Marketing Lessons From The Grateful Dead's Reincarnation

I’m sitting in my office devouring a veggie burrito bowl and my mind wanders back to last summer when I was eating a similar meal. Only then, I was not at a desk in the New York City branding and advertising agency that I run, but in a field in Masontown, West Virginia.  My "company" at that time included hundreds of ravenous, tattooed, tired-but-happy concertgoers. We stood in a long line waiting to fill our plates with burritos served from a two-burner stove and plastic containers on a folding table.

I was at the All Good Music Festival to see the headlining performance of Furthur. My 16-year-old daughter convinced me the show would be a good bonding experience. She was right. I bonded with Furthur.

My daughter and I saw every Furthur show we could attend for the rest of the year. We took in some 20 concerts between Canandaigua, N.Y. and Golden, Colo. Furthur is the Grateful Dead minus the late, great Jerry Garcia (RIP). The band, created in 2009 by former Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, plays Grateful Dead songs and covers tunes it might have played. They are not a cover band of the Dead. They are the Dead. And like so many good Dead Heads over the decades, I am among many following this jam band in its new incarnation. 

On this tour I’ve heard great music while being reminded of some good marketing lessons from a band that has been around in various forms and popular since 1965:

Be Consistent But Surprising:  Like The Grateful Dead, Furthur is genius at giving its audience what they expect and desire while still innovating so the experience is fresh and fun. Every show is unique but not "off brand." You can see Furthur performances three nights in a row and each is different. Each show has its own set of songs played in different order so that fans hear the music they know and love in new and surprising combinations.

Embrace Your DNA: Furthur is still the Dead. One of its founding members is gone but the band still carries the DNA of the original group and guitarist Garcia. Iconic bands—and brands—can thrive for a long time, even with a change of leadership, as long as there is understanding and acceptance of the DNA and vision that made that brand an icon in the first place. You can’t deny genetics.

Be Accessible:  Often, people don’t like something the first time they try it. Some products and experiences take time to catch on. Furthur provides fans and followers multiple opportunities within a tour to see a performance. If you missed one show, there is usually another soon after and nearby. Part of creating a cult brand is providing fans opportunities to experience it, enjoy it, and want to join the club.  

Seek Trust Through Transparency:  Furthur’s improvisational style is not always consistent and in some shows, it hangs together better than others. Sometimes songs don’t work and moments in the show fall flat. No one with the band apologizes for an "off" night. Fans know and love the work-in-progress feel. It makes them feel trusted.

Community Is Part of A Great Experience: When they aren’t hanging out together, Furthur fans can connect on its website, where a "Forum" allows concert fanatics like my daughter and me to find rides to shows. On Facebook, fans post photos and rhapsodize about concerts. Furthur has 10,000-plus Twitter followers who can see links to its set lists and photos from its most recent shows. Bands, like brands, need to give their fans the opportunity to converse and connect—whether it’s in a burrito line or online.

Author Sara Arnell is CEO of Arnell Group, whose clients include Tropicana’s Trop50, Reebok, Jose Cuervo International, Revlon, GNC, PepsiCo, Mars, Unilever, and Johnson & Johnson.

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[Image: Flickr user out of ideas]

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