Social Media, The Grateful Dead & Losing Control

This post was originally published on February 19th, 2016. Click here to view original on LinkedIn.

David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan wrote in Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead, “If you’re to build a base of dedicated fans who will join you on an odyssey of success, you will need to lose control. Let your community define you…” (Scott & Halligan, 2010).

Years before the first Tweet, hashtag or even poke (remember those?) The Grateful Dead were re-imagining the business model for building a successful brand. As the quote above suggests, they were one of the first to let their fans have the power in how people perceived not only the music, but the culture surrounding it.

The perception of The Grateful Dead brand.

The Grateful Dead weren’t just about the music, they were (and still are) about people coming together for an experience. And the band recognized that.

So they gave up control. And they become iconic.

Fans would trade taped bootlegs of their concerts. Did the band ban recording equipment in their shows? No! Instead they created special “taper sections” right next to the soundboard where fans could set up their equipment and record hassle free.

Fans created merchandise such as shirts and posters inspired by the logos and symbols of the band. Did they confiscate the shirts and posters? No! Outside the venues The Grateful Dead played, the parking lots would open early so fans could gather and have a safe space to buy, sell and enjoy each other’s company.

Grateful Dead fans weren’t just trading tapes or making shirts because they liked the music. Though music played a large role, one could argue they were doing it because they liked the other people that the music brought them close to.

They did it because they liked the community. They did it because they liked their friends.

What does this mean for today’s world, one where social media is so ubiquitous? It means that the lesson of giving up control is more prudent than ever. Increasingly, we as marketers should “…spend less time being brand police and more time working to influence brand perceptions…” (Kelly, 2012).

In my class, Social Media for Marketing and Management, Professor Leora Kornfeld echoed that sentiment by teaching us about influence management. That people’s perceptions of your brand are not what you tell them to be, rather they are what people say about it to each other. And social media lets people talk. A lot.

What we can do as marketers is give people the right opportunities to talk about us.

As a class we talked about Old Spice as an example of a brand that did this well. Whether it was through simple memes or via skits on Sesame Street[i], once Isaiah Mustafa said "Hello ladies..."[ii] any control Old Spice had was lost and the fans took over. And they let it happen. 

Our influence lies in knowing who our target market is and where that target communicates.  We can create content with a cultural compass that people will have no choice but want to share with others.

Not because they like our brand. But because they like their friends.

Do you agree that brands should relinquish control? What are other ways brands can influence instead of police? Send me a message or let's chat about it in the comments!


Kelly, N. (2012). Social Media for Brand Awareness. How to Measure Social Media (p. 53). Que Publishing.

Scott, D. M., & Halligan, B. (2010). Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

 [i] "Sesame Street: Grover Stars in 'Smell Like a Monster.'

[ii] "Old Spice | The Man Your Man Could Smell Like"