Searchlight Casting For Faults In The Clouds Of Delusion

by | Oct 18, 2011

Two weeks ago in Boston, author and speaker David Meerman Scott came off the stage at DMA2011 to hand me a copy of the book he co-authored with Brian Halligan of HubSpot.

Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History was my prize for being the most Deadicated person in the room, as determined by the number of GD concerts attended.

Interestingly, there’s now another book due to be released about the band’s keen understanding of marketing, which gives me reason to pause. Because marketing wasn’t on the minds of Garcia, Lesh and company. Delivering an exceptional musical experience (product) was the thing that mattered most to Grateful Dead.

My AdPulp colleague, Dan Goldgeier, reviewed the book when it came out last year. Now, having just read the book myself, I’ll share a few thoughts.

I like how the authors identify present-day companies doing the things that the band helped to pioneer, like cultivating community and treating one’s best customers like the VIPs that they are. But I don’t like how there’s an unspoken thought that the managers of today’s companies somehow picked up their best practices from the band. There’s no need to imply a connection in these case studies and I believe the book would be better if this non-link was made more clear.

The book also makes no mention of Grateful Dead’s anti-corporate stance. It was this outsider position that drove a lot of the band’s innovation and do-it-yourself work ethic. Grateful Dead was a successful enterprise not because they knew how to bring their music and lifestyle to market. The band’s music spread from college town to college town and well beyond because the music and the concert experience in particular was extraordinary. This point too often gets glossed over in “How To” books. Scott and Halligan attempt to illustrate how a company today can achieve “viral marketing” success by following in the band’s footsteps. I see the connective fiber and understand why the authors want to help others see it too, but unless you or your company is undertaking the kind of exploratory problem solving that led to 27-minute long “Dark Star” jams, you’re unlikely to experience the same kind of results.

If you’re genuinely interested in the factors that made Grateful Dead hum, explore their decision to live together at 710 Ashbury Street and practice eight plus hours a day. Look into the man that Jerry Garcia was and realize how few musicians are endowed with his relentless dedication to craft. Grapple with the band’s insistence on consensus. Also, admit that LSD had a major role in shaping both the music and the scene. Scott and Halligan mention several times in the book that it’s a marijuana-fueled party, and it is, but that’s far from the whole story. LSD opens minds and frees people to express themselves in ways they’ve never experienced before. Once that happens, people are converted – not just to the band and its music – but to a new way of thinking. When you combine LSD and the band’s hard work and extraordinary talents, the result is magic.

We are right to want to explore the magic and right to keep it alive and growing today, but let’s not get confused when we listen to the music play. A band of this caliber, or a company with a category-defying product or service, hardly needs marketing. When a thing, or a series of performances truly is great, people develop a deep passion for it and actively seek ways to share “their find” with friends. So, if you want to market like Grateful Dead, do it, but don’t expect the magic to happen without a product or service–and an active catalyst–that consistently blows peoples’ minds.

I do appreciate the authors’ willingness to jump into this pond, because there are legitimate themes to explore here. But when the words “Grateful Dead” are attached to something like a business book, the book really has to rock.