What You Can Learn About Modern Marketing From the Grateful Dead

With so many musicians and music-lovers here at VM, it’s due time that we acknowledge and discuss one of the most iconic bands of all time. Yes folks, we’re talking about one of the world’s most famous cult-favorite bands – the Grateful Dead – and how they impacted the marketing industry for years to come. Many, many people have pointed out parallels between the Dead’s practices and today’s marketing world, but we’ve taken some of our favorites and highlighted why they worked for the Dead and how you can apply them to business today.

Sell Experiences


Tickets saved from Dead shows in the 1980’s – setlist from one of said shows. Special thanks to the Farley family for the photos!

The Dead:

When you think about the Dead, what first comes to mind is likely a bunch of music-loving hippies following their favorite band across the country in retro VW vans. While this isn’t super far off from the truth, it’s easy to have some questions about the phenomenon that is the Grateful Dead. What’s so special about this bunch of scraggly looking dudes? Why is this song 18 minutes long? What’s the hype?

The answers to these questions are the exact reason why the Dead is so special. They did something no band up until that point had done – they created an amazingly unique experience for their fans. The way the music industry worked in the ‘60s (and largely today) was to work with a record label, record an album, and tour to promote the album. The Dead didn’t do this. They toured year-round, made setlists up as they went, and dressed and acted as they pleased. This unique and carefree aura, paired with their novel sound, created a very large and loyal following that has continued to trickle down from generation to generation.

In Marketing:

The best way to explain experiential marketing in today’s world is to look at a tried and true example of good customer service – The Ritz Carlton. There are many luxury resorts, but what sets every one of the 91 Ritz Carltons apart is the outstanding customer service. Their “Three Steps of Service” and “12 Service Values” are placed very clearly on their site and for employees, these rules are more than just an intro packet when they start – they are regularly enforced! No matter which resort you’re staying at, you can expect the same exceptional customer service – in fact you’ll hear many of the same phrases, such as “my pleasure” and “right away” used at each location. The same principle was used by the Dead. Create an exceptionally unique experience for your audience, and people will keep coming back for more.

Experiment, and Experiment Some More

The band in 1970.

The Dead:

One of the most alluring things about the Dead’s shows is that no two were alike and each included a large amount of improvisational playing. In fact, Jerry Garcia himself said that 80% of each show was made up as the band played. Though many bands have followed suit, (hence “jam bands”) this was an extremely unusual concept compared to other bands of the time. Because there was so much experimentation at each show, the Dead frequently messed up while playing – and fans were okay with that! Some shows were duds, while others were bangers— and the bangers, that’s where the magic happened!

In Marketing:

The takeaway from this nugget is to take risks and experiment! Let your team try out new tools, softwares and ideas. Let your marketers be creative and collaborate. Do things differently than every other company out there. It’s true that sometimes things won’t work and you’ll have to go back to the drawing board, but genuinely thinking outside the box (vs. just saying you do) might be the push you need to stand out.

Distributing Free Content

Tapers Section in the 1980’s;  photo via Reddit

The Dead: 

Unlike other bands, the Dead encouraged people to tape their performances, trade show tapes and distribute their music to others (as long as it wasn’t for commercial purposes!). Since the real magic of the Grateful Dead was in their live performances, the tapes allowed for the band to gain a ton of exposure and attracted hundreds of new fans. Concerts swelled with new faces wanting to experience the shows for themselves. Does this type of influx sound familiar? Maybe kind of like a *cough* viral post in today’s world? Bingo! By making themselves “spreadable,” each tape recorded and traded acted as a type of free marketing for the band.

In Marketing:

One of the main aspects of inbound marketing involves producing quality content to draw people to you vs. heavily advertising yourself. Make your fans want to come to you. Many brands still think that giving away free content will harm their business, but in actuality, quite the opposite happens. If you’re producing content that your customer actually wants to see and finds useful, you set yourself up to be seen as a trusted leader in the space. People will share your content, which will, in turn, lead to new business.

Tip: Consider gating your content. Ask for a customer to submit their email address in exchange for access to your content. This collects and creates a marketing database of people interested in your brand that will be likely to engage in the future.


Photo via Vice

The Dead:

The fans of the Grateful Dead traveled to many, many shows – often following the band all over the country. As time progressed and the “Deadhead” community grew, vendors started popping up in a specific parking lot or field surrounding the venue before the show. This still exists at every Dead (now known as Dead & Company) show and is truly part of the overall experience. The Grateful Dead’s two most common logos- “Steal Your Face” and “Dancing Bears” – can be found on a wide assortment of things, including posters, clothes, hats, shirts and more at a row of tents named after the song “Shakedown Street.” Rather than banning artists from using their logos, the Dead licensed it out – allowing for other entrepreneurs and fans to create unique dead merch. More branded merchandise = more exposure!

In Marketing: 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that influencers partner with brands to promote products and services in an authentic way. Influencer marketing is extremely effective for growing awareness, creating new fans, and making your brand relatable and trustworthy. The influencers of Instagram today parallel the way the lot dwelling vendors did (and still do) for the Dead. Working with people that want to sing the praises of your work or product will always benefit business.

Exclusivity & Loyalty 

Insert urging fans to the Dead’s Fan Club. Photo via “Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead” Webinar

The Dead:

As the band’s popularity grew, the Dead hired someone to manage their blossoming fanbase and make sure their experience was always stellar. One of the things that their program manager was in charge of was heading up the Fan Club. In each of their albums, they placed their “Dead Freaks Unite” notice, which encouraged fans to sign up for their mailing list. Once signed up, fans would receive exclusive content, like art and band updates. This “exclusive” content made fans feel special, thus further promoting people’s deep ties to the band.

In Marketing:

In efforts to connect with their community, the Dead created what would turn into modern-day email marketing and loyalty programs. Offering up the most quality content and deals to fans can make that customer a fan for life. For example, Nordstrom’s “Nordy Club” gives members early access to sales, free shipping, unlimited returns and more when you sign up. For the consumer, this gives an extra incentive for shoppers to buy from Nordstrom vs. similar stores.

This concept also applies to agencies, firms and other service-based companies— pay close attention to your existing client base! Offering tips, tricks, and insider info to your clients for free will further their positive experience with you and your brand. It’s easy to get bogged down chasing new clients, but making sure your current “fan base” is happy should always be at the forefront.

From their style of music to the way they promoted themselves, everything the Grateful Dead did was the type of innovation that was bound to leave a lasting impact. As Dead fans ourselves, we’ve highly enjoyed researching the parallels between one of our favorite bands and our line of expertise. If you’re interested in learning more about the marketing aspect of the Dead, this wonderful book by HubSpot founder Brian Halligan and marketing guru David Meerman Scott dives a bit deeper. If you’re interested in how the Dead can bless your ears and soul, there’s many a playlist on Spotify – or even better, check for a stop on the Dead & Co Tour near you to experience the magic yourself.

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