While countercultural rock legends The Grateful Dead may not immediately leap to mind when you hear the words “branding expertise,” rest assured the Dead have much to teach about building a long-lasting brand. If you doubt me, just consider that they have not existed as a full-fledged band since 1995, yet you probably know who they are and what their late singer/lead guitarist Jerry Garcia looked like.

Putting aside some of the seamier elements of the Dead’s long, strange history, today I will briefly focus on their brilliant efforts to build and maintain a highly successful brand. And if you think their branding efforts only worked on hippies and burnouts, keep in mind that President Obama, as well as former presidents Clinton and Carter, are all avowed “Deadheads”!
Following are three key pointers someone looking to establish a brand in virtually any industry can take from the Dead’s brand-building experience:

1. Be Yourself. The Grateful Dead have always had a truly unique sound. Even during the heyday of free-form psychedelic music in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Dead never sounded like anyone but themselves. And as musical tastes changed in the later ’70s and ’80s, the Dead kept their singular sound. This maintained a loyal fan base and established them as a genuine product in a market (popular music) notorious for phonies and “flavors of the month.”
2. Generosity is Returned. Early on, the Grateful Dead established a policy of allowing fans to record shows and then trade the recordings with each other. Even as a lucrative black market sprang up for tapes of classic Dead shows, the band made no effort to restrict taping or otherwise profit from it. They knew that by having easily accessible concert recordings circulating, they would raise public awareness and interest, as well as create significant public goodwill. The free marketing the Dead received from their generosity toward their fans more than compensated them for lost royalties on live recordings.
3. Merchandising is King. Fifteen years after they disbanded (although a number of side projects featuring various surviving members keep trucking on), the Dead live on through T-shirts, posters, bumper stickers, etc. The Dead created a universe of logos, symbols and artwork that continues to captivate fans who pay money to promote their brand through licensed merchandise. Obviously unless you’re an entertainment celebrity there probably isn’t much of a market for T-shirts with your face emblazoned on them, but sharply designed business cards, letterhead, etc. can help spread your brand around.

So there you have it. Whether this entry has inspired you to dig your vintage vinyl pressing of “American Beauty” out of the attic or listening to the Dead makes you loathe life (this could be a fourth lesson: don’t be afraid to have some people hate your brand if it’s true and working for you), your branding efforts could probably benefit from a little “grateful” fine-tuning. Don’t be afraid to take a chance tweaking your branding approach, as the song says, “Sometimes your cards ain’t worth a dime if you don’t lay them down.”

Are there any unique or counterintuitive steps you have taken to help build long-lasting brand loyalty? Let us know!

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