5 Marketing and Social Networking Lessons from the Dead…


In honor of my “Deadhead” hubby and the millions of others out there, and the pending Grateful Dead Archive soon to open at the University of California at Santa Cruz, it’s a great time to recognize the Grateful Dead for their marketing and social networking prowess.

But even if you’re not a Deadhead, the Atlantic’s Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead  is a must read article.

The Grateful Dead Archive, scheduled to open soon at the University of California at Santa Cruz, will be a mecca for academics of all stripes: from ethnomusicologists to philosophers, sociologists to historians.  But the biggest beneficiaries may prove to be business scholars and management theorists, who are discovering that the Dead were visionary geniuses in the way they created “customer” value”, promoted social networking, and did strategic business planning. -by Joshua Green

Why Should corporate America or Pharma and Healthcare Marketers care?  The Dead pioneered ideas and practices that were subsequently embraced by business and ‘Internet business models’.

Here are 5 Marketing and Social Networking Lessons that I took away from the Grateful Dead’s incredible marketing success. They are masters at:

  1. Creating and delivering superior value. This is evident by their great music (content), their sprawling repertoire and well-loved improvisation, long concerts, sophisticated sound system, radical at the time, and widely emulated today. They treated their fans well. Treating customers well may sound like common sense. But it represented a break from the top-down ethos of many organizations in the 1960s and ’70s.
  2. Promoting social networking–forming friendships and deep bonds across distance.  As early as the late 1980s, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina noticed deep bonds between Deadheads.The bonds seemed to belie the idea, then popular among leading social thinkers, that communities based on common interest, whose members do not live near each other, lack emotional and moral depth, and couldn’t possibly form meaningful relationships.Today, everybody is intensely interested in understanding how communities form across distances, because that’s what happens online.
  3. Giving away stuff free. Giving something away and earning money on the periphery is the same idea outlined by Wired editor Chris Anderson in his recent best-selling book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Writing in Wired in 1994, Barlow, the band’s lyricist, posited that in the information economy, “the best way to raise demand for your product is to give it away.” What Barlow recently explained to the author:  “What people today are beginning to realize is what became obvious to us back then–the important correlation is the one between familiarity and value, not scarcity and value.  Adam Smith taught that the scarcer you make something, the more valuable it becomes.  In the physical world, that works beautifully.  But we couldn’t regulate taping at our shows, and you can’t online.  The Internet doesn’t behave that way.  But here’s the thing: if I give my song away to 20 people, and they give it to 20 people, pretty soon everybody knows me, and my value as a creator is dramatically enhanced.  That was the value proposition of the Dead.” Interestingly, voluntarily or otherwise, it is becoming the blueprint for more and more companies doing business on the Internet.
  4. Focusing intensely on loyal fans  The Dead established a telephone hotline to alert fans to its touring schedule ahead of any public announcement, reserved for them some of the best seats in the house, and capped the price of tickets, which the band distributed through its own mail-order system.
  5. Being able to turn on a dime–strategic improvisationIt is precisely this flexibility that many scholars believe holds the greatest lessons for business.The Dead’s team of musicians were anything but naive about their business.  They incorporated early on, and established a board of directors (with a rotating CEO position).  They founded a profitable merchandising division and, peace and love notwithstanding, did not hesitate to sue those who violated their copyrights.  But they weren’t greedy, and they adapted well.  They famously permitted fans to tape their shows, ceding a major revenue source in potential record sales, on the shrewd assessment that tape sharing would widen their audience, a ban would be unenforceable, and anyone inclined to tape a show would probably spend money elsewhere, such as on  merchandise or ticket sales. The Dead thrived for decades, in good times and bad times, and due to their strategic improvisation and flexibility became one of the most profitable bands of all time.

So it seems obvious as we continue to move in the direction of an Internet Economy, that the Management and Marketing secrets of the Grateful Dead may turn out to be almost as enjoyable and important  to us as  their music has been these last 40 or so years…Thoughts?


6 thoughts on “5 Marketing and Social Networking Lessons from the Dead…

  1. Ellen, I’m laughing out loud. I’ve always said that the Sixties still live, but hadn’t thought in terms of Grateful Dead marketing techniques. It’s remarkable that they started doing long ago–without cell phones, internet, not to mention Twitter, what today is becoming central to health care marketing!

    • Jane,
      It is pretty amazing when you think about it…everybody talks like social media is so ‘new’, and they talk about the new internet biz models, but… there are many smart people and companies that ‘got it’ years ago!
      My husband is feeling very vindicated!

      • What’s interesting is that this shows the heart of the matter is not the technology/software, but the approach. I think that’s what people get confused about–they think that if they use Twitter/etc., that’s the same as taking a really new approach to marketing, whereas in fact it seems you can Twitter all day long without really doing anything new.

        • Jane, You’re so right…and many use social media IE. twitter and do nothing new or worse yet, continue to just ‘push’ their messages out…Thanks for your thoughts. Ellen

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