Give back to your community: A marketing lesson from the Grateful Dead

I write about strategies to turn fans into customers and customers into fans. I also share ways to use real-time strategies to spread ideas, influence minds, and build business.

Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead  |  Case Studies

GD front cover The Grateful Dead frequently threw their support behind causes and ideas they believed in, especially anything related to improving life in their home base of San Francisco. This is an idea we discuss in chapter 18 of our book Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History.

The Grateful Dead was remarkably generous, a brand attribute that contributed to their growth and prosperity over many years. There is a lesson here for all organizations.

Starting in the 1960s, the band participated in frequent benefit concerts, donating the proceeds to support a variety of important causes. For example, an early benefit for the Haight Ashbury Legal Organization, -- where the Grateful Dead and other acts performed at the Winterland Ballroom on May 30, 1966 -- raised $12,000 to fund legal help for those who could not afford it. Giving back to the community became an essential element of the band's brand image.

Rex In 1983, band members established the Rex Foundation as a non-profit charitable organization to make it easier to support causes they believed in. The Rex Foundation enabled the Grateful Dead to better handle the countless individual requests for benefit concerts they received and, at the same time, support many more causes than they could with one-off concerts.

The first benefit concerts for the Rex Foundation were held in the spring of 1984 at the Marin Veteran's Memorial Auditorium. Then, each Spring, the band did a three night run at a venue in the San Francisco area with all profits going to the foundation. The Rex Foundation, in turn, makes grants to organizations focused on the environment (e.g. Women's Earth Alliance), human services (Hearts of Gold, for example enhances the lives of New York City’s homeless mothers and their children), and the arts (support of obscure composers such as Havergal Brian and Robert Simpson). The Grateful Dead concerts and activities have been the primary source of funds over the years but the Rex Foundation also accepts donations from citizens and corporations. Since it was founded, the Rex Foundation has granted $8.5 million to over 1,000 recipients.

Marketing Lesson from the Grateful Dead

When a company carefully chooses a particular charity or cause to support and makes it a part of their corporate culture, continuing the commitment over many years, the accrued benefits to the brand can be enormous.

Ronald McDonald House Charities

Ronald When we think of McDonald's restaurants, we think of children. Sure, the tasty food is a guilty pleasure for adults now and then too (after a Grateful Dead concert perhaps), but what comes to mind first is kids. So we find the Ronald McDonald House Charities, started by McDonald's Corporation in 1974, a fascinating example of Grateful Dead- style corporate giving. The organization is a non-profit and like the Rex Foundation accepts donations from others, but McDonald's Corporation is the largest corporate donor.

The organization was established to help families who travel far from home to get treatment for their seriously ill or injured children. Recognizing the division within families when children are away from home for long periods of time, the initial house in Philadelphia has grown to nearly 300 Ronald McDonald Houses in 30 countries offering families a way to stay together near the treatment hospital. Ronald McDonald Houses serve more than 10,000 families each day and in 2008, saved families more than $226 million in hotel costs.

Give back to your community

Of course most of us don’t have the ability to perform benefit concerts in front of 20,000 people, nor are we likely to work within a huge company that can invest in a Ronald McDonald's House sized effort.

Don't let that stop you from giving back! Follow the lead of the Grateful Dead and give back in your area of expertise.

For example, my co-author Brian Halligan and I both frequently speak as guest lecturers at colleges and Universities in the Boston area. We feel that providing our ideas to students at Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Simmons, Babson, Emerson and other institutions is a worthwhile way for us to personally give back to our community. Not only benefits the students but positively benefits us too.


In addition, Brian and I are donating 25 percent of the royalties from Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead to the Grateful Dead Archive at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to support further study of the Grateful Dead. www.gratefuldeadarchive.org

The Grateful Dead Archive represents one of the most significant popularcultural collections of the twentieth century. It documents the Dead’s incredible creative activity and influence in contemporary music history from 1965 to 1995, including the phenomenon of the Deadheads, the band’s extensive network of devoted fans, and the band's highly unusual and successful music business ventures. Press release from the archive here.

Brian and I have also lent our support to the archive’s marketing efforts as members of the advisory board.

Pick a way to give back to your community in some form consistent with you brand and start doing it now.