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.
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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.

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About Dan Goldgeier

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. Dan is also a columnist for TalentZoo.com and the author of View From The Cheap Seats and Killer Executions and Scrubbed Decks.