Your Brand May Go on Some Long, Strange Trips

Are You Ready to Follow?

Marshall Bowden
Feb 5, 2019 · 5 min read

Every great brand has defining moments that light the way forward. Will the brand continue to stay true to its core values, or will it allow market forces to shift those values? For the Grateful Dead brand that moment came around 1975.

The band’s Grateful Dead Record label had folded after releasing four albums, and they signed with Arista Records (which was itself a new brand). Their music remained true to the Grateful Dead brand, and so did their attitude towards their audience. Part of the brand’s culture revolved around the taping of live Dead shows by members of the audience, known as tapers. The band had already decided that they would allow this provided that those taping the shows would only trade them and not sell them. A specific tapers section was set up for each venue and tickets were sold to tapers for that section.

The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)

Audience recordings of the Grateful Dead go back to the 1960s, but the taping culture really took off in the 70s with the advent of high quality cassette recorders. According to band historian Nicholas Merriweather, the band’s live hiatus from Fall 1974 thru Summer 1976 meant fans were looking for taped shows with intense fervor, leading to the creation of Relix magazine, a forum for tapers and traders.

When the Dead signed with Arista, label boss Clive Davis wanted them to outlaw taping at their shows, arguing that it resulted in lost revenue. The band refused, demonstrating that they understood their audience and their brand better than a music industry veteran. This moment was the birth of the Dead’s version 2.0, which became a marketing juggernaut that successfully carried the band through the rest of its existence.

Tapers section

An underlying tenet of content marketing is that your free content should be so remarkable that you feel a little uncomfortable giving it away. Here the band was giving away the main product — music — yet attendance at the group’s shows grew every year, and ticket revenues spiked from $1.4 million in 1976 to $3.6 million in 1977, the year the group released its first Arista album, Terrapin Station. This despite the fact that the album had no hit singles and little radio play. In short, the elements corresponding to advertising in the music business — hit records and radio airplay-were small parts of the band’s business model.

Taping and trading of shows was an important part of the culture that Dead fans — not the band — built up around the group’s content (music). When the band told Arista that they would not make an attempt to curtail the taping of their live shows, they demonstrated that they understood the audience, understood what was happening around their music, and they wisely decided to allow it to continue. Continuing to offer their shows to be freely taped and traded, created a bond with their audience that would be difficult to break.

Bringing the Parking Lot Into Your Tent

Top-down, outbound marketing and sales efforts demonstrate to customers and clients the exact opposite: that the brand doesn’t understand them or the way they use the brand’s product or service or the ways they would like to use it. There’s no flexibility. There’s no conversation happening between the brand and its audience.The brand is speaking and offering and the audience is probably not even listening or paying attention for various reasons. It’s an approach that basically says that the brand doesn’t care much about its customers or clients except as potential sales.

The Dead demonstrated that unexpected things can happen when a brand communicates with its audience and pays attention when the audience communicates back. There’s a recognition that once a brand is out there, control over how it is received or used is somewhat limited. Control the brand, when it’s necessary, from copyright infringement or from inappropriate use, but maintain some flexibility.

Photo by Vasilios Muselimis on Unsplash

For many years the band allowed its fans to sell t-shirts, stickers, and loads of other non-licensed merchandise in the parking lots of the venues where they appeared. The parking lot became its own show. Much of the merchandise sold featured logos that the band had actually trademarked: the Steal Your Face skull or dancing terrapins, for example. Eventually the group decided that that they wanted some measure of quality control over the group’s merchandise and trademarks, so they formed Grateful Dead Merchandising, a subsidiary of Grateful Dead Productions that still sells and licenses Dead products.

The group did go after those infringing on the band’s trademarks, but they also took the unusual step of making some of the larger, quality vendors from the parking lot licensed distributors of Dead merchandise. Again, it’s an example of a certain degree of flexibility that made the Dead phenomenon much more than the usual music business dance of a new record with a tour to promote it fueled by a hit single (or multiple singles).

Workingman’s Dead: Takeaways

What can entrepreneurs and small businesses take away from the Dead marketing phenomenon? There are a few things worth remembering:

Your brand comes first.

If you have a product or service that fills a need for a specific audience, concentrate on making that product or service much better than anything else that is being offered in your space.

Stay true to your brand.

Just because something else is “in” this year doesn’t mean that it is a direction you need to move in. Stay flexible, but allow any changes to your brand to flow organically. Don’t force the river.

Don’t do top-down communications where you’re just always telling people about your brand.

If you have a product that fills a need, your audience is there and they will be interested. Communicate with them and let them communicate back. Pay attention. Find ways to play with the audience, to share in creating your marketing.

Have a content marketing strategy and produce valuable content.

Give away some of that content. Good content. Maybe the best.

If your audience comes up with a way of using your product or service or interacting with it in a way that you didn’t anticipate, ask yourself: Is this my new niche? Can I make this work for my brand? Will it attract more customers in the long run?

Marshall Bowden is a freelance blog and social media writer for hire who lives in Chicago. He tells stories about innovative music at New Directions in Music and investigates mindfulness and our inner worlds at Eat a Tangerine.Follow him at Twitter.

Marshall Bowden

Written by

Author of Quotable Jazz, Publisher of https://www.newdirectionsinmusic and http://www.eatatangerine. Writes at Medium about writing, marketing, and culture.

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