Creating Your Cult


Between them, they have two hit songs. For Jimmy Buffett is was
“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!

Deadheads, Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, Jimmy Buffett, Parrotheads, Scott Nickerson 224 Comments

Know Your Role


Thirty two years ago, amidst break-ups and drug problems, Fleetwood Mac recorded “Rumours”. In the years since, the band has resembled a soap opera as they have gone through line-up changes, retirements, reunitings, rehab, and firings.

After seeing Fleetwood Mac last weekend at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, it’s clear that the members of the band have finally realized that the true magic happens when each players truly knows, accepts, and thrives in their role.

Lindsay Buckingham is electric with energy. He is a guitar hero. He clearly plays the role of front man and savors every minute of it. He deserves to be front and center.

Stevie Nicks plays, even at 60, a sexy mystical role. Her songs counter Buckingham’s over-the-top energy and bring the band back to earth, and often deep inside it.

John McVie stands in the shadows, often perfectly still except for his fingers on the bass guitar. His trademark hat and vest give him away even from a distance. He is stoic and solid… everything a rhythm section should be.

Mick Fleetwood is hidden behind a massive drum kit, yet emerges as the de facto band leader for reasons beyond his name. Mick peers out from under the cymbals, his maniacal facial expressions communicating the pure passion with which he plays.

Despite being the front man, Lindsay Buckingham gave the job of introducing the band to Mick Fleetwood, who stood up and spoke for the first time. He refered to Buckingham as “his partner in Fleetwood Mac”, and shone the spotlight back on the guitarist.

Such distinct personalities… such diverse roles… yet such cohesive results.

That’s what happens when great players understand their differences, and use them to create something bigger than their individual parts.

Think about great teams, partnerships, or TV shows. How different were Abbot and Costello? Fred and Barney? Sports teams have players who seldom (or never) score points, yet play a critical role in the success of the team. If scoring points were the only measure of success, Martin Brodeur wouldn’t be heading to the Hockey Hall of Fame. And the Cy Young Award wouldn’t be the most-talked about invidual honor in baseball.

Know what makes you unique.

Know what makes others unique.

Carefully use those differences to create something incredible.

Abbot and Costello, Cy Young, Fleetwood Mac, John McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, Martin Brodeur, Mick Fleetdwood, Mohegan Sun, Rumours, Stevie Nicks 194 Comments

Brilliant Branding Lessons From Pearl Jam

Today Pearl Jam reissued their vintage album “Ten”, including remastered songs, unreleased material, a concert DVD, and the album on vinyl.

When you look back at the past two decades, it is hard to fathom that Pearl Jam was initially labeled as an alternative rock sell-out by Kurt Cobain. In the early days of the grunge explosion, Cobain lashed out at Pearl Jam because of their classic rock influences.

Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain reconciled before Cobain’s death, and Pearl Jam went on to embody the alternative spirit both on stage and off.

It is pretty easy to see the model of consistency that Pearl Jam has been in terms of music. They have always taken on new directions, but always returned to their core sound. They have never strayed so far from the expectations of their fans that they would risk losing them. But it is Pearl Jam’s off-stage dedication to living up to those expectations that provides brilliant lessons for business.

Being an “alternative” band comes with a heavy label. It is nearly impossible to be alternative while simultaneously making record companies, ticket agencies, venues, merchandisers, and others filthy rich in the process. Pearl Jam nearly broke up under that pressure.

But they didn’t. They lived up to the label. They rejected making Ticketmaster rich. First, they put a cap on ticket prices, and eventually refused to play concerts in venues where Ticketmaster issued tickets. The result was several years in which it was nearly impossible for the band to tour in America, resulting in lower sales of their CD’s. Eventually, after a failed anti-trust lawsuit and under pressure from fans, Pearl Jam returned to playing Ticketmaster venues. Would Pearl Jam have made more money by cooperating with Ticketmaster all along? Absolutely. But standing up for the fans was important to Pearl Jam.

Since long before it was fashionable, Pearl Jam has allowed fans to record their concerts, making their own “official bootlegs”. In 2000, they took that concept a step further and recorded every show on their tour professionally. The plan was to provide them to their fan club members, but their record company contract prevented it. So instead, Pearl Jam took the groundbreaking step of releasing every concert on their tour as a live album. In 2000 and 2001, Pearl Jam released a total of 72 live albums. Would they have made more money releasing one live album? Almost certainly. Yet that commitment to doing right by the fans, even at the band’s expense, that was vital to Pearl Jam.

