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The Grateful Dead – Rock Legends, Marketing Pioneers

“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” by the Grateful Dead, 1970

On a long, strange trip somewhere between Omaha and North Platte on I-80 I met the Grateful Dead. And, while the Dead’s music drove us to our destination, we missed the band’s ability to drive market share.

In hindsight, the decision to drive my Ford Pinto from Collingwood, Ontario to Sun Valley, Idaho in 1975 was likely fueled by too many tequila shots at a Saturday night ski chalet party. But, then again that was the decade in which we all believed in our invincibility and espoused a “go for it” persona. So, we did.

Bald Mountain is 2,200 miles west. Or, 42 hours at 55mph, the US interstate speed limit at that time. We tested that limit unsuccessfully in Wyoming with financial consequences that would later impact our wining and dining (beer and burgers, more precisely).

Entertainment choices in a 1975-era Ford Pinto were non-existent. iPod/USB connections were not on the dealer’s options list. The Sony Walkman wouldn’t arrive in North American retail stores for another 5 years. Cattle reports and C&W music all the way from Iowa to Wyoming, we were warned basketball legends .

Presciently, the Pinto was retrofitted with a cassette deck and cassettes painstakingly recorded from LP’s. The usual stuff of the 70’s. John Denver occupied the pre-eminent position. Linda Ronstadt not far behind. Gram, Emmylou and Neil always nearby.

Somewhere in the middle of Nebraska, Denver’s Rocky Mountain High got old. My Pinto co-pilot popped in Skeletons from the Closet by the Grateful Dead. Truckin, Friend of the Devil and other songs from the album spirited us the rest of the way to our destination, the Pioneer Saloon.

Thirty-five years after that Grateful Dead epiphany, I discovered the insightful “Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead, What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History” at a Toronto bookstore.

Marketing lessons by the Grateful Dead… I’ll confess… not the wisdom I sought when avoiding tumbleweed on the interstate on our long, strange trip from Collingwood to Sun Valley.

David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan’s testament to the Grateful Dead’s marketing genius is, as basketball legend and lifetime Deadhead Bill Walton writes in the book’s Foreword, “a fascinating story of how the Grateful Dead’s counter-intuitive ways of doing business are really best practices that work for everyone”.

Formed as a California free form hippie band in 1964, the Grateful Dead performed over 2,300 live concerts until it disbanded in 1996 following the death of band member Jerry Garcia. The Dead performed for millions of rabid and loyal fans becoming the most popular touring act in rock and roll history. Surprisingly to industry traditionalists, not one top 10 album or single chart excepting 1987’s “Touch of Grey”.

But then again, the top 40 was not the Grateful Dead’s focus. The Dead were (and are) a rock band unlike others. A focus on establishing lasting relationships with loyal, informed fans and delivering authentic concert experiences, not radio play.

Authenticity, relevancy and loyalty through four decades. A consistent standard of success equaled by few marketing and business leaders.

The underlying insight of Marketing Lessons of the Grateful Dead is the band’s creation and execution of a unique and sustainable business model that relied on communications techniques that we know today as social marketing.

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