Book Review: Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead

By Diane Danielson

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

gratefuldead.jpgIf my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music?

Ripple, The Grateful Dead

As an entrepreneur and/or a marketer, does your voice come through the music? I'm sure Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter were not thinking about marketing when they penned those lyrics. But marketers David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan were thinking about the Grateful Dead when they wrote their latest book: Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History.

It's hard to start a review of this book without reminiscing about one's own Dead experiences. My introduction to the band was in the 1970s when the Dead Heads would descend upon Merriweather Post Pavilion every summer, camping in the woods near our house, bringing a whole new aroma to the region, and causing controversy by bathing in the fountain at the nearby mall.

I'm by no means a Dead Head, having only attended a couple of concerts and owned a handful of bootleg cassette tapes. Although apparently a rumor did circulate around my hometown once that I had dropped out of college and was following the Dead around the country. That was the result of being spotted at a concert when I really should've been at school. Let's just say that when tickets to see the Grateful Dead fall into your hands and are only a few rows back from the stage, you gamble that your college adviser would totally understand (which he did).

I bring that story up because that's one of the unique things about the Grateful Dead: You never know who's a fan until it comes up in conversation or you drop some lines from a song on your Facebook page.

Back to the book: As a marketing book, I loved it. And it wasn't just the Grateful Dead twist; which, for me as a book reviewer, was a welcome change from the standard business books that hit my desk. I thought the book's lessons transcended the music, and quite a few hit the mark, either because they validated some recent business moves I made or pushed me further in certain directions.

You would likely need a passing interest in the Grateful Dead to really enjoy it, although Scott and Halligan provide examples of modern-day companies that are illustrating the lessons. For Grateful Dead neophytes, the band did things completely different from what other bands did. The band didn't care about radio play; the focus was on the concert experience. The band let fans record and share its concerts and didn't use a middleman to sell tickets, etc. In other words, it was unique.

Below are a few of the lessons and action steps you'll find in the book that stuck with me (Note: I paraphrased a bit and had to leave out a lot).

  1. The Grateful Dead didn't follow the normal musical path. Rather than focus on selling albums, they concentrated on generating revenue from providing fans with a live concert experience.

    Action: If you are going to have a unique business model, you need to do something three times better than everyone else. Find out what that is. If not, then you won't be unique enough to break out.

  2. Ignoring conventional wisdom is the key to creating uncontested market spaces. Where would you put the Grateful Dead in iTunes? Rock, folk, country, blues or none of the above? By creating a new sound and experience, they defied classification and created a whole new space.

    Action: In addition to thinking about your industry competitors, what are the "alternatives" to your product? Can you find ways to erase the traditional "boundaries" of your industry
    by incorporating or subsuming or competing with some of the alternatives?

  3. Build a community, but remember it's the community that will define you. This is a lesson companies are learning with social media--better to embrace the fact that you can't control your brand once the community grabs hold of it.

    Action: Remove made-up, gobbledygook-laden mission statements, boilerplate press releases and other top-down messaging from your materials and website. Instead, point people to your community: the conferences, forums, chat rooms and blogs of the people who talk you up. Then get out into your community and interact regularly.

  4. Put loyal customers and fans first. The Grateful Dead always made sure that their top fans had the best seats and were in the know.

    Action: Identify your most loyal customers and add them to a database so that you can reach them. What can you offer them that would be valuable and not available to the general public?

  5. The Grateful Dead removed barriers to their music by allowing fans to tape it, which in turn brought in new fans and grew sales. They taught us that when we free our content, more people hear about you and eventually do business with you.

    Action: Create free content: e-books, iPhone apps, blog posts. If this content your create is remarkable, it will draw visitors to your business in a far more dramatic way than the product or services page on your website will ever do.

  6. Most bands prohibit the sale of merchandise in parking lots in favor of their "official" merchandise. Not the Grateful Dead. They helped others make money from their brand, and in doing so helped build their own brand and create a lively concert experience in the parking lot.

    Action: Find entrepreneurs who stand to profit from your business. Help them help you.
Daily Dose Bottom Line: This is a quick easy read, with lessons that should resonate with entrepreneurs (especially former Dead fans). Of course there are reasons other bands haven't all tried to duplicate the Grateful Dead business model. It's not easy, but I think the boys in the band said it best.

Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me;
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me . . . What a long, strange trip it's been.

Truckin', Grateful Dead

Wavy Line

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