While their music may not be to everyone's taste, there's no denying that the The Grateful Dead have been incredibly successful, not only in their musical career, but also in leveraging their success into an iconic American brand.
Guest post by Fred Jacobs of Jacobs Media Strategies
Truth be told, I was never much of a Grateful Dead fan. My tastes leaned more British Invasion – the Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Kinks, and the Who. And my idea of great bands from the U.S. leaned more to Steely Dan, the Eagles, and of course, Bob Seger.
But I've spent a lot of time with Dead fans over the years, and have developed an appreciation – or maybe a deep respect – for what they mean to people. The Dead always inspired a greater level of fandom. When I think about the cult that surrounds the band, I think about Steve Jones' Brand Like A Rock Star book and industry presentations. Steve uses a variety of amazing bands – AC/DC, KISS, and others.
But Steve's premise includes the Grateful Dead who had marketing sense before there were CMOs. As he notes in his book, “Never forget that when it comes to consumers' purchasing decisions, the heart always trumps the mind.”
That sums up the core philosophy behind the Dead's amazing appeal, but their longevity and staying power transcend their ability to build a robust cult following. And they didn't do it with a string of #1 Billboard hits.
Last month, MediaPost's Cory Treffiletti wrote a piece about the Dead that jumped off the page:
Now, when we think of those classic brands that have stood the test of time, it's hard not to mention Harley-Davidson, Apple, Disney – entities that are bigger than life whose products live up to the hype. I've never been interested in owning a motorcycle, but if I ever had a mid-life crisis, why wouldn't I buy a Harley? I'm sure there are bikes that earn better reviews, but there's no question I would have to have that “Hog” in my garage. It's the real deal.
And the Grateful Dead have proved their mettle in much the same way, building their brand with consistency, connectivity, and a philosophy unique to other more prominent bands from the era – like the Who, Bruce Springsteen, and Queen that have found ways to maintain their relevance and their ability to tour despite setbacks and losses to key members.
After reading Cory's tribute to the Dead, and thinking about some of the great radio brands – stations and personalities – I've been honored to work with, here are 8 ways the Dead have managed and maneuvered their way to all-star status:
1. They believed in sharing the music (before sharing was cool) – As Corey notes, the late Jerry Garcia and company predicted a future that would include music sharing; in their case, bootleg concerts that helped build their legendary status and their massive fan base. The Dead created their “cume” by giving their music away, a practice that would become more popular decades later.
2. They had an iconic look – They developed imagery that accompanied their music that spread through the help of their zealot fans. While it changed, morphed, and evolved over the years, it always gave off the same vibe. For the Dead, it was always about merch.
3. They tapped into fan emotions – As Steve Jones points out, the Dead appeal to your heart and your soul. The Dead have always been about more than the music they play, connecting with their fans, well beyond the T-shirts and the technology.
4. Their fans first philosophy – The Dead always knew the value of their brand went well beyond their recordings and their music. You may – like me – not be a hardcore fan of the band. But you have to respect their decades-long commitment to performance, breeding generations of Deadheads who follow them around from city to city, show to show. The Dead are the ultimate cult brand/band.
5. They have been true to their brand – As Cory points out, their promise matches the experience of seeing the band perform. They did not go through a “disco phase,” they don't know what it is to lip-sync, and they never cluttered the stage with gimmickry and flash. They are the first of what has become a genre – jam bands.
6. They have achieved sustainability – Keep in mind, the original band played Woodstock, 50 years ago this summer. When you think about it, they may haven been the quintessential band to play that groundbreaking festival. Along the way, they lost front man Jerry Garcia a quarter century ago while he was in his early fifties. And yet, as members have come and gone, the Dead soldier on. Perhaps ironically, John Mayer joined the band – now branded as Dead & Company, playing alongside alumni like Bob Weir. And it works. Unlike so many personality brands that fade out when their key members die or burn out, the new/old band are once again on tour for yet another summer, living up to their brand essence. The tour kicks off later this month in Mountain View, CA – appropriately.
7. They have built multi-generations of fans – Those of us who work in aging formats like Talk or Classic Rock understand the degree of difficulty of appealing to new fans with personalities and music that have been around for decades. But for the Dead, their appeal transcends their music and speaks to the counter-culture of their 60s and the ways in much modern fans connect to what they represent. Being a Deadhead meant something in 1968, just as it does today.
8.They are still on the radio – Rock radio programmers know “The Grateful Dead Hour,” hosted by journalist/author/musician David Gans, has been around forever. In fact, Gans launched it back in 1985. With hundreds of affiliates, last weekend marked their 1,598th show. Yes, the Dead has even stood the test of radio time.
You may not be a Deadhead, you may not love their music, or even what the band has stood for. But you cannot deny the resilience and staying power of what the Grateful Dead have created and built.
For those of us who respect great brands and the paths that got them there, Cory may indeed be right: The Dead may be America's greatest brand.
Fred Jacobs: President & Founder at Jacobs MediaFred Jacobs founded Jacobs Media in 1983, and quickly became known for the creation of the Classic Rock radio format.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,200 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.
Fred was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2018.