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.