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Bob Marley: The Man, The Myth, The Brand

More than 25 years after he died, Bob Marley is still the king of reggae — and a counterculture icon. Now, his family is looking toward its own legacy. Last month, family members announced an ambitious plan to capitalize on the Marley legend by introducing a line of Marley-branded products, including salad dressing and a video game.

On a sunny afternoon in Washington, D.C., people stroll through an art gallery in the Georgetown neighborhood. Portraits of Bob Marley hang on the walls. Photographer David Burnett took them more than 30 years ago, and many of the fans here never saw Marley alive.

Tarren Queen, 18, says she's been listening to him since she was 10 — and so have all her friends.

"You can walk into clothing stores that sell band T-shirts and stuff, and there'll be just as many Bob Marley shirts as there are bands that just came out," she says. "He's still popular, and people still love him."

Marketers have been trying to take advantage of Marley's multigenerational appeal for years. Many of those T-shirts and posters for sale are technically counterfeit. But, until now, the Marley family resisted contracting with other companies to sell the name. Marley has long been considered so potentially profitable that getting his account qualifies as the holy grail of advertising.

The company to finally win that holy grail is in Toronto — Hilco Consumer Capital. It's partnering with the Marley family, but there's one wrinkle in packaging Bob Marley for mainstream America.

Dan Gainor is vice president of the conservative Media Research Center. He says he was looking at the products Hilco will sell and "wondering if they're going to include bongs and rolling papers." Gainor says that even if Bob Marley is scrubbed for public consumption, there's no way around the fact that his image promotes drug use. But the people rolling out the campaign say they aren't concerned. They know that Bob Marley was a major stoner.

David Lipman is a marketing executive working on the Marley account. He's known for his work designing couture shopping bags and promoting designer jewelry.

"I'm not going to promote drug use to children," he says. "But the courage that he had is, 'This is who I am.' And I think to be able to do what he did is a beautiful thing."

Lipman says he doesn't plan to use marijuana as part of the campaign. But he does say he views it as just another part of the Marley aesthetic.

"Whether it's candles or bedspreads or towels, you know, Marley stands for a very relaxed lifestyle," says James Salter of Hilco. The company plans to unveil its line of products next year, when Marley would have been 65. The list of retail products it's hoping to introduce includes spices, snowboards and headphones.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We will find out soon if the reggae business is still doing well. More than 25 years after he died, family members of Bob Marley are still guarding the rights to his name. And last month they announced a deal with a company to develop a line of Bob Marley products, including salad dressing and a video game.

NPR's Katia Dunn reports.

KATIA DUNN: It's a sunny afternoon in Washington, D.C., and people stroll through an art gallery in the Georgetown neighborhood. Portraits of Bob Marley hang on the walls. Photographer David Burnett took them more than 30 years ago. But many of the fans here are people who never saw Bob Marley alive. Eighteen-year-old Tarren Queen says she's been listening to him since she was 10, and so have all her friends.

Ms. TARREN QUEEN: You can walk into, you know, clothing stores, like, that sell, like, band T-shirts and stuff and there will be just as many Bob Marley shirts as there are, you know, bands that just came out. And he just - he's still popular, and people still love him.

DUNN: This multigenerational appeal is something marketers have been dying to take advantage of for years. Many of those T-shirts and posters for sale are technically counterfeit. Until now, the Marley family resisted contracting with other companies to sell the name. One marketing guru said that Marley was considered so potentially profitable, getting this account was the holy grail of advertising.

And the company to finally win that holy grail is in Toronto - Hilco Consumer Capital. But there's a wrinkle in packaging Bob Marley to sell to mainstream America. Michael Grant stands in the gallery with his three young daughters. They're looking at a photo and confronting just that problem.

What's going on in this photo right here?

Mr. MICHAEL GRANT: In this picture it's a little controversial because my daughter just asked me, well, daddy, he's smoking marijuana. And I'm trying to explain to her that I'm advocating no drug