The Grateful Dead 4-Step Guide to the Magical Influence of Content Marketing

image of Deadhead sticker

What did one Grateful Dead fan say to the other when the drugs wore off?

“Man, this music sucks!”

Jokes aside, no one can argue the cultural influence of the Dead and the legions of loyal Deadheads who continue to love the band. And a big part of how it happened was due to the band’s pioneering content marketing approach.

Instead of banning recording at concerts, the Dead actively encouraged audience taping and distribution of the band’s legendary live shows. This turned attendees into raving fans – a word-of-mouth marketing force that out-performed most of the contrived corporate attempts we see today in social media.

So what are the key differences that set the Dead apart from, well … the dead when it comes to content marketing? Let’s see what Grateful Dead co-founder Jerry Garcia had to say.

1. The Thing

And the live show is still our main thing. ~Jerry Garcia

Content marketing, in its simplest definition, involves giving away something valuable in order to sell something related. The Dead knew that its related “thing” was not the band’s recorded albums, or even the bootleg recordings of the shows, but the experience of the live show itself.

Rather than restrict recording and bootlegging, the Dead saw the practice as a gift from the fans, not a gift to them. The distribution of recordings from fans to future fans intensified and channeled desire for the authentic experience of a Dead show. Plus, getting people to the live venue fueled the other profit center for the band – merchandise.

If you’re still afraid to give anything of value for marketing purposes, you need to think long and hard about what it is you’re really selling. Telling people how to do something is not the same experience as doing it for them – so in that sense you’re not giving anything away. And yet the trust and awareness you build with valuable content is the essence of what a brand is, and that brand allows you to continue selling related things to people for years.

Give away the recording, but sell the show, the t-shirt, and the Cherry Garcia ice cream. There are many ways to do something similar in any business.

2. The Difference

You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do. ~Jerry Garcia

The Grateful Dead, Boston, and Nirvana were (and remain) all in the same business. They’re competing for the same customers, right? People who listen to and buy rock music.

But of course, they’re not. Positioning seems brain-dead obvious when you think of it in the context of musicians, doesn’t it? Those three bands appeal to distinctly different types of people despite being in the same general business category. It’s really not any more complicated than that with any other type of business.

Garcia had another take on this:

“Grateful Dead Fans are like people who like licorice. Not everyone likes licorice, but the people who like licorice REALLY like licorice.”

Don’t follow the herd, cave to consensus, or aim for the latest fad. If conventional “wisdom” says your approach is off, you might be on the right track.

3. The Goal

But my whole point was to inspire people to take action. ~Jerry Garcia

It’s easy to say the Grateful Dead were simply being cool by not prohibiting recording and distribution of its shows, but that ignores reality. By Garcia’s own admission, the Dead wanted their music and the live show experience to spread far and wide.

Remember, the fans were giving a gift to the band. And they did it because sharing the tapes helped fans feel like part of something much bigger than just another concert. Yes, the content still must be created, but the hardest thing for most content creators is to then get out of the way.

The more important point is that the Dead wanted action in a larger sense. It wasn’t just about money, or even just music – it was about a cultural shift the band and the fans participated in together.

Action requires motivation first and foremost. And one of the best ways to motivate people is to invite them to be a part of something bigger than themselves – with you, not for you.

4. The Payoff

Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. ~Don Henley

The payoff from content marketing is so much larger than the vast majority of traditional advertising. Much like the magical influence the Dead still have with fans and the broader culture, you too can wield industry influence that expands your brand almost effortlessly into the future.

You get that ironic sticker on the Cadillac, since your fans grow up and gain more wealth and influence along with you. But you also get the industry equivalent of that lyric from Don Henley’s 1984 hit The Boys of Summer – those who follow in your footsteps are not competitors, they’re disciples who pay homage to you with their own content.

Will it work the same way it did with mass media? No, but it won’t work that way for most anyone else, either. You only need to inspire and influence the people who matter to your business, and it doesn’t take mass awareness to achieve niche prominence.

The reason we use so many pop culture analogies on Copyblogger is simple – online content marketing is more about media production than it is about traditional marketing. Adopt the mindset that your company is a media company no matter what your “thing” is, and online marketing becomes less puzzling and more fun.

P.S. After writing this post, I discovered that my friend David Meerman Scott and HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan offer a free (registration required) webinar called Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead. I haven’t watched it and have no affiliation with it, but with those two involved, my bet is it’s good. Check it out to dig deeper into Dead marketing.

