What Brands and Social Media Players Can Learn from The Grateful Dead

Yeah – I know, many of you are thinking Social Steve puts the name Grateful Dead in the headline and expects many hits … it is like putting the “sex” in anything and stirring interest.

“They love each other … Lord, you can see that it is true” words – Robert Hunter

But hey, give me a chance here … arguably, no band has ever had a connection, a relationship with their audience like The Grateful Dead. Isn’t this what we want to accomplish with our brand (whether it is a person, product, or service)?

“Steal your face right off your head” words – Robert Hunter

So while I like The Dead, I would not consider myself a Dead Head or big fan. So I had to get some coaching here from my friend, “Exciting Artist”* (read note at end of article). I asked him, “When The Dead got in their pinnacle jamming, were they playing off each other or playing off the audience?” His answer: “Both … because the audience is considered part of the band, the nth member. When an audience was present, at best it allowed for a closed circular loop to be formed between band and audience with the mutually gratifying energy constantly flowing around and throughout.”

“got some things to talk about here beside the rising tide” words – Robert Hunter

Think about this for a second … if you are so in tune to your audience and sensitive to their vibe and perception, enough to truly think of them as one of you, can you imagine how strong the relationship of your brand and its audience will be? The Grateful Dead were a brand that stood out in the music universe like no other band. They redefined the relationship of musicians as a selling model. I know this will disenchant many Dead Heads to call them a brand, but it can not be denied. Granted, they are so much more than a brand. They created a music culture that did not previously exist. To put this in marketer’s terms, consider the iPod – so much more than a brand – it redefines how people use their product to the extent that it has produced a cultural change.

“If I had my way, I would tear this old building down” traditional – arranged by Bob Weir

Why? Simple. Being so in tune to your audience. If you know The Dead, one can often see a difference between their east coast and west coast performances. The west coast audience was a mellower crowd. Thus the energy exchange between band and fans and the music itself took on that tone and palette. When The Dead played Madison Square Garden in NYC, the east coast heads seemed to be a more discerning bunch, not willing to “just go with the flow.” Their expectations were high and the energy exchanged between band and fans reflected this. The entire Garden came alive, bouncing with excitement WHEN the music was right.

“The music plays the band” words – John Barlow

In a piece I wrote called, “Simplifying Social Media,” I emphasize the LCR (Listen-Conversations-Relationships) Mentality. I insisted that a strong social media program requires …

Know your target audience and find the existing places and communities where they are talking, tweeting, blogging, commenting, etc. Spend some time there and just LISTEN to what they value and need. Understand the way they talk and their vernacular. If you want to be a valued member of the club, you got to talk their talk, not yours.
Once you have gained a solid understanding of your target audience and how they socialize in the various forums and communities, start to engage in the conversation. Remember, don’t sell. This should be more of a friendly conversation or networking nature.
Continue conversations and work on building trusted relationships. Trust is established by having good rapport and delivering value. You deliver value to a target audience group, but you establish relationships one-on-one. That said, put out valuable information to your target audience and follow up with one-on-one conversations.

Forget about marketing terms for a second. Isn’t this exactly what The Dead did?

While you may have read about my LCR Mentality before, I am bringing it up again in the context of The Grateful Dead. One must approach a social media endeavor this way to be successful. The Grateful Dead broke all of the rules, but the most important thing that they always did was to have a commitment to their audience.

Another note here on The Dead. Trying to understand how intense a paramount Grateful Dead show can get, “Exciting Artist” made a great quote. He said, “I don’t listen to what they are playing, I listen to what they are listening to.” Wow – I think this further drives the importance and power of listening and how powerful and intense the result can be.

Bottom line – you want a strong relationship with your audience, know them, listen to them, engage with them, PERFORM FOR THEM.

“strangers stopping strangers, just to shake their hand .everybody’s playing in the Heart of Gold Band” words – Robert Hunter

(Note on “Exciting Artist” – First, thanks to “Exciting Artist” for his help on this article. I will be representing “Exciting Artist” as he releases some amazing prose on “Soul Evolution” and a journey tale nouvelle about man’s connection with life and beyond. These pieces are complemented with a meditation form that has been life changing for me and others. It will have the same effect on many more (maybe you) as soon as we get his works “out there.” I am very excited to work with someone that will have such a profound positive impact for so many. Many will get to know “Exciting Artist” in 2010.)



Filed under brand communication, brand marketing, brands, marketing, marketing plan, SEM, social media, social media marketing, Social Steve, socialmedia, SocialSteve

7 responses to “What Brands and Social Media Players Can Learn from The Grateful Dead

  1. Michael Landau

    Hi there: I totally agree that the fabric that is The Dead really made the music and the band a part of everyone. We the audience had a huge impact on the music as the music does to us. This is a great analogy. Can I share this with others?

  2. Hi Steve
    Enjoyed the sentiments of your post.
    I’ve given it a British feel over here:


  3. Tom McGee

    Pardon the bad pun, but your article is dead on. As a qualitative market researcher for 28 years and a Dead Head for more, I can appreciate it from both sides.
    The band and fans never realized it in the moment, but The Grateful Dead community was one of the pioneers of word-of-mouth and social marketing. Beyond the interaction with fans during live performances, the band reworked and even broke all the rules in terms of how to gain a following and ‘grow the brand.’ In the early 70’s , rather than advertise, they posted a one line message inside the “Grateful Dead” live album asking “Dead Heads to unite”…this was the beginning of what became the loyalest legion of fans the music world has ever known. A one-line request that grew to millions of fans across the globe.
    The Dead was also indifferent about album sales and gaining exposure on mainstream radio. Instead, they allowed the audience to record all their performances and distribute the music for free (i.e. beginning of a new business model for the music industry). They even accommodated these fans by reserving sections near the sound board at each show to improve the quality of the recordings. It might have killed record sales, but it helped develop a underground network of ‘tapers’ who in turn began turning other people onto the Dead’s music, and thus grow the brand…brand advocacy in its truest form. Over the years, they became one of the highest grossing live acts ever.

    I’ll leave it here…but the band’s marketing methods would make for an excellent case study.

    • SocialSteve

      Tom –

      Thanks … great additions and you are so right … one can go on and on studying The Dead from a marketing perspective and learn tons.

      Social Steve

  4. Great metaphor and interconnecting dots, you very clearly highlight a great real world model of old techniques tried and true, that when applied to todays tools have modern, yet historic impact. “Playing, playing in the Brand…”

    Thanks for taking my brain to this idea place!

  5. Hi Steve, We can learn a lot from the Dead. I wrote a biography about them for kids–yes kids! What I learned is that while they weren’t on the radio like other groups at that time, they had–and still have–a huge following. They really knew how to reach out to their audience. Fans would purchase series of tickets. So, if the Dead was in town for a few days, fans would buy seats for the entire run. The Dead knew this, and constantly mixed up and changed their songs. Each concert was a different experience.
    I can go on and on… fun post.

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