So I recently thought it would be a great idea for me to start blogging. Thanks to my friend Lisa, who pushed the idea to me. To start my blog life, I thought I would re-print a story I wrote for PPB Magazine. I hope you find it interesting.
The Grateful Dead offer many lessons on successfully merchandising with promotional products. (PPB Magazine July 2010)
I find that inspiration often comes from places you would never guess. The March issue of The Atlantic magazine (www.theatlantic.com) featured the article “Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead,” which detailed the cutting-edge management techniques the band used to create decades of success. Ironically, there is much business acumen to be learned.
Since I am 35, there is no possible way for me to have experienced “The Dead” as they grew up in the music business. However, I do know three things about them:
1. They toured nonstop from 1965 to 1995 (when Jerry Garcia died).
2. They recorded 26 albums.
3. Their merchandise is everywhere.
These three things alone make this band a lesson in organizational evolution.
Me And The Dead
My formal introduction to the Dead was in 1987 when they released “Touch of Grey,” a song that turned out to be their largest single ever and the only one to enter the Top 10 on the music charts (www.warr.org). At age 13, I knew there was more than Top 40 music, but it is mostly what I heard. This is when I began my journey, now 20-plus years in the making, as a Deadhead.
Exposure to the Dead opened the door to another music world—John Lee Hooker, Howlin Wolfe, Zeppelin, The Stones, Bowie, Neil Young, King Crimson and the Sex Pistols. From Peter Rowan and Leo Kottke to everyone in between, the Dead showed me the way (pardon the Frampton reference, if you will) to a life in music.
So while the band’s music led me to places I wouldn’t have known before, I never thought I would be reading about how their work could influence my career in business. In retrospect, this is yet another ignorance of my young life. If the Dead showed me how to grow my appreciation for music, why couldn’t they teach me how to further understand my workplace?
The Dead’s Product Development
In 2008, the Grateful Dead donated its entire library of documentation, music recordings, logs, journals, etc., to University of California Santa Cruz, where it will be on permanent display later this year. The exhibit illustrates how a rock-and-roll band that never seemed to have much commercial success managed their way to a career of more than 30 years.
The Grateful Dead had a product—music—and this is where the story gets a bit muddy by today’s standards. Popular bands of the 1960s, such as The Rolling Stones, were on a program of write, record, radio and tour for publicity to sell records. The Dead, however, had a different approach. They were a group of musicians who liked to play, so they created a new experience for popular music: a new show every night. Instead of playing the songs from a predetermined and consistent set list, The Dead played a random list of songs from their 100-plus catalog—whatever they felt worked on a particular night. The result was a 30-year touring career of more than 2,300 live shows.
As their popularity increased, news got out that last night’s show was nothing like the show three nights ago, nor would it be like tomorrow’s show. On any given night, what you got from a Dead show was just as much your guess as it was theirs. The word spread among the ranks of their fan base and as it did, deadheads began to realize that there was good reason to make multiple Dead shows in a row.
As their audiences grew from 1965 at the Philmore, the band started seeing greater success. They quickly incorporated, developed a board of directors with rotating CEO roles and began thinking of ways to market themselves. In short order, they embraced the word on the street and started using it to their advantage, the easiest way possible: fan to fan.
Realizing that giving fans what they wanted would only increase their exposure and public awareness, the Grateful Dead began allowing fans to record live shows to share with friends and family members. The buzz grew, and fast. Not only were fans talking about the live performances, but they also passing them on.
Think about this for a moment. Today, there are examples of sharing music via the internet where people have been charged with breaking copyright laws. But 30 years ago, a band willingly gives away its most valuable product and obvious revenue stream—music. How is that gonna work?
As it turns out, it was genius. The Dead’s seemingly strange decision to give away their music proved not to be counter productive but rather caused their success to flourish. Fans were attending multiple shows in their own towns to see what the experience would be like, and were also traveling to other towns to see them perform. The Dead had created their own subculture. Viral marketing was their best tool and they leveraged it.
Bootlegging became a subculture of a subculture, with fans wanting to see more shows in more places. The Grateful Dead stumbled onto the first rule of marketing: Know your audience. Bootlegging, which today is called “stealing work product from the artist,” was the way to The Dead’s success.
As time marched on, The Dead started catering more to bootlegging, seeing even more prolific results. Once their fan base became the marketing arm of the organization, the band turned to merchandising. In fact, promotional products professionals could learn from this.
Starting in the 1960s, the Grateful Dead branded and copyrighted logos and names and created a market for itself using merchandising, arguably the most successful company store ever created. Since 1960, the Grateful Dead have successfully sold everything from original artwork and window stickers to t-shirts and silk neckties in record stores (remember those?), retail shops and online company stores such as http://store.dead.net.
Thirty years later, this iconic brand can still be seen in places from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to a high school kid’s bedroom wall. The Dead’s evolution from folksy country bluegrass in the ’60s, to disco Dead in the ’70s, to the popcorny ’80s and to the unmistakable mosaic that is The Dead’s catalog today is proof that if you are willing to continually review, assess and revise your success will be great.
Creating the experience was the organic transformation for this group of musicians. It was a drug-induced ride of decades for them; today, it is a valuable lesson about understanding customers, catering to their needs and using viral marketing to help build the brands with which you are working. The promotional products industry is not unlike the Grateful Dead subculture—a group of creative, energetic people from all walks of life who are enthusiastic about the same things. The question is, are we going to be able to leverage our audience to the same level?
We are at an evolutionary point in our industry. With CPSIA, PhRMA, insurance and investment regulations and more to come, our industry must find a way to produce logo- branded merchandise that goes to work for our client base, provides real value and shows ROI.
Evaluate, revise and implement changes in order to satisfy our client. This is the basic formula used by the Greatful Dead for more than 30 years and the result for The Grateful Dead: No. 55 on Rolling Stone’s list of The Greatest Artists of all time.