Four Marketing Lessons from The Grateful Dead

by | Sep 23, 2011 | Best Practices, Blog, Blog Archive, Multi-Channel Marketing | 0 comments

 By Deb McAlister-Holland
On April 15, 2010, IDC analysts Frank Gens and Amy Konary presented an executive briefing called The Maturing Cloud: What the Grateful Dead Can Teach Us About Cloud Economics.  In addition to IDC’s usual carefully researched data, the webinar included a wealth of thought-provoking information that used analogies from the band’s storied history and correlated it to the technology industry.

The Grateful Dead, 1969, San Francisco.

When I thought about how Gens and Konary used the Grateful Dead analogy to clarify many of the most confusing aspects of cloud computing, I realized that I could apply the same lessons to distributed marketing.  In some ways, of course, the Dead might seem the ultimate “anti-marketers”.  However,  a marketer who wants to build an engaged fan base could do a lot worse than follow their lead. So, with grateful acknowledgement to IDC for giving me the idea, here are the four things I learned about marketing from the Grateful Dead. 

    1. Reassess what customers value.  When the Grateful Dead came onto the music scene, the record companies ruled.  Bands were packaged and promoted according to what the record company felt would sell, whether they wanted to be or not.  Everyone “knew” what fans wanted:  lots of interviews with their idols, lots of close-up photographs in glossy magazines, and (most importantly) lots of top 40 hits.  The Grateful Dead didn’t have any of those things — in fact, their first time on the record charts came in July 1987 (33 years after they began recording and touring) with A Touch of Grey.  Instead of delivering what the record companies thought music buyers wanted, the Dead delivered what their fans valued:  a live music experience supported by records they could buy and listen to after the show.   What do your customers value?  Have you asked them? Recently?  (Don’t forget the important corollary:  What do your field and local sales people need and value?  Have you asked them lately?  Corporate marketing has the vision and creative strategy, but sales are made locally — if corporate marketing doesn’t deliver what local producers need, they’ll create their own campaign and proposal materials, creating a host of brand and regulatory compliance issues.)
    2. Recognize that a brand is far more than what you can buy and sell. Noah Weiner, author of The Grateful Dead Listening Guide, said in a 2009 interview that, “The ‘real’ Grateful Dead could never be purchased at a store … The “real” Grateful Dead is much larger than any one bit of music you hear. It all vibrates over the course of the Dead’s 30-year run. That, and all the bootleg tapes of all the shows, is like a story passed down from parents to children. It won’t disappear if the music industry crumbles. It’s woven into the fabric of our society.”  This is true for many brands as well, notably among Apple and Linux users, as well as for drivers of particular cars, and the fashionistas who wear a favorite designer.  What’s your brand’s story — and who’s writing it? (Your customers, competitors, and employees are already writing your brand’s story through social media — and the search engines are capturing it.  So monitoring what’s being said, participating in the conversation, and building your own image through effective SEO, social media marketing, and PR is essential.)
    3. Encourage sharing and flexible relationships.  While most bands jealously protected their album artwork and banned photography and videotaping at concerts, the Grateful Dead allowed taping and sharing, creating a large library of “bootleg” music and videos that were all part of the Deadhead experience.  Jerry Garcia said once that “The kind of person who wants to tape a Dead concert will buy the albums, buy tickets for the show, and buy other things, too, from T-shirts to who knows what.”  He was right.  The Grateful Dead was one of the most profitable bands of all time.  How do you interact and engage with your customers?  What impact to they have on your product strategy, your marketing planning, your way of defining your company and its place in the market?  (As technology has created a real-time global communications environment, more and more marketers are finding that planning beyond the next quarter — or sometimes the next few days — is getting harder, and they are reacting more often to outside forces and pressures than carrying out a long-term brand strategy.  There’s a role for “instant” response tactics in marketing — but if you’re constantly reacting to the most urgent need instead of spending time and dollars on more important long-term programs, it can be hard to build a lasting brand or corporate image that will help to differentiate your products from the competition.)
    4. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  The Grateful Dead didn’t change with the times.  While their contemporaries from the 60′s music scene struggled to keep up with the times, the only change that Dead seemed to make happened early in their career when they abandoned acid-charged psychedelic rock for their own brand of close harmonies mixed with folk music.  They understood the value of familiarity and repetition to their fans.  Do you understand whether or not your customers want you to change things, or whether they want performance improvements without style or substantive changes?  (Lately, several companies including one I helped to launch, have been raked over the coals in social media and the press for changes they made to the customer experience.  In one case, the change had actually been on the company’s roadmap for over 13 years, but the company had never articulated its vision and strategy clearly.  In another, the changes might or might not have been long planned — but they wound up looking like a reaction to competitive pressure.  In both cases, the companies would have been better served by talking to customers FIRST, and testing their campaigns before they launched them.)

Among these four lessons, it’s that last one that resonates most with me.  Familiarity and repetition are important to human beings — whether it’s the familiar sound of a company’s jingle, the colors on a package, the taste of a brand of soda, or a company policy that customers like.  That’s easy to forget when you’re a marketer or creative director staring at the same images day after day, week after week, or even year after year.  When I was a rookie account executive at a large agency, I remember walking through an airport with a client and seeing the client’s advertising campaign on a kiosk in the terminal.  “We need to change that old thing,” the client said. 

“But, sir, it just went up last week,” I ventured. 

“What do you mean it just went up last week?” he said.  “I’ve been looking at that image for months!” 

Of course he had — he’d seen it at the concept and planning stage, and watched it roll out across the company’s divisions and multi-channel marketing deliverables.  So while it was old to him, it was new to the thousands of prospective customers walking through that airport terminal along with us.

Today, there’s a myth that messages have a very short lifespan because of the speed with which they’re delivered.  As I wrote last week, the speed of delivering a message doesn’t change the fact that human beings have to hear or see that same message multiple times before they will remember or believe it.  It’s one of the (many) reasons that multi-channel marketing isn’t an option — it’s a requirement.

Photo credit:  Rosie McGee shot the photo of the Grateful Dead in Haight Ashbury (San Francisco) in 1969; all rights reserved by the artist.  
Note: Some portions of this blog post previously appeared on the writer’s personal blog.  Content is used by permission of the rights holder.