Ten Tie-Dyed and True Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead

Published: Apr 08, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By: David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan

Music fans know the Grateful Dead as rock legends and amazing musicians.  Few people, however, realize that they were also remarkable marketing innovators. In the 1960s the Grateful Dead pioneered many social media and inbound marketing concepts that businesses across all industries use today.

The band is a major case study in contrarian marketing: most of the Dead’s many marketing innovations were based on doing the exact opposite of what other bands (and record labels) were doing at the time. Instead of obsessing over recording, the Dead became the most popular touring band of their era, selling hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of tickets, and creating a highly profitable corporation in the process. Without hit records, the band achieved elite success, becoming one of the most iconic rock bands of their era and inventing a brand that democratically included their consumers and created a lifestyle for “Deadheads.”

Here are 10 Tie-Dyed and True Grateful Dead Marketing Strategies:
1. Carve out your own landscape.
The Grateful Dead’s business model was the exact opposite of every other band’s at the time. Rather than focusing on selling albums, they concentrated on generating revenue from live concerts, and in doing so created a fan “experience” that was unlike any other. The concert-as-business-model worked, and the Dead created a passionate fan base that became an underground cult that catapulted the band into the rock-and-roll stratosphere.

Products that are highly differentiated can still succeed today, but it’s much harder to win if your business model is the same as your competitors’. Today's big winners typically succeed because of unique business model assumptions, rather than some new technology or complicated improvements. Prime examples include Netflix (vs. Blockbuster) and iPod and iTunes (vs. MP3s and downloading). Like the Grateful Dead, these companies turned the core assumption of how their industry works on its head to create an unlevel playing field for themselves.

2. Choose a memorable brand name. Love it or hate it (or fail to understand it), the Grateful Dead is a name people remember. When you select an uncommon name—one appropriate to your company image and target market—it’s unlikely that consumers will confuse your product with a similar one. They will remember you. In today’s world of online communications and search engines, unique names for your company, products, and services allow you to own the search engine results for your brands.

3. Mix up your marketing department. Some argue that the Grateful Dead were not the best musicians, but that their diverse backgrounds made for a powerful combination that created a sound unlike any other. The Grateful Dead also often had musicians with very little experience and even less formal education. The mix of unique backgrounds unencumbered by conventional wisdom proved to be a powerful combination.

So if your marketing team looks like everyone else’s, it may be time for some new skills and new blood. Try organizing your marketing team this way: Someone responsible for “getting found” (filling the top of your funnel), someone responsible for converting the folks who are pulled in, and someone responsible for analyzing the numbers and helping you make better decisions. Look outside your marketing department (inside your company) and look outside the marketing industry (outside your company) to fill in talent gaps.

4. Experiment. The Grateful Dead played over 2,300 concerts and each one was completely unique due to their improvisational style. The band continually experimented with musical forms and genres—both as a group and individually. Despite the occasional poor performance, they didn't stop experimenting; they continued to push the envelope and learn from their past mistakes.

Like music, marketing is a creative discipline. Instead of worrying about making mistakes, you should be doing at least five times more experiments than you are likely doing today. This could mean starting a blog, freeing your employees to Tweet or write posts for your blog, or leaving comments on other blogs. Instead of seeing failure as something to be avoided, leaders need to free their marketers to experiment, quickly learn from failure, and experiment again.

5. Give up control of your marketing messages. A Grateful Dead concert was about having fun, meeting friends, checking out great music, escaping the everyday, and belonging. Each person defined the experience a little differently, and the group defined the whole. There were interesting subgroups that were part of the larger odyssey that was the Grateful Dead experience.

In building a community, the Grateful Dead were willing to give their fans a large degree of control over how the band was defined. When organizations insist on operating in a command-and-control environment with mission statements, boilerplate descriptions, messaging processes, and PR campaigns, their strategies can both hamper growth and backfire in execution.

6. Put fans in the front row. The Grateful Dead controlled the ticket sales for their concerts. While other bands moved toward selling tickets through electronic systems like Ticketron, and later, Ticketmaster, the Dead established their own in-house ticketing agency in the early 1980s. The system allowed the band to announce tours to fans first, treating their main supporters to the best seats and driving passionate loyalty.
This attitude teaches us to treat customers with care and respect. Yet we see so many organizations that do precisely the opposite. Instead of putting loyal customers first, they ignore them while they try to attract new ones. Always remember, your most passionate fans are the people who tell your stories and spread your ideas.

7. 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 could set up their own recording gear. Conventional wisdom says that giving away their music would have diminished their success, but actually, it added fuel to the fire: allowing fans to tape the music actually brought in new fans and grew sales.

The takeaway here is that when we free our content, more people hear about our company and eventually do business with us. The way to reach your market audience is to create tons of free content like blogs, videos, white papers, and e-books. Each piece of content will then attract links from other websites. You attract a lot more interest and open up the top of your marketing funnel in a dramatic way.

8. Partner with those who are eager to sell your stuff. Most bands prohibit the sale of merchandise in parking lots because they want to ensure that only “official” merchandise is being sold. While the Grateful Dead did sell their own gear inside the venue, they partnered with the vendor community, resulting in some very creative uses of the band's “Steal Your Face” logo.

Find the entrepreneurs who would like to make money from your brand and work with them. Do you have people selling versions of your products and services that seem in competition to your direct sales efforts? Maybe the right thing to do is to partner with those entrepreneurs rather than send them a legal notice. Better yet, find and approach companies that seem to be competitors and work out a way to help one another. For example, if you're a realtor, consider forging a partnership with a home improvement company.

9. Give Grateful-ly. The Grateful Dead frequently threw their support behind causes they believed in, especially anything related to improving life in their home base of San Francisco. Giving back to the community became an essential element of the band’s brand image. They invited favorite organizations to set up tables in the hallways at their shows to educate fans on issues like organ donation and voter registration. Concert-goers knew the Dead’s commitment was authentic and that added to the perception of their positive and supportive approach to making music and helping people improve their lives.

A consistent and sustained level of giving back to the community is of significant benefit to companies. When a company carefully chooses a particular charity or cause to support and makes it a part of their corporate culture, the accrued benefits to both the brand and the recipient charity can be enormous over time.

10. Do what you love—even if it takes a while to get it right. The Grateful Dead’s passion for their music helped them persevere through some very rough times. For example, on the first gig they booked, they were contracted to perform two nights in a row. They were so bad the first night that the owner of the joint replaced them with three elderly gentlemen in a jazz band. The band members were so embarrassed they didn’t even bother asking the owner for their one night’s pay. Rather than throw up their hands and give up, the band went back to the studio and doubled down on practice. It took several years of hard work before they really got good market traction with their unique sound.

The Grateful Dead teach us to live our own dreams—not someone else’s. If you do what you love you’ll increase your odds of success and dramatically increase your happiness level. Since work takes up more than 50% of your waking adult life, doing work you don’t enjoy takes a toll on your psyche that goes well beyond the boundaries of the workplace.

About the Author(s)

David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan are coauthors of Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History (Wiley, 2010). Scott has seen the Grateful Dead perform over 40 times, beginning in 1979 when he was a teenager. A marketing strategist and professional speaker, he is the author of the BusinessWeek best-selling book The New Rules of Marketing & PR as well as several other books. Halligan has seen the Grateful Dead perform more than 100 times. He is CEO and founder of HubSpot, a marketing software company that helps businesses transform their Internet marketing. He is also coauthor of Inbound Marketing: Get Found Using Google, Social Media, and Blogs and is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at MIT.