Grateful Dead A Great Band, A Better Brand

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Coca-Cola. Apple. Nike. All case studies in branding superpower. Add to that list… the Grateful Dead. Yes, the band.

In the March 2010 issue of The Atlantic magazine, author Joshua Green puts together a commendable argument for the why the Grateful Dead was more a well-managed brand than a doped-up, roving band of musical nomads.

The article, “Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead,” explains that giving away a product for free creates greater brand loyalty and demand than trying to make it an exclusive commodity. It further posits that when the University of California at Santa Cruz “Grateful Dead Archive” is opened “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.”[more]

A few of the highlights of the Grateful Dead’s tactics that certainly qualify it as branding masters:

“[The band focused] intensely on its most loyal fans. It established a telephone hotline to alert them 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 house.”

“They founded a profitable merchandising division and, peace and love notwithstanding, did not hesitate to sue those who violated their copyrights.”

However, the band did not let a sense of greed infect its brand:

“They famously permitted fans to tape their shows, ceding a major revenue source in potential record sales.”

Yet even that was more a shrewd business move than hippie altruism:

“…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 tickets.”

The piece even says this “Internet business model” was something the Dead capitalized on before almost anyone else. The band’s lyricist John Barlow was a huge user of the Internet as early as 1994. Barlow explains 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… 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.”

Read the piece in its entirety.

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