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a marketing riddle

Internet Marketing

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by Kenneth Rudich 

Here’s a marketing riddle for you: when is old new and new old? 

The answer: when you bring the Grateful Dead into a discussion about contemporary online marketing. 

For those of you in the dark about the identity of the Grateful Dead, they were an American rock band formed in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1965.  For those of you in the know, that simple description, if left as is, may well be the biggest understatement of the last five decades.
Lurking behind the laid back image of the band’s hippie subculture persona was a business enterprise worthy of idolatry.  Which probably goes a long way toward explaining why modern pundits and business practitioners alike are…well…marveling over it to the point of idolizing it.
One could arguably say they created the groundwork for much of contemporary online marketing — long before the internet even existed, no less. 

It’s a strange twist of fate when you think about it.  Instead of being motivated by the internet, the Dead were driven by a desire to be anti-establishment.  Anti-establishment meant unconventional, which they resoundingly were – in their art, their business, and their marketing.  They shrewdly pioneered ideas and techniques that made them stand well apart from corporate America, in isolation, all by themselves.  They were the epitome of anti-establishment. 

But I guess the joke – to the tune of probably hundreds of millions of dollars – was ultimately on them.  Because now corporate America, the so-called establishment they wanted so badly to distance themselves from, is widely adopting their ideas and practices.  The Grateful Dead is now the establishment that fostered the new establishment, at least in business and marketing terms. 

so what did they do?

Here’s just a brief summary: 

The band brought together a community of people based on common interests.  These people formed tight-knit friendships even though they were geographically separated.  Indeed, the bonds became so strong that the band accumulated a following of fans that would crisscross the country with them while they were on tour.  This following was known as the “Deadheads,” and they truly wanted to be camping out together with each other as much as they wanted to be with the band.  This scenario, of course, describes a social media marketer’s most cherished dream.  

The Dead focused intensely on creating value for their most loyal fans.  They established a telephone hotline that alerted fans to upcoming tours before any public announcements were made.  They reserved seats for their fans and capped the ticket prices, which they distributed through their own mail-order house.  As a result, fans never had to travel to far away cities just to buy tickets, or camp out to get them, and they got the best seats available.  If you read “An Economy Built on Quicksand” in this blog, you’ll recall that corporate America didn’t come close to showing this kind of customer care until about the mid-1980’s, and that was only because the competition from Japan forced them into it.  Remember, the Dead formed in 1965.  

The Grateful Dead incorporated early on and founded a profitable merchandising enterprise.  They even went so far as to let fans tape their live shows, foregoing those potential record sales, knowing that the viral effects of having it freely shared would ultimately pay off  in the sales of their tickets and merchandise.  And that was all before anyone had ever even heard the term viral marketing.  

old marketing, new marketing, old marketing?

I could go on, but I think the point is well made. 

For all the online marketers who pride themselves as having been the inspiration behind the nouveau marketing practiced on today’s internet, you may want to pause a moment and tip your hat to the real predecessors of that nouveau marketing.  After all, it’s a clear-cut case of old is new and new is old.


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    Hi Dan,

    Well put. It’s amazing how they outwitted corporate America back then to become the gold standard for business today.

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  45. Kenneth Rudich says:

    Hi Dan,

    Well put. It’s amazing how they outwitted corporate America back then to become the gold standard for business today.

  46. Dan says:

    Being a card-carrying member of the deadheads beginning in the early eighties I never had the notionthat the Dead were conciously developing any type of particular strategy. In every aspect of their businesss practices (obtaining tickets, taping of shows, making sure the experience was a hassle free as possible) The Grateful Dead Organization (thanks largely to Bill Graham) just appeared to be doing the “right thing” regarding their fans in every detail. In short, the Deadheads had respect for the band and, in turn, the band had respect for the Deadheads. I beleive the key word here is ‘unselfish”
    How does one blend that concept into a business model? I believe The Grateful Dead were and still are an example of how to turn “The Golden Rule” into gold.

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