The band’s debut album “Ten” included the song “Jeremy”, and the video for that song won “Video of the Year” and “Best Group Video” at the MTV Video Awards in 1993. It would be one of the last music videos Pearl Jam would ever make. Despite immense record company pressure to release videos and singles, Pearl Jam refused. The band has also regularly forced their record company to release its albums on vinyl as well as CD, even though the profit margins on the vinyl releases have been non-existent for years. Could Pearl Jam have gotten filthy rich and famous by releasing singles and videos like every other band? Definitely. Yet by not doing the expected and usual, Pearl Jam struck a chord with their fans, who remain with them today. Pearl Jam has managed to get filthy rich their own way.

High concert ticket prices aren’t the only cause that Pearl Jam has supported. Since the beginning they have been socially active, supporting Crohn’s Disease research, pro-choice causes, and the environment. The band spoke out against US President George W. Bush, supported the Green Party, and played charity concerts in support of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, United Nations efforts against world hunger, and the memory of those lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Did they need to potentially alienate fans of differing opinions by being vocal in support of causes they believe in? Definitely not. But they chose to, because part of being alternative is speaking out.

Pearl Jam has wisely realized that in order to create a group of passionate fans, you need to get noticed… to stand out… to be different. That might get you in trouble now and then, and it will certainly result in some people not liking you.

But those actions reinforced the image that Pearl Jam was cultivating as a truly alternative band. With every decision they endeared themselves to fans who felt the same way; that record companies and ticket agencies were ripping them off, that big oil companies were polluting the earth, and that children shouldn’t go to bed hungry at night.

Business lessons from Pearl Jam:

1. Exceed the expectations of your customers.
2. Stand up for what you believe in, especially if it gets you noticed.
3. Bravely abandon old-world rules and set your own course.
4. Passionately align yourself with causes that fit your image.
5. Be consistent in everything you do.

Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Ticketmaster 1,057 Comments

Refreshing Branding From Dylan

You don’t expect to see Bob Dylan hawking Pepsi.

So when the commercial came on during the Super Bowl last month, I was more than a little surprised.

But after watching this commercial a few times, I have no doubt that it works.

It works because:

a) you don’t except to see/hear Bob Dylan on a Pepsi commercial. It is just odd enough to surprise your mind, yet ultimately fit.

b) the updated song features Will.I.Am from Black Eyed Peas, another person widely regarded as a generational spokesman, especially thanks to his “Yes We Can” in support of Barack Obama.

c) the visual images are a reminder that no matter how much things change, we are all connected.

My gut feeling is that, at first glance, hard core Dylan fans will be a little put off that Bob has “sold out”. But has he really sold out?

The message of the commercial is perfectly in-line with the message of the song. Watch this commercial a few times and you start to see why Bob Dylan approved of doing this. It is more than a paycheck. It is an image-builder.

This is a brilliant example of an association that works for both Bob Dylan and Pepsi.

Barack Obama, Black Eyed Peas, Bob Dylan, Pepsi, Super Bowl 255 Comments

U2 and Blackberry Going Steady


It’s like the science geek dating the pretty girl, right after she broke up with the quarterback of the football team.

Blackberry, the geek, and U2, the girl, are going steady. Apple, the cool jock, is now single.

Despite once flogging Apple products, U2 recently announced that Blackberry is the sponsor of their upcoming summer tour. This is the band that endorsed the iPod and even had a version of it created in their honor. Bono called the iPod “the most beautiful object art in music culture since the electric guitar”. He espoused about how Apple embodied the band’s creative spirit, and most of us bought that story. Although it smelled of a sell-out, the pieces of the story fit together. We could picture Bono and Edge laying down some tracks on the road, backstage, and editing them together on a Macbook.

But a Blackberry? The Blackberry is everything corporate. It isn’t a sexy iPhone. It plays music, but that isn’t why you use it. It takes pictures and it gets on the internet, but that’s not the primary function. The Blackberry is a fantastically reliable and easy to use e-mail and phone device.

Why marry a creative, outspoken, socially conscious band with a staid product like the Blackberry?

Because Blackberry is desperate to prove it is as cool as Apple and their iPhone. And U2 needs to underwrite an expensive concert tour during an economic recession.

This is a sell out. It makes very little sense for either party. Certainly U2 doesn’t want the corporate buttoned-down image that the Blackberry lends it. And Blackberry doesn’t do itself any favors by comparing itself to Apple. Even the most casual Blackberry user knows that their Blackberry isn’t as cool as an iPhone. Blackberry fans use the product because of its functionality, not because it is sexy. They love it for what it is, and for what it isn’t.

Don’t bet on this relationship lasting past prom.

Apple, Blackberry Storm, iPod, RIM, U2 1,562 Comments