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and wants you to know that Thesis + Scribe = SEO Made Simple. Get more from Brian on Twitter.

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  1. I’ve seen a bunch of articles about The Grateful Dead’s marketing techniques… but none sum it up as concisely as this.

    This is practical and fantastic – thanks!

  2. This is a great take on content marketing. I loved the Jerry Garcia quotes. I’m not a Grateful Dead fan as a rule but I might have to reconsider lol. Thank you for the great information :)

  3. Whoa what a great example…I could feel I was literally immersed in the post and I could imagine everything as it happened.

    What a great, real world example that shows “You only need to inspire and influence the people who matter to your business.”

    Nabeel

  4. Food for thought. I’ve been proposing these concepts to my boss (it’s an e-commerce company) for a couple of years. He’s finally starting to get it.

    For my own business, I still have some work to do – especially in figuring out what thing of value I can give to my fans/readers.

  5. Brian,

    You need music on this site…

  6. Hey Brian,

    What an awesome job comparing Grateful Dead’s marketing with online marketing.

    Chat with you later…
    Josh

  7. Brilliant and spot on. Thank you for the lively blogs!

  8. Mea Culpa! I have been guilty of the “no recording” mentality on some of my sites. I want to keep visitors on my site, so I am very stingy about putting in links to a competitors site that may have info that can help them.

    I’m having an epiphany (ouch… that hurts). I’m slowly learning to share , because it’s not about me or my content. It’s about the customer. If I take care of their needs, my needs will follow.

    Flashback to 1947. The movie “Miracle on 34th Street”.
    Kris Kringle sends Macy’s customers to Gimbles, if Macy’s doesn’t have what they need. The result: customers love Macy’s for helping them with a problem. Macy’s develops a “cult” following for giving away something of value, rather than hoarding.

    Brian, I’m not sure this is exactly what you were getting at, but this is what I got out of your fantastic post.

    Thanks for using the Grateful Dead. The genius of Jerry Garcia will live on through people like you.

    Enuffff. I’m starting to sound like a Brian Clark groupie!

    Steve Benedict

  9. I still keep seeing parallels to this kind of thinking, and a lot of todays content marketing concepts, to the original hacker movement that started in the late 50s/early 60s.

    On the other hand, I did take the brown stuff and someone said it was a bad batch.

  10. @Brian:

    You’re right! Copyblogger merchandise would be awesome! ;)

  11. Fantastic tips! I am off to watch the webinar.

    “You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.” This is so true. I have someone bugging me right now because she wants me to model my business and marketing after hers. Newsflash – I don’t want to be her.

    Thanks for helping so many of us find our voice and our niche.

  12. “The bottle was dusty but the liquor was clean.”

    I’ve heard it said The Dead weren’t that good at what they did, it’s just that they were the only band doing it.

  13. I would wear a CopyBlogger T-shirt! You bet.

    Whe comes to giving valuable content- this site is the best!

  14. Great article. I think it’s also important to note the longevity of such efforts. It spans generations, it spawns “take offs” which rather than stealing clients, actually pay homage to the originals. In addition, such techniques focus on an important aspect of business – relationship building.

  15. It’s that THING, your position in your customer’s mind that locks up that sale more than anything else.

    When you can take a customer’s problem and wrap it up with some serious emotional connection with a bow on top, you have that person for the long haul.

    That’s how the Dead did it for so long. It was a way of life for their listeners, so there was no other “brand” to go to besides them, because they were the only ones tht could deliver it. It was their THING.

    Too many small business owners go for Ye Old Shotgun Approach and end up dilluting their message so much that people have no idea what that business’s “thing” is.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  16. Hey Brian —

    So glad to see this post. Brian and I are really interested in how the Dead marketed. In a way they were social media pioneers before the web (the social sharing of cassette tapes).

    Another interesting aspect is their “improvisational marketing” – the band wasn’t fixed in their ideas and didn;t plan way ahead. They took things as they came and rolled with it – the same way the approached the music.

    “The music never stopped…”

    David

  17. “You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.” ~Jerry Garcia

    This is so true about the most successful folks/brands I know!

    GREAT info! Brian-

  18. @David (cool to see you here), also, and I’m sure you’re very aware of this, the Deadhead community were among the first to use pre-web social media, on the WELL. The WELL was maybe 40% Deadheads when I first joined in 1989, and that community was a big part of what gave the WELL its critical mass.

