the authors use.

    But, to answer your question John, I do in fact agree with “be yourself and do what you love,” because I think most people function most highly and can be most successful when they are acting authentically and not trying to be someone else. Some people do have proclivities toward addiction (some members of the Dead were exemplars of this tendency), but other qualities shine through despite these habits.

    A lot of great artists have been paired with substances. Miles Davis/John Coltrane and Bill Evans made some of the best jazz ever known while taking heroin. My opinion is that it wasn’t the substance making the great art, but the personality of the artist that drove the artist to experiment with their own chemistry.

    As to digital format, I purchased a hard copy and also read the digital version through the Georgetown library. I looked at the digital version first and was struck by how good the design was (it made me purchase the book rather than just reading it online). I like well designed books. Leonard Koren is another author who makes really well designed books.

    I was listening to American Beauty (my favorite of the Dead’s studio albums) on Monday. “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace” are really thought-provoking, spiritual songs.

  7. John: Another thing came to mind regarding gambling addicts being cautionary examples against doing what you love — I recall that Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment to pay off his gambling debts.

    A large percentage of humanity are temperamentally artisans, which in part means they thrive from risk.

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