Book Review: Marketing Lessons From the Grateful Dead

October 7, 2010

There are a lot of books from marketing professionals providing a wealth of information about how we can better market our products, services and even ourselves.  While most of these books offer a great deal of wisdom and insight, one marketing book I read recently captured my attention from a unique perspective – Marketing Lessons From the Grateful Dead.

Truth be told, I’m a bit of a Grateful Dead fan myself having been introduced to the band by a friend of mine in college.  I still remember walking into his dorm room for the first time and being greeted by this strange music coming from the large speakers and the sight of cassette tapes lined up across his book shelves.  I grew to enjoy and appreciate their music and ended up going to about 10 Grateful Dead concerts, including their last show at Soldier Field.  I never saw them in their “prime,” but I consider each of their shows a really amazing, interesting experience.

The book was written by two Deadheads, David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan, who identified numerous marketing innovations in the way that the Grateful Dead promoted themselves and their music. I can’t share all of them here, but here’s a few that stand out:

1. Create a Unique Business Model

While most bands go on tour to promote their latest record, the Grateful Dead focused on generating revenue through their tours.  And because they changed their set list every night, fans were treated to a unique show every night of the tour.  Grateful Dead fans went out of their way to see as many shows as possible and pack into their VW vans to tour with them.

2. Experiment Experiment Experiment

Like jazz musicians, the Grateful Dead approached their music with the spirit of improvisation.  This meant that no show, no song was performed the same.  It also meant that some shows really stood out as “classic” and others were not so classic.  From a marketing perspective, experimentation and trying new things is as important as ever.  Marketing textbooks can provide important information on promoting your product or service, but ultimately, every situation is unique and should be treated that way.

3. Build a Following

One of the primary ways the Grateful Dead built a following is through their mailing list.  Starting in the 1970’s, concert attendees and fans could sign up on the GD mailing list.  This allowed fans to receive the latest news first and included concert information and opportunities to order the best seats for concerts before they were available to the general public.  From a marketing perspective, its important for you to connect with your most passionate fans so that they have exclusive opportunities to buy your product or service before the more “casual” fans.

4. Free Your Content

The Grateful Dead allowed their fans to tape their concerts, even setting up areas at each stadium to set up recording equipment.  This was (and still is) very unconventional in the music business.  Instead of losing business from this, the band gained a new, larger following.  Thinking back on it, I got into the Grateful Dead because my college buddy was able to trade concert tapes, which allowed me to hear some of their greatest musical moments.  From a marketing perspective, offering products and services for free is a very controversial topic.  I’m not going to say free is something for every business.  But the idea here, I believe, is to create a business, product or service so compelling that offering something for free will actually bring more customers and lead to more business.  It worked for the Grateful Dead.

There’s plenty that I’ve left out.  In general this book is a quick, informative read that would be of great value to anyone thinking about starting or currently running a business.  I also think that music fans and fans of the Grateful Dead would enjoy the book.  I enjoyed the fact that the authors provided real world examples of some of the Grateful Dead’s lessons.  For instance, in the chapter on freeing your content, the authors briefly examined how MySQL used its open source software to grow into a powerful organization, which was ultimately purchased by Sun Microsystems for $1 billion.

I really enjoyed this book and learning how the Grateful Dead’s “long, strange trip” was helped in strong part to some interesting, innovative marketing decisions.

1 David Meerman Scott October 7, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Glad you liked our book. Love the ticket stub!!

2 Tim October 7, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Hi David: It was a very pleasant surprise that you stopped by. Thanks for writing such an informative, entertaining book. At a time when marketing budgets are being trimmed and more entrepreneurs are trying to market themselves, your book is a source of some great ideas and information. Great job and thanks again for stopping by!

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