Wisdom of The Dead By: Mike Ficher

January 1, 2012 by Mike Ficher

Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.? – Tom Peters

The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The Who. ZZ Top. AC/DC. Nirvana. U2. The Doors. The Ramones. Van Halen. The Grateful Dead. Arguably, some of the greatest rock bands of all-time.

But all of these and many more eclipsed the sum of their often prolific and frequently distinct music catalogs to craft something even more powerful: Each one became a brand.

From the fonts and designs of their names, to their singular logos, to their styles of attire, to their stage personas,each evokes indelible images and, more critically, rich memories and powerful emotions.

Even groups like the Doors and the Beatles, who have not produced music for more than four decades, still elicit formidable reactions with brands that still resonate, even with younger audiences.

From your marketing materials to the name of your company to the, eminently vital, unique aspects and thoughtful execution of your performances, what is your brand?


The American Marketing Association defines as “brand” as a “Name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” Ironically, from a modern context, branding began as a way to identify one rancher’s cattle from another via a hot iron stamp.

Certainly, like the ubiquitous rancher seeking to track his livestock, the rock bands offered above carved out remarkable brands, distinct and memorable from the thousands of rock bands operating at any given moment.


Think of the Grateful Dead–extended jams fusing elements of rock, folk, bluegrass, blues, reggae, country, improvisational jazz, psychedelia, and space rock; live performances featuring frequent long musical improvisations; iconic figures such as Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Jerry Garcia; and, a distinctive image and brand developed over decades that appears even stronger today than ever, despite the band?s official dissolution in 1995.

How did the Dead achieve that?

Well, for one, The Grateful Dead broke almost every accepted rule in the music industry. The group encouraged their fans to record shows and swap the recordings, which greatly increased their fan base and exposure; they built a mailing list and sold concert tickets directly to fans long before the Internet facilitated such transactions more readily; and they built their business model based on live concerts, instead of album or singles sales.

By cultivating a dedicated, active community, collaborating with their audience to co-create the Deadhead lifestyle, and giving away “freemium.” 

A business analyst by day, Mike Ficher is an actor, voice artist, MC, sportscaster, public address announcer and former mobile entertainer. He is also the host of the weekly syndicated radio program, The Ultimate Oldies Show. Mike synthesizes these varied experiences to illuminate historic connectivity and fresh perspectives on the mobile entertainment profession. More info at mikeficher.com.

content, the Dead, intentionally or via trial-and- error, pioneered many social media and inbound marketing concepts successfully used by businesses across all industries today.


In addition, The Dead toured constantly, playing more than 2,300 concerts in their three decades together. Their improvisational live shows differentiated the Grateful Dead from almost all other touring bands. While most rock and roll bands rehearse a standard show for their tours, replicated nightly, with little variation, in city after city, the Grateful Dead eschewed such practice. Garcia stated in a 1966 interview, “We don’t make up our sets beforehand. We’d rather work off the tops of our heads than off a piece of paper.? Each Dead concert was a unique experience.

That approach helped promote a sense of community among their fans, who became known as Deadheads, many of whom followed their tours for months or years on end.


In their formative years, the band offered their time and talents to their community, the renowned Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, making available free food, lodging, music and health care to all comers; they were the “first among equals in giving unselfishly of themselves to hippie culture, performing “more free concerts 
than any band in the history of music,””according to Lilian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia.

Observed David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan, authors of Marketing Lessons From the Grateful Dead, “The Grateful Dead?s branding, which was constantly changing and evolving, was in direct contrast to what other bands did. When bands like the Rolling Stones went on tour, they usually had a theme that coincided with the album they were promoting at the time. Branding was tightly controlled and carried through to all elements of their marketing: 
posters, T-shirts, stage sets, etc.?

One of the key figures in that branding, Hal Kant served as principal lawyer and general counsel for the Grateful Dead for 35 years, helping generate the band millions of dollars in revenue through his management of the group’s intellectual property and merchandising rights. At Kant’s recommendation, the group was one of the few rock ‘n roll pioneers to retain ownership of their music masters and publishing rights.


What can mobile entertainers learn from one of the most idiosyncratic rock bands in history? Be yourself, be creative, work tirelessly, make each event memorable and unique, surround yourself with talented, qualified and sharp people, develop a distinct and singular brand, balance the classic with contemporary, manage your image, improvise, serve your fans well, give to your community, smile and have fun. Hey, you can be a rock star, too! MB

Mike Ficher Mike Ficher (13 Posts)

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