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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  • Robert Sommers

    I'm not knocking the drugs. I'm in favor of any suitable hallucination.

  • Ralph

    Robert- When the Grateful Dead ended in 1995,because of overhead,the organization had very little money.I do not know about personal wealth of each member.I will not fault any Grateful Dead member making all the money they can in years since.I know Bob Weir and Phil lesh have the big homes,wives,kids to educate.I know one of Phils sons went to Ivy League college.I know that both men have done side projects,creative things.Maybe it is about the money.I know they made a lot in 2010.To me this Furthur project is pretty good.I believe drugs and alcohol drained alot from band and their fans.Any project will be labeled as a haven for druggies to go too. I think drugs and alcohol are a huge problem in society at large.Your arguement that it is a packaged nostalgia thing probaley is right.I probaley will just enjoy the package till its over. always remember it is just music,sweet music!!!!!!!!!

  • Robert Sommers

    I appreciate that Ralph and Brad and don't want to sound like an old grump. For me, the experience in a nutshell got to be like reading the same book over and over fifty times, and knowing the ending by heart. It got to be mnemonic and reflexive, even when Jerry was alive. Idiomatically things got very stale. Zonked out heads might cue on a bittersweet song like say Peggy-O for instance and cue up a pavlovian emotional reaction. I found myself questioning the veracity of those canned reactions.

    What I don't understand is how Lesh, a student of Berio or Eliot Carter, could feel satisfied playing Broken Arrow or some other tired rock chestnut over and over instead of stepping out and digging in to more challenging material, like Zappa did with the works of Varése. I think that Phil is a very brilliant artist, but playing to a so easily amusing bunch of wacked out sycophants allows him to keep the bar set very low.

  • Ralph

    I guess everything is a product today.I guess everything is so phony.Phil Lesh is a very thankful liver transplant survivor due to lifestyle.These guys keep cost down.As a very longtime Grateful Dead fan,I am thrilled at the"product' Furthur puts out.They really play the songs well. Nobody,absolutely Nobody will ever replace Jerry Garcia! It was over for me when he passed.Furthur is just fun for a guy like me..lucky I live in the East where they play three seasons a year.Phil will be 73 this year,and nobody puts down those bass bombs like him.Maybe I am being 'duped',but I am loving it!

  • Robert Sommers

    Tie up that message of peace and love and put a bow around it, you are still getting peddled. You are welcome to your nostalgia tour. "Everyone is smiling at a Further concert", I have heard the same thing about the Unification church. The bottles went dry long ago, it is all much too safe, I personally prefer to be challenged. But to each his own.

    I walked out of a Phil show several years ago mid dark star, the message was clear to me - you can't go home again.

  • Bradley Pitts

    Robert, you are 100% correct in saying that Furthur is not the Grateful Dead. Seeing that you've chased the Dead for 23 years is an extremely lucky thing -  that's your generation. For those less fortunate, like myself, the 22 years I've spent on this Earth don't make the 'Grateful Dead' cut - Jerry died when I was 6. I love the Grateful Dead, I've listened to every live album I can get my hands on, and I enjoy seeing Furthur because it's the closest I'll ever get. Seeing Bob and Phil onstage having fun brings a smile to my face. From reading this article, it's clear to me that this woman, Sara, was unaware of the Grateful Dead until her 16 year old daughter (doing math, was probably born somewhere around 1995) showed it to her, which means she became a fan post - Jerry.  Even though Furthur is no Dead, it still carries on the legacy. Bob and Phil still get to play, and for us young folk and people who are just finding their musical joy, it gives us a sweet taste of the way it was. To say the music is a 'bore' is a bold statement- If you are a true fan of the Grateful Dead, you are not only a fan of Jerry, but a fan of the message of peace and love they strive to project. If you've been to a Furthur concert, you'd know that everyone is friendly, and it's not about Tie-Dye. People try to keep the memory and message alive, and Furthur knows the power they have in being able to orchestrate a mass gathering of that nature. This article isn't about Furthur being better than the Grateful Dead, either. It's about how they've successfully carried on the legacy through accessibility, and whether you enjoy it or not, they've succeeded at it. A true fan wouldn't call Bob and Phil 'old geezers.' Give 'em a break - they're getting old - but as this article clearly explains, due to their genius branding, the Grateful Dead is eternal.

  • Robert Sommers

    Further may be an incarnation of the dead, but certainly not the Grateful Dead. Having seen hundreds of shows during my 23 year tenure chasing the real Grateful Dead around, I think that anyone that mistakes this hackneyed regurgitation for the original is seriously deluded.The Grateful Dead were a band that was not afraid to experiment, to jump into the abyss to mine musical gold. This music these days is safe, predictable and frankly pretty much a bore. Add 2 parts tie die, one part formulaic jams and help a few old geezers pay the rent on their expensive Marin County real estate.

  • Steinar Knutsen

    Great analogy - the Grateful Dead should be the subject of more marketing case studies.

  • mike kinghorn

    well i guess if you look at it from a "marketing"point of view you can talk yourself into thinking not much has changed however,there was this thing called the music and jerry garcia was a driving force in it's creation and performance.i've seen further(including allgood this year) and they are great but nothing like "the same" as it fact i think the rhythm devils are closer to the grateful dead in concept and execution than further could ever be simply because they have billy and mickey and a revolving cast of musicians to keep things new and fresh.i saw them the week after further at allgood and came away far more impressed.