Lessons Learned from the Grateful Dead Reunion

Even if you don’t follow the Grateful Dead closely, chances are you heard about the Grateful Dead Reunion that culminated in a farewell set of performances in Chicago, branded the Fare Thee Well performances. The remaining four members of the group (Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kruetzmann), joined by Trey Anastasio, returned to Soldier Field, the venue where they played their last show with leader Jerry Garcia before his passing in 1995 — creating the kind of publicity and attendance that any organization would consider a massive success. In fact, the Grateful Dead has established an enduring brand, gathering a following of millions of “Dead”-icated fans. Here’s what we can all learn about branding from this classic group.

A Strong Brand Will Keep Truckin’

For many brands, the loss of an integral component or figure (such as Jerry Garcia) could spell disaster for longevity. When fans associate the company with a face, logo or imagery, there’s a void left behind that cannot be filled easily. Of course, Jerry Garcia was more than that to the Grateful Dead: he was the singer, songwriter lead guitarist. But the band endured after losing him even though the survivors did not play together for years. Why? Because the Grateful Dead had created a brand that lived on (and continues to do so) through a strong back catalog of record sales and merchandising, as well as goodwill generated by product tie-ins such as Ben & Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia” ice cream.

A Friend of the Audience Is a Friend of Mine

Brands that endure have a firm understanding of their audience. The Grateful Dead have always put the interests, tastes and motivations of the Deadheads at the forefront of their performance — famously allowing Deadheads to record and share their music for free. Understanding your audience helps you create an experience that captivates your audience and makes them want more, thereby establishing an association between your company and brand.
You also want to create passion by sharing it. The Dead express their passion and dedication by playing a different set at every show – getting followers excited about the next show because they know it will be unique. The passion behind the brand is what leads to infectious joy and makes people want to get on board.

A Touch of Gray Suits Your Brand Anyway

No strong brand is founded on a fleeting moment that appears out of nowhere. Like the Grateful Dead, a brand is just as much about its history as it is the present. Consider the set list from the Fare Thee Well Tour: during the three days they played Soldier Field, they covered a lot of ground from their catalog of past hits. The July 3 set included “Box of Rain” and “Scarlett Begonias”; the July 4 show opened with “Shakedown Street” and closed with an encore of “U.S. Blues.” On the final day, July 5, the Grateful Dead said farewell with a double encore of “Touch of Grey” and “Attics of My Life.” Don’t be afraid to draw from the past and wear your gray hair with pride.

It may be a stretch to associate a rock band with tips on branding, but you can see how the group is proof that a brand is bigger than the sum of its parts. How does music inspire you?

This post was originally published on the One Smooth Stone blog on July 28, 2015. For a complimentary 30-minute consultation on how to build your brand and inspire an audience through events and communications, please contact Brian Duffy by calling 630.427.4235 or by emailing bduffy@onesmoothstone.com

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