Marketing Lessons From The Grateful Dead: Goin’ Down The Road, Building A Brand

I don’t know if Howard Gossage ever met the members of the Grateful Dead before he passed away, but 45 years later, it’s quite easy to see some commonalities between the ad man and the band who both inhabited San Francisco in the late 60’s. For starters, both engaged with their respective audiences and embraced an experimental spirit to their work. I wonder if Gossage, had he lived longer, might have built a more sustained and famous agency the way the Dead built a band which doubled as a successful business for decades.
Associating Howard Gossage and the Grateful Dead together occurred to me as a by-product of reading Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History by David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan.
I’m a fan of the Grateful Dead (though nowhere near as big a fan as our esteemed editor Mr. Burn) and I love a good new way of looking at business and marketing, so I was excited by the prospect of a book that married the two.
The trouble is, while Scott and Halligan do an admirable job of making their case, there’s not much new here if you’ve read a lot of the popular thinking among today’s marketing gurus: ‘Freemiums,’ letting go of your brand, embracing your most ardent customers, creating shareable content, allowing (and encouraging) communities to form around your brand, etc. The authors rightly point out that the Dead did a lot of what’s being preached these days, whether the band intended to or not. And the authors do a good job of pulling current examples for each of the band’s unique marketing ideas, from Amazon, HubSpot, and Burton Snowboards to even, of all things, the U.S. Department of Defense. But to put it another way, the book feels like a single-disc “greatest hits” compendium (and if you own “Skeletons From the Closet” then you know you’re only scratching the surface.)
That said, using the Grateful Dead as a modern-day business model is an idea that’s worthy of further consideration. Even today, there are clients whose marketing departments embrace an old-style “command and control” structure that stifles innovation. I’ve had any number of clients who were conservative, risk-averse, and stuck in nervous-nelly-middle-management land. And I’ll bet some of them were Deadheads. Yet they’d never be caught dead (no pun intended, honestly) looking to the band for business inspiration.
And what “Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead” does do well is remind all of us who watched the band go from cult following to big business in the 80’s and 90’s is that they proved to be more successful, financially and otherwise, than a lot of bands who deliberately aimed to hit it big. And they did it by going against a lot of the music industry’s conventional wisdom.
Would you ever want to say, “We’ll build your brand the way the Grateful Dead built theirs” to a client? Would any client want to hear that? I don’t know the answer to those questions but it is fun to contemplate the band as a model for a better 21st century capitalist business and a forward-thinking brand. We don’t have the luxury of decades to make it happen for our clients, but Scott and Halligan show that you can take bits from the Dead’s playbook and help your clients through the long, strange trip that is marketing today.
Special thanks to Wiley who provided me with a review copy.

About Dan Goldgeier

Blogging on AdPulp since 2005, Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. In addition, he is a regular columnist for Dan published the best of his columns in a book entitled View From The Cheap Seats: A Broader Look at Advertising, Marketing, Branding, Global Politics, Office Politics, Sexual Politics, and Getting Drunk During a Job Interview. Look for it on Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.


  1. Great post Dan
    The Dead are a great case study. But the fact is their product is not their albums. They did ok but not great. They did horrible for radio play. But they were in the Top 10 grossing tours every year.
    Now to be fair many acts had many more unique’s. But the Dead didn;t need Unique’s. Just to sell out. Who cares if 50% of each show were people from the last show. As long as you sell out.
    Two quick notes on this. 1] You can;t sell 15,000-60,000 people on LSD/Mushrooms all singing and dancing together as an album (or the parking lot experience) 2] the number of bands that you can see 5 times in a row and never see the same song played twice is pretty much zero. Hell the number of bands that play consecutive shows with even 3-5 songs being different each time is almost zero.
    This enabled the live recordings (who wants the same freaking show on each tape…GET Portland 77!) And thus did help encourage the rabid following.
    So the premise of the book sounds great but brands better be careful if they implement the strategy.

  2. “You know this space is getting hot.” -Hunter/Garcia
    I have not read the book yet, so it’s hard for me to weigh in on it. I will say that it’s a neat idea for a book, and one I’ve harbored for years. Hats off to the authors for beating me to the QWERTY keyboard.
    Dan, I love how you ask, “Would you ever want to say, ‘We’ll build your brand the way the Grateful Dead built theirs’ to a client? Would any client want to hear that?” I think yes, and yes again, although it’s going to be the exception, not the rule.
    I’m reminded of something Jerry Garcia said about how long it takes for change to happen. We wall want to realize the vision RIGHT NOW, but righteous change comes by degrees. To clients, to ad agencies, to our thinking about business and culture and to our economy.
    Be that as it may, when the right changes do come, they’re built to last. Last night, Darby and I saw String Cheese Incident play at Horning’s Hideout in North Plains, Oregon, and I have to say it’s amazing to see just how “Grateful” the scene is 45 years in. Of course, SCI and many so-called jambands have been working from the GD model from day one.
    And what exactly is the GD model? It’s not about freemiums and other common sense marketing solutions. No. It’s about teamwork, consensus building and improvisation. It’s about dedication to craft and letting your freak flag fly. It’s about being fiercely independent and embracing the DIY ethic.
    BTW, it’s Garcia’s birthday today! He was born in 1942 on this day.

  3. Howie & David, I think you guys are hitting on a few of the central issues that this book doesn’t address: How to implement these ideas in companies that aren’t startups growing organically, and whether ideas like these can be deliberately implemented for quick effect.
    The Dead did what they did over a lot of time–and no one has that kind of patience these days. Plus a lot of what the book focuses on with the band grew from happy accidents or natural occurrences. These might have been beyond the Dead’s control but also that they didn’t try to stop.
    I think the authors could’ve gone much further with this book. But it’ll still be a cool book for anyone new to some of the thinking going on in marketing today.

  4. Being a big Dead fan from back in the day I think they are a very good case study. I think Brands have to identify specifically what they are selling and not give that away, but give away the accessories. Sometimes what we think is the core product is not the core product.
    Does Rolex sell a watch or a way to keep time. Watches are supposed to keep time. That is why you buy a watch. But I bet wearing a Rolex has zero to do with the ability to tell time. Especially today.
    Seriously btw in honor of David you need to get Portland 1977!

  5. Hey Dan,
    Many thanks for writing about our book. Brian and I had a great weekend at Gathering of the Vibes for our book launch. We met Bob Weir and watched Furthur and Rhythm Devils from the photo pit in front of the stage.
    I’d love for Howie, David & others to read the book and comment back.
    We included 19 “lessons” that companies can learn from. I doubt there is any company out there that would implement all of them. But ANY company can implement some.
    Businesses are successful today by focusing on customers (fans) and creating new business models rather than copy the competition.
    The Dead can teach us all a great deal.

  6. David–Thanks for taking the time to comment here!