I’ve been to one Dead show.

It was in college, where a mandatory part of the curriculum in any 4 year liberal arts school in the 80’s was total immersion in all aspects of the band’s ecosystem. We drove up from Lexington, Virginia, to Wolf Trap Farms outside of my hometown of Washington DC and saw the first half of the show under increasingly threatening skies followed by the deluge that began as they started “Truckin’.”

Lightning struck as Jerry sang the words, “Sometimes the light’s all shining on me,” illuminating the entire hillside that fronted the stage, causing the house lights to fail as he continued, “Other times, I can barely see.” What a long, strange trip indeed.

Many years later, I missed signing a contract with Garcia by a week. We were in negotiations to license artwork for a multimedia project during my Sony years, the plans for which were put on hold after his death in 1995.

Skip to the present and I’m talking with David Meerman Scott about his recently published book, Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead, and appreciating the nuances of how the band managed its affairs largely without managing them at all and influenced so many people in so friendly a way.

In reading through David’s and co-author Brian Halligan’s book, I appreciated not only the deep love and connection they both clearly feel for the band but their desire to not only identify what makes the Dead relevant to a student of business but to help those last critical steps to implementation. For those who need an example to get over creative hurdles, Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead helps connect the right dots.

I asked David if he’d be up for answering a few questions, so without further ado, here are my 3 questions and his thoughts on them.

On culture. 

SD: You describe a number of practices in MLGD that are music (sorry) to my ears – things like “hire eccentrics,” “experiment often,” etc. – but that often run afoul of corporate cultures that find these ideas a bit foreign at best and frightening at worst.

How do you counsel a leader to take the first baby steps on this strange (to some) trip?

DMS: Here in the United States, there has been 15-year trend to so-called business casual clothing in the workplace. My first job, in New York in the 1980s, required me to wear a suit and tie with polished shoes every day. At that time, “casual” (for men) meant that after 5:00 you could loosen your tie. When I lived in Japan in the late 80s and early 90s things were even more formal (you could only loosen your tie while drinking beer late night). Casual Fridays started as a parallel to the dot-com boom on both coasts in the 1990s, quickly became casual every day and spread to the rest of the U.S. partly led by Dockers, a clothing company.

So it is clear to me that companies can change their culture. If a company can go from suits and ties to casual, they can embrace different people and different outlooks on life.

The easiest way to effect this change is to stop being egotistical. It’s all about your buyers!!

One of the simplest ways is to focus a company on targeting specific buyer personas. Yet most companies are organized from an internal perspective. A buyer persona is essentially a demographic group of buyers that you have identified as having a specific interest in your organization or product or a specific market problem that your product solves. By doing some basic research on your buyers (just listen to them!) and then creating a company that appeals to them, you effect change.

SD postscript: I really like this advice. The use of buyer personas – or “communication pillars,” or whatever you use to describe the archetypal buyers, replete with their unique wants and needs – helps cut through the myopia that often clouds even the most well-intentioned corporate types. It is all about your buyers, so seeing the world through their eyes is a skill worth cultivating. 

Features versus Benefits:

SD: Letting go of your brand, letting your fans create your image and other ideas strikes at the heart of “brand stewardship” – the idea that a brand’s image is controlled and owned by the brand itself – and an idea that many have identified as a practice whose time has passed.  

We’ve always been told, though, to focus not on features but on benefits – think of an Apple product launch speaking to a hole in the market – and this idea of “letting go” and letting the fan base define the brand seems to speak to a “promote the product and let the audience label the benefit” sort of thinking.

Which way should we turn? Should we be minimalist and just tell them the facts so they can decide what’s important? Or should we identify the benefits of our features? What would Jerry do?

DMS: I disagree about whether companies should focus on benefits. Instead they should focus on buyers and the problems that they solve for buyers.

A college or university that wants to generate more applications might have specific Web pages for prospective students (targeting high school students looking for schools) and another set of pages for parents (who are part of the decision process and often pay the bills). The content on these pages will be very different.

A B2B enterprise software provider’s site might create content by the job function of the different buyers that contribute to making the buying decision for a large sale. For example, content would be different for a business buyer compared to a technologist compared to a user of the application.

A consultant might have different pages of their website that appeals to meeting planners that might hire him to speak vs. pages specific for companies that might hire him to provide advice.

In any business, marketing will be more effective by targeting people and the problems solved. Simply focusing on features is that egotistical tendency again.

SD postscript: Back to personas, again, which is solid ground, but the idea is worth pursuing further. Personas identify the needs of a group and create solutions for them that work within your ecosystem – just as the Dead recognized both the tapers and the spinners and their unique needs. But when we talk about brand control – the Dead approach of open licensing versus, for example, the Bon Jovi approach of control so tight (I understand) that band “owner” Jon Bonjovi employs his band members, issues them salaries, W2 forms and provides health insurance (if anyone knows differently, feel free to comment and I’ll substitute another band here).

In either case, I think it’s still – and always – the role of the brand to set the pieces in motion and let the customer react to them as they see fit. Personas work fine in this world, as do other forms of brand management. I will never espouse the thinking that “brand managers need to let go” and “let the market decide what your brand is” because this is sloppy thinking. Customers probably don’t care enough in most cases about you and your brand. But it is very much our responsibility – like the Dead understanding their tapers and spinners – to cater what we have to the needs of those important to us.

As a great 20th Century philosopher once said, “There’s nothing you can hold for very long.”

Push versus pull. 

SD: Reading your description of the Dead’s early days, it seems their “pull” philosophy was as much a part of their humble beginnings and lack of cash as anything. The need to start small and grow by word of mouth may have been a constraint on them rather than a “plan” per se.

Today, with the rise of social media, many have the tools to reach critical mass without spending the millions that would have been required in the Mad Men days of mass advertising. However, this clearly isn’t an either/or choice. We still have access to traditional media and advertising and frankly there are plenty of Super Bowl ad success stories. One is the model of a slow build while the other is a “Rolling Stones big bang” style launch.

Do you counsel one over the other? I hate to rely on an “it depends” choice here, so how do you counsel businesses today? Big bang versus slow ramp?

DMS: The answer of how to reach buyers is that you need to be using the media they consume. If you want to reach beer drinking men and you have a large budget, then Super Bowl ads are probably okay.

However, the vast majority of companies –  both B2B and B2C as well as rock bands, nonprofits, politicians, lawyers, etc. – are reaching small niches.

SD postscript: Resource constraints doth make cowards of us all, as Shakespeare said. Hamlet, I think.

We just have different tools now and the bar is lower than it was before. Anyone can now clamor for our attention, so they do. The smaller niches, the “1,000 true fans,” are therefore more important because we just don’t have time to sort through it all for ourselves. We need mental shortcuts and the hand-to-hand, most personal of all social networks are the ones we trust, first and last.

The Shoe is On the Hand That Fits

How do you apply lessons like these to your business? One at a time on an exception basis. There are always rules that apply and often those that don’t, but every once in a while you’ll squint at a chapter for that extra moment and the insight bursts out.

How do you get your fans involved and take them along for the ride?

How do you treat your best fans best?

How do you spend your time creating and not policing?

For me, these are things I’ve said before, either in some conference room or in some presentation, but the change of scenery – the parable or the metaphor that the Dead provide in this context – helped me see these with new eyes. That’s what a book like Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead can do for you.


PS: Many thanks to David for taking the time to have the conversation!

All photos courtesy of Flickr via Creative Commons License.