  19. Ahoy.

    I have been to a couple of “dead” concerts…

    Excellent, concise, to the point analysis. And I thought they simply liked to play their music. ;-)

    Arrr.

    CaptRob

  20. Brilliant!

    I don’t think the Dead and I could be more different than we are. I have a faith-based blog and merchandise vintage finds. All this said, the marketing tips are right on the mark. I will definitely use this information and check out the Dead’s complete webinar.

    Thanks!

  21. Beautiful example and metaphors.

    > “And the live show is still our main thing.”
    Perfect quote and talk about driving from who you want to be and the experiences you want to create.

    > “You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.”
    How insanely insightful can he get? No wonder he earned the coveted flavor — Cherry Garcia.

    I think this both reenforces the idea that small is the new big, yet smacks up against the inner-conflict that so many onliners deal with — choosing a sustainable + profitable niche (whether that niche is an experience, customer, or product specialization.) The Dead got exponential results over time because of persistence over time and re-invention along the way, while staying true to the core and connecting at the values.

    You’ll never get to the mountain top if you keep hopping to different hills along the way.

  22. All I can do at the moment (after reading through this post) is think of this crazy diagram about security, purpose, skill, and talent. Thanks for the great post and Monday morning brain food. -nd

  23. Now I have a better understanding of my friends who were so fanatical about the Dead, a band that never really appealed to me.

    Except for “Keep Truckin.” That’s a good song!

  24. Great article Brian. I liked the example of The Greatful Dead for content marketing. The quote “You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best…” is so appropriate and definitely resonates with your content marketing strategy.

  25. i never thought parallels would be drawn between the grateful dead and content marketing, but it’s utterly brilliant. i cannot believe how true this is. what an interesting angle.

  26. @John, one thing I think the Dead shows is that it’s not just content marketing, it’s content and community marketing. Or maybe content, community, and context. Without the community to share, and the context of the live experience, I don’t think the Dead would have done much.

  27. The real question is this: what flavor would Copyblogger ice cream be?

  28. Dale Morgan :

    Steve Miller once remarked ‘People come to see the Dead just to hear Jerry Garcia talk’.

    He was, of course, *Dead* right. I don’t think Garcia gave much of a damn about selling until they had a huge crew/ overhead that HE needed to support.

    HE pretty much WAS the enterprise. He could have sold anything.

  29. Right on Brian. Content is your #1 marketing asset. Creating great content, then setting it free to drive people back to you is the best use of social media today.

  30. Very interesting take, Brian:

    I never considered myself a fan of the Dead, nor did I get it. Of course a fan would say, that’s the whole point – only those who are members of the tribe understand the movement.

    I think that same thing is true with many marketers. Take the Third Tribe – if you are a member you get it. If you subscribe to the old ways of thinking & marketing, chances are it’s harder to comprehend.

  31. @Meg: 3 colors, chocolate, vanilla, strawberry.
    Called “Tribal Thirds”

  32. On Twitter, @TheGirlPie suggested “licorice, real licorice,” which I thought was lovely. Although it must be faced that I would not eat licorice ice cream.

    • Content Crunch
    • Tribal Taffy
    • Linkbait Lime
    • Headline Honeydew
    • SEOBerry
  33. You’re right, the music sucked when the drugs wore off…but the brilliance of Jerry Garcia lives on and on. Thanks for a great article and lots to think about.

  34. G’day Brian,
    Enjoyed the post. As I read about The Grateful Dead, it simply reinforced a view I’ve held for years.

    Al Ries and Jack Trout were the marketing geniuses-or maybe genii-of the 20th Century. As a relative web newbie, I’m surprised that their work isn’t more widely recognized and acknowledged by web marketers.

    Make sure you have fun

    Regards

    Leon

  35. I love how you distinguish the “thing” from everything that isn’t completely it. As a Third Tribe member, I can say that the whole gestalt of the community is more than the sum of the founders’ blogs. Which is pretty remarkable.

    As for Copyblogger ice cream:
    - Sonia Swirl (with Clark Crisps)

  36. I loved this post. Big fan of your bog as well as the Dead. Never looked at the Dead in marketing terms. Very insightful way to read into my own business – Power of Food.

    I still have a steal-your-face sticker on my …….wait for it……..wait for it……..Nizzan Maxima (Caddy on the way).

    Thanks for this fresh article and inspiring way for me to focus my attention and energy for my PowerofFood.com business.

