“Margaritaville”. For the Grateful Dead it was “Touch of Grey”.
Yet for decades they have been two of the top concert draws in the world. Fans come from thousands of miles, planning vacations around their tour dates, and celebrate each concert as if it were a religious experience.
How can artists who have had so few actual hit songs have such zealous followers? Thank the Parrotheads and the Deadheads.
These two incredible examples of brand building came about almost by mistake. The Grateful Dead had developed a strong following in the late 1960’s as they relentlessly toured across America playing long jams each night. Unlike most bands, the Dead looked kindly upon the “bootleggers” who recorded their shows. They actively encouraged fans to record their concerts and share them with each other. They even went as far as to create a special area for those who were recording, in order for those people to capture the best possible audio quality.
With their hippie fan base growing, The Grateful Dead inserted a small paragraph in the sleeve of their 1971 live album known as “Skull and Roses”. The paragraph read “Dead Freaks Unite: Who are you? Where are you? How are you? Send us your name and address and we’ll keep you informed.”
By the end of the year, 350 people had sent in their name and address to be part of this community. Over the course of the next few years, that number grew exponentially to over 40,000 by the end of the decade. Through the 70’s, the band sent out 25 newsletters to their fans, some of them including unexpected surprises such as previews of new music to reward their loyalty.
The 40,000-plus fans in this network made it almost a guarantee that each night’s Grateful Dead concert would be sold out, even when they were playing multiple nights in a single city. And with so many repeat fans, the band began to create fresh set lists for each show, changing their set list frequently making each show unique.
The hardest of hard core fans would travel with the band, attending concert after concert. In order to support their Grateful Dead habit, many took to selling tie-dyed shirts, food, or souvenirs on what became known as “Shakedown Street”. In the 1980’s, this informal marketplace organically evolved outside almost every Grateful Dead show.
Right up until Jerry Garcia’s death in August of 1995, thousands of Deadheads packed every show, and the band worked hard to make each night a unique experience for them.
Despite the difference in the music, the history of Jimmy Buffett’s loyal Parrothead fans is surprisingly similar. Like the Dead, Buffett didn’t have a string of #1 hits to generate audiences at his concerts. Jimmy Buffett had just a single hit song – 1977’s “Margaritaville. Yet throughout the 1980’s, Buffett’s status as a concert draw continued to grow. Before each show, fans would gather and tailgate. Sure the atmosphere was fueled by margaritas instead of acid, but the premise was the same: a group of people coming together to celebrate a common passion for music that personified a certain type of lifestyle. As Jimmy made his way across the country each summer the legend continued to grow, and fans in greater and greater numbers made a Buffett concert the central party of their summer. Vacations were planned around Buffett tours. During a mid-80’s tour stop in Cincinnati, Ohio, guitarist Timothy B. Schmit noticed the growing number of Hawaiian-shirt and flip-flop wearing fans and dubbed them “Parrotheads”, adapting the term from the now-famous Deadheads.
Like most artists, Jimmy Buffett had a fan club, and they received periodic mailings called “The Coconut Telegraph”. But what transpired in 1989 dwarfed any official fan club.
Parrothead Scott Nickerson of Atlanta decided to bring together some of the great people he had met tailgating at Buffett concerts. His idea was that this group would not only meet for drinks and talk all-things tropical, but they would also give something back to the community. The first 15 Parrotheads met on April 1, 1989.
The growing popularity of the Parrothead club in Atlanta caught the attention of the official Buffett camp, and they printed a piece about it in an edition of “The Coconut Telegraph”. Once word spread, Buffett’s people were swamped with requests about how to start their own Parrothead club.
Wisely, Jimmy’s management turned to Scott Nickerson himself to help out. Scott wrote the official guidebook and helped organize Parrothead clubs in several states that first year, as well as the first ever “Meeting of the Minds” Parrothead convention in 1992 at the Margaritaville Café in New Orleans.
Each year at the “Meeting of the Minds”, Jimmy Buffett would record a video greeting, thanking fans for their support and their contributions to worth causes. And each year, attendance grew and grew. By 1998, over 2000 Parrotheads descended on Key West, Florida for the 7th annual event, and Jimmy himself appeared in person and played live for over an hour.
Today the “Parrotheads in Paradise” organization looks after 200 clubs in the US, Canada, and the Caribbean. The group is a registered non-profit organization and in 2007 they raised over $2.9 million for local and national charities.
What makes Jimmy Buffett or The Grateful Dead unusual is that they facilitated the growth of these clubs.
Instead of suing their fans, The Grateful Dead encouraged fans to record and share the concerts for free. To this day those who sell Dead bootlegs are chastised. Grateful Dead bootlegs are intended to be free. Most artists would never allow fans to record their concerts, fearing it would cut into album sales. The Dead knew better.
Instead of trying to take ownership of the Parrothead concept, Jimmy Buffett chose to embrace it. When the idea took off, Buffett turned to the club’s first founder to help launch similar clubs around the world. He recorded welcoming videos for their convention, sent band members to sign autographs, and even made a rare live appearance.
Both Buffett and The Grateful Dead recognized that these people were coming to their shows and following their careers because they identified with the lifestyle the artist represented. In the case of The Dead it was the counter-culture hippie-adventure lifestyle. And in the case of Jimmy Buffett it was the beach-bum carefree lifestyle. In both cases, Buffett and The Grateful Dead were very wise to recognize this and add fuel to the fire by providing the framework for their fan networks to evolve.
The lesson for brand managers:
1. You don’t have to be huge to develop a cult following. In terms of hits, Jimmy Buffett and The Grateful Dead rank pretty low. There are hundreds of more successful hit makers. Yet there are very few acts who can draw as many passionate and committed fans to a concert.
2. Sometimes things happen that aren’t in the plan, and the smart brand manager recognizes this and changes the plan accordingly. Did The Grateful Dead start out with a plan to create an alley for fans to sell their home-made merchandise and food? Did Buffett begin with a master plan that included men in coconut bras sitting in hammocks in an arena parking lot making blender drinks?
3. Let your fans “in” on the secret… take them behind the curtain. Turn them from casual fans into committed disciples. Early Deadheads were rewarded with sneak previews of the band’s music, a special place to record the concerts, and a place to sell their wares. Jimmy Buffett invited the founder of the first Parrothead club to help organize new clubs, and Scott Nickerson became an insider. When you join a Parrothead club, you get invited behind the curtain.
4. Give ‘em a name. Whether by dumb luck or through smart branding, these groups were named. Giving a tangible name to a group is a key building block in creating a community, and a community develops their own language, symbols, and clothing, like home made tie-dyed shirts at Grateful Dead concerts and Hawaiian shirts at Buffett shows. Without a name, what would people be a part of? Being a “member of the Jimmy Buffett fan club” isn’t nearly as cool as being a Parrothead!