A Primer for Marketers That Deadheads Will Appreciate

Marc Ackerman Reviews 'Marketing Lessons From the Grateful Dead'

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Runaway success in any industry will bring would-be detectives, in the guise of authors, to the fore in search of "the secret." That the Grateful Dead should be included in this pantheon of illustrious achievers is curious but not altogether inappropriate.

Here's why. The Dead's willful disobedience and iconoclasm led them to buck a system -- in this case the contemporary music industry -- that was well entrenched and not particularly end-user-friendly. In so doing, they kept both the record companies and ticket agencies at bay while simultaneously growing their fan base to truly startling dimensions. That's no mean feat, and David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan are smart enough to recognize this. Marketing Lessons From the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn From the Most Iconic Band in History is the paean to both the band itself and their squirrely methods of facing mega-success responsibly, if not respectably.

Forgive the fact that the band, as a singular entity, is portrayed as savvy in the ways of latter-day marketing strategy. This is most likely erroneous; they seem to have fallen into their success. The Dead eschewed several basic, entrenched business guidelines due, arguably, to a combination of ignorance, lack of motivation and late-1960s-based distrust of standard music industry practice.

The book, then, can be viewed as a primer for marketing novitiates that prefer their lessons delivered in tasty, macrobiotic nuggets from a familiar, avuncular mouthpiece. The tone isn't quite "Talk to me as if I'm a stoner," but there is an identifiable air of "Let me put this into terms you'll understand." Much of the advice is non-revelatory. For example: eliminate the middleman; treat customers with care and respect; embrace and integrate high tech and social networking; give back to the community; do what you love. We have here a one-day seminar in hardback format, a case study with Grateful Dead frosting.

As a jumping-off point for universally accepted marketing principles, however, the book is certainly functional and occasionally entertaining. The authors make no attempt to conceal their adulation for the band, at times forcing solid marketing tenets into the malleable Grateful Dead framework. Regardless, Scott and Halligan format their book for an audience whose attention tends to meander. Chapters commence with a marketing technique adopted or finessed by the Dead, which the authors briefly expand upon. A real-world, contemporary example of said technique is offered, and chapters close with a summary and suggested plan of action. It's all quite compact, mirroring the book's diminutive dimensions and volume. Jay Blakesberg's photos of the band and their Deadhead following are a bonus to each chapter, and Richard Biffle's exquisite illustrations add some frivolity to the proceedings.

It may not be entirely fair to criticize a book whose aim is so humble and whose target reader so ingenuous. There's a disconnect worth mentioning, however. At the outset, the authors invoke rock impresario Bill Graham's oft-repeated quote about the band: "They're not the best at what they do; they're the only ones who do what they do." As such, how can their innovations cross inter-industry boundaries? The Grateful Dead performed upwards of 2,300 shows, which can be interpreted as 2,300-plus unique products. Their business model innovations, therefore, may be of a pattern difficult, if not impossible, for others to duplicate effectively.

Also, the book might have benefited from some background/history on how the Dead concocted their marketing approach. Staff from the band's San Rafael headquarters are accorded cursory mention, but I would have been captivated by in-depth recollections from those individuals regarding the full evolution of the band's pioneering mail-order ticketing process, the decisions involving location and frequency of tour dates, and the nuances of their creative merchandise-licensing agreement with parking lot vendors. And recounting a few missteps would have contributed to the objective balance of the finished product.

Were the Grateful Dead and their brain trust genuine marketing gurus, or merely saints of circumstance? By and large, it doesn't matter much whether their brilliance was inadvertent or carefully considered. The Dead stand as one of innumerable paragons along the marketing timeline, and "Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead" serves as a guidepost for a select cross-section of the faithful and the unflagging. You don't necessarily need to be a Deadhead to appreciate these concepts, but you'll enjoy the book a lot more if you are.

Marc Ackerman is a writer-at-leisure and Deadhead-of -convenience living near Seattle. He can be contacted at [email protected]
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