    In Good Health
    Adam

  37. @Steve, laughing, I find that ice cream name vaguely alarming. :)

  38. Fun post with some great business advice… but I notice this funny smell wafting from my computer… the colours are all melting… I’m suddenly very, very hungry…

    Tribal loyalty is a powerful thing. Jerry Garcia had that in spades. Just like that Brian Clarke dude at Copyblogger.

    In music, the closest thing I’ve seen to the Dead-Heads are those the Parrot-Heads for Jimmy Buffet.

    Lady Gaga has her little monsters but we’ll see if she can sustain it. Youth are fickle.

    Old hippies never let go.

  39. “Once we’re done with it they can have it.”
    – Jerry Garcia when asked about people taping their shows.

    An interesting analysis. Thanks.

  40. Do you affiliate marketing guys just have to see everything in a commercial light and desecrate it to serve your marketing needs?

    When I went to my first Dead show at the Hollywood Bowl in 1972 I could not have imagined that Bob Weir would ever drive a Porsche, and neither the Dead nor their manager had a business plan.

    The whole Grateful Dead cultural phenomenon had grown organically from the communal and familial spirit of the early Haight-Ashbury scene.

    The band wasn’t conceived as a commercial enterprise and came about by happenstance, and even if it did eventually become a business juggernaut, the obligation of having to provide a means of support for their road crew and all the hangers-on was an albatross around Jerry’s neck that drove him to heroin and an early grave.

    I get the impression from the content at Copyblogger that for you everything real and genuine (the good and the bad) which comes from the soul is just another business opportunity to be exploited.

    • Vince…You nailed it. what these marketing people never get is that the Dead allowed taping because it just never occored to them NOT to allow it. It wasnt part of some ingenious marketing stradegy by jerry, it was just because he felt that nobody really owned the music once it left the speakers and was floating through the air. the fact that these tapes helped spread the magic of the Dead was a happy coiencidence. As for the Dead selling hats and t-shirts, I’m sure you remember that all came much later. it wasnt until the early 90′s that the Dead started to understand the importance of protecting their trademarks and iconic images. prior to that, the whole scene was a big bizzare full of folks selling grilled cheese sandwiches alongside STF and Dancing Bear attire.

      Jerry WAS a genieus, just not in the manner that the marketing folks would like us to believe.

  41. Hi Vince. First of all, we don’t do a lot of affiliate marketing, so that might not a good label. “Evil capitalist pigs” works though.

    As I pointed out, Garcia said many times the Dead wanted the music and shows to spread, and they took action to make it happen. That’s marketing. They also never seemed to have a problem charging money for the things I pointed out, and as far as I’m concerned, why should they?

    I get the impression from the content at Copyblogger that for you everything real and genuine (the good and the bad) which comes from the soul is just another business opportunity to be exploited.

    Since we’re dealing in gross generalities now, I get the impression that people like you think that money is bad. You want it, but since you don’t have it, all those “other” people who run the small businesses that pay the taxes that allow you your comfortable idealism are beneath you and must be dealing in things that are not “real and genuine.” How incredibly insulting and small of you.

  42. Is there anyone who still doesn’t give away at least some content, write blog posts, articles, etc. Do we still need to convince people to give away some content?

    To me the much bigger issue is the challenge of getting people to buy once you’ve trained them to expect things for free (as my fans do on YouTube and Facebook). While some people buy lessons, the vast majority can find anything they want on YouTube for the most part.

    Not everyone wants to sell an experience or is able to leverage large crowds. They want to sell related digital goods which can be challenging since the perceived value is fairly low these days.

  43. Great piece. The importance of gift-giving, content and reciprocity can’t be stressed enough. You summed it best with the statement: invite them to be a part of something bigger than themselves – with you, not for you.

  44. Not only do you still have it, not only do you still do the rockstar post better than anybody, you’re just damn good.

    I love you man!

  45. I just started exploring Copyblogger this week and I’ve already learned a ton. -And now that you’re quoting The Dead, I’m officially hooked! :) Thanks for the great tips! You rock!

  46. There is part of number 3 that is quite difficult. Create the content and get out of the way. Personally I have a real problem letting content go and not overseeing its distribution. I know that for the best results having content on my blog that is original (not all over article directories and other blogs) is important. Good post there is a lot to think about.

  47. I first read the comparison between the Grateful Dead and content marketing in ‘Inbound Marketing’ by Halligan and Shah. It was one passage in that excellent book that never quite sat right with me. But this post makes the comparison clearer – thanks.

  48. Hi, Brian.

    Thanks for your reply.

    Reading over what I wrote, I can see that is insulting and I did use some gross generalities, and I apologize for that.

    I don’t think that you are “Evil capitalist pigs”, and as a small business owner myself, I certainly don’t think money is bad– of course we all need it.

    My “comfortable idealism” has been under some strain lately, so I reacted emotionally to your post. It’s a character flaw, and I’m still working on it.

    You have a lot of great content here, and I’ve learned a lot from you and your fellow writers at Copyblogger. That’s why I read it.

    I hope that you can forgive a tired old hippie.

    Sincerely,

    Vince Williams

  49. A great summary of how The Grateful Dead go about their marketing. :-)

  50. Thank you, Vince.

  51. Thanks Brian for the article. Lots of great info.

  52. I never went to a Dead concert. One of the things I’ve heard though is that they never did their songs the same way. They purposely brought more spontaneity into the mix. That was part of their “Thing” – which helped distinguish them from most others bands.

    When a band has a breakthrough hit, part of their living hell is being forced to play it over and over again. I guess the Dead wanted to avoid that trap.

    I enjoyed the Vince-Brian Duel. The comments can be so rich here.

  53. The Dead also built up a huge mailing list starting with a simple statement on the back of the 1971 Skull and Roses album that said something simple like “Tell us who you are and we’ll keep you informed.” The response was enormous, and many of those same responders get the Dead’s email newsletter today, myself among them.

    I only saw about 50 shows, so I was a poseur among the true faithful, but when the Dead were on, they sent remarkable currents of electricity to the fans, who sent it right back. When the Dead were off (and when they were, they could be TERRIBLE), you could always watch the twirlers in the crowd; the people-watching opportunities at Dead shows were legion.

  54. Vince, here’s something that’s really, really cool, and goes counter to “what everyone knows is true.”

    Namely, first impressions matter, but so do second impressions.

    My idealism is just about done. I miss it. My landlord doesn’t really care.

    I’ll tell ya though, there’s another way to look at this… you and I should be so lucky people exploit good names for evil marketing purposes!

  55. Grateful Dead, Boston, Nirvana does appeal to completely different crowd.

    I happen to be a big fan of Grateful Dead and Boston but Nirvana is too boring for me.

    Thanks for the link to the webinar, I’m gonna watch it soon.

    Turning corporations loose and letting the profit motive run amok is not a prescription for a more livable world.
    ~ Tom Scholz

  56. #2 The Difference, could also be called the USP, Unique Selling Proposition. You have to stand out and be the only one delivering your product or service. I found this out in the carpet cleaning business and it doubled my sales.

  57. Love your blog! Another awesome informative and interesting post! Thank you!

  58. It’s amazing how many of today’s business leaders, technology executives, politicians, you name it, all were former Deadheads…or at least claim to be.

  59. A fun and insightful article. Thanks.

    Who knew that when I saw my first Grateful Dead show in 1981, that after nearly 30 years and seeing over 300 shows, with and without Mr. Garcia, that I would be a marketing wizard. Heck, I should even get extra credit for selling t-shirts in the lot and recording the shows.

    “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.” ~ Bill Graham

  60. I think that positioning is one of the single most interesting topics in marketing. You can look at such cool examples such as The Grateful Dead here, or even your local radio stations.

    The Grateful Dead were more than just music – they were “the dead”. To people who wanted “the dead”, nobody else could compete.

    Even celebrity actors use positioning! Just such a cool topic with such diversity of examples.

    Thanks for the article!

  61. Hippie! Great post. I’ve always liked the Dead for allowing recording at live shows. I never understood the artists that held a death grip on content and lost a lot of respect for Metallic during the Napster fiasco. Regardless, the spirit of marketing today is alive and well and contained in this post!

  62. I really like how you pulled that all together. And the quote about licorice cracked me up. Most of my friends hate licorice. My husband hates licorice. But I LOVE licorice. I can definitely understand Tammi enjoyed this post so much. I just discovered your blog the other day, and haven’t had a chance to explore much yet. I learned about this post from reading this blog post: http://writemorewritefastwritenow.com/2010/07/16/seven-link-challenge-problogger/

  63. Great article, you have to give to get. If we only taught this at schools how would the world be ? I believe we would all benefit from this. Spread the word and the world will be a better place.
    keep inspiring.
    Very best regards Steve