The Grateful Dead Experience

Remember your old walkman.  Solid steady, could play one pre-recorded cassette at a go, and if you were lucky it also had a radio.  The one that gave me tinnitus didn’t.  Now look at this:

It’s an iPod touch.  What do you think when you think of an iPod?  Nice? Slick? Sleek? Convenient?  Easy to use?

Now take away the following:

  • iTunes
  • The ability to pay for 99c songs without having to shell out €15 for the rest of the songs that you don’t want.
  • The ability to create playlists and watch movies
  • The nice packaging and logo.

What’s left?  Well it still looks nice, but is there much to it?  Yes, it’s an empty vessel.  Therefore the iPod is more than just an object that’s nice to look at; it’s “an icon that a portal to an experience.”  According to Robert Brunner and Stewart Emery “Apple matters to people as it has designed stunning hardware and a total customer experience (software for the soul) so people feel connected to Apple in some deep emotional way.”

Here’s an example of two less obvious experience driven brands.

“The relationship between the band and the Deadheads needs to be nurtured because they are us and we are them.”

-Phil Lesh

The Grateful Dead had a very successful 30 year career as one of the true iconic bands of rock ‘n’ roll.   They employed a raft of untraditional methods to build a brand that endures to this day, 15 years after the death of Jerry Garcia.

The Grateful Dead created a powerful and real emotional experience characterised by its enduring impact on the participants.  Decades later, Dead fans, who are now cone heads or accountants with comb overs, consider the experience as a milestone in their lives.  This devotion was an extension of the powerful and respectful connection between the band and its customer base.  Jerry Garcia, who defined the band and its sound, laid out strict rules for the band’s relationship with its audience.  In an interview in Dark Star, Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and an early Deadhead, explained Garcia’s rapport with the audience.  “He understood that he was in a relationship with the audience,” Kesey said. “He was not playing at them, he was playing with them.”

In essence, the Dead weren’t selling music, they were selling a unique, spontaneous experience, a version of lifestyle marketing embodied by Nike and Harley-Davidson.

The Dead were one of the first bands to allow their fans to tape their live performances.  They did this on the condition that they would not sell any copyrighted material for profit.  By allowing the Deadheads to swap the music amongst themselves the Grateful Dead built up a loyal following that is uncommon amongst bands today.  “If we’re done with the music you can have it.”  If fans didn’t honour the agreement the bands lawyer would track them down and sue them.  The band didn’t believe that such taping would hurt record sales; in fact, they didn’t produce a studio album from 1981 to 1987.  The open policy, tantamount to Gillette offering low-priced razors in order to sell blades, fuelled the creation of a Grateful Dead subculture and extended the brand.  Those with the most extensive tape collections became masters of their universe, and thus the open-taping decision fuelled ticket sales.

Similar to the Grateful Dead the executives at Harley-Davidson understood that a Harley is more than just a motorcycle; it is a lifestyle, a work of art, an emotional connection to a widespread and unique community.

Harley executives claim they have never tried to define the mystique.  “If you could really define the mystique, it wouldn’t be a mystique anymore,” says former Harley CEO Jeff Bleustein.  He believes the appeal lies deep within the human spirit, a desire for freedom and adventure that has always been a part of human nature.  “It’s not something that can be artificially created on Madison Avenue,” Bleustein says.

From these two examples it’s easy to see that “great products are about IDEAS; they are not just objects.”

Do your products and services deliver a good/seriously good customer experience?  How would you know?  Brunner and Emery ask the following question:

“Do You Matter?”

In other words, if you or your products and services disappeared in the morning would you leave a hole in someone’s life?  Would they care?  Here’s another way of looking at it.  How would you feel if you woke up to the news that your favourite musician had dropped dead and you wouldn’t be able to hear that musician perform anymore?

How did you feel when these Icons passed on? John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Kobain, Jim Morrison, JFK, Marilyn Monroe.

You matter to someone only to the extent that you impact on them in a certain emotional way.  If you fail to register at this level then you are going to have to rethink what you offer.


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