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Listen To The Band

Implementing nontraditional methods and best-practice business decisions, the Grateful Dead has had a remarkable 30-year run as a rock icon. Follow their lead, and keep your business truckin'.

Radical marketing, by its very nature, can be applied by organizations both large and small across a wide diversity of industries. It often finds a champion in the most unlikely places.

The Grateful Dead, for example, would seem a strange bedfellow in any collection of exemplary business organizations. A rock 'n' roll band, and a defunct one at that, seems hardly the place to find lessons in brand building and marketing.

Yet the Grateful Dead, over the course of a remarkable 30-year run as a rock icon, employed a raft of nontraditional methods to build a brand that endures and continues to grow more than four years after the group disbanded. The 1995 death of Jerry Garcia, the band's musical and spiritual leader, at the age of 53 marked the end of an era as well as of the band. But, if anything, the brand has actually thrived and grown stronger since Garcia's death, fueled by a broad and radical marketing plan by Grateful Dead Productions, the band's longtime corporate entity, and an insatiable desire on the part of Grateful Dead fans for the band to live on.

Because the lessons it offers are universal, as relevant to selling perfume or cars as they are to marketing music, the Grateful Dead is a radical marketer worthy of attention. The Grateful Dead, through a series of both serendipitous circumstances and conscious best-practice business decisions, built a model that flew in the face of conventional music industry wisdom. What emerged was a highly successful, easily recognizable brand with the cachet of a Harley-Davidson and a vast following of fans known as Deadheads, who were as devoted as a religious sect.

In many ways, the Dead is in an enviable position. A highly profitable, debt-free, privately held 34-year-old company like Grateful Dead Productions, still owned and run by the founders, is unusual in today's dynamic business environment. This fiscal serenity, along with the continuity of ownership and leadership, provides a prognosis for the future that is remarkably upbeat.

Sam Hill, co-founder of Helios Consulting Group, has almost 20 years of experience working on marketing issues. Business journalist Glenn Rifkin has written extensively for The New York Times and contributes to many business publications.

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This article was originally published in the June 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Listen To The Band.

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