They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.

Fans of the Grateful Dead may recognize this quote from the late Bill Graham— the legendary concert promoter in the ’60s and ’70s. Not only was the Grateful Dead exploratory with its music, it was also a true rock and roll marketing pioneer that completely disrupted the status quo of the music industry.

Given my relatively young age (I was only 3 when Jerry Garcia died), it may come as a surprise to some that I consider myself a bit of a “Deadhead.” However, I’ve long been a fan of the band, devouring their extensive live catalogue in addition to seeing the remaining members perform as often as possible.

I also recently finished a book that’d been on my list for quite some time, Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History. Co-authored by Brian Halligan and David Meerman Scott (two seasoned marketing professionals with tie-dyed credentials), the book details marketing lessons from the band’s storied career as musical and business pioneers.

While I don’t have nearly enough space in this post to properly give it its due, there are three “lessons” I believe are applicable to associations and non-profits as they are for the hippies from Haight-Ashbury.

Carve Out Your Niche

First is to carve out your own niche and create a unique business model. While its contemporaries focused almost exclusively on selling albums, the Grateful Dead did the opposite, focusing instead on generating revenue from live concerts. In doing so, the band created a live experience that fostered a loyal fan base. Even without hit records or chart-topping hits, the Grateful Dead still became one of the most successful rock bands. The lesson: don’t be afraid to differentiate your organization or to operate under different assumptions than those around you.

Put Fans in the Front Row

Unlike other bands that began to move to electronic ticketing systems in the early 1980s, the Grateful Dead set-up its own in-house ticketing agency. This allowed the band to control the flow of tickets and give their fans access to the best seats. All too often our organizations neglect their loyal supporters in favor of attracting “the new”—new members, new sponsors, etc. Don’t ignore your most passionate fans in search of growth, as it’s often these longtime, loyal fans who tell our stories and drive our growth.

grateful dead logo

Free Your Content

While other bands prohibited live recordings and discouraged fans from circulating bootleg tapes, the Grateful Dead encouraged their fans to record its concerts and even set up “taper sections” where fans’ recording gear could be set up for the best sound quality. Many thought this model of “giving away their music” would hurt the bottom line, but the availability and quality of Grateful Dead recordings actually  fueled its growth. By removing barriers to its music, the band gained new fans and grew sales. The same can be applied to your organization – freeing up content opens up your marketing funnel in a dramatic way.

Keep on Truckin’

As outlined in the book, the Grateful Dead is a case study in contrarian marketing. The minds behind the band were innovators who pioneered a business model and philosophy that was the exact opposite of their peers—and it worked. With the rise of viral marketing, social media, and dozens of other new ways to engage both members and prospects alike, it seems like everyone is looking for a silver bullet to market their organization and its programs. Perhaps you’d benefit from taking a page out of the Grateful Dead’s book and blaze your own path to keep your organization truckin’ on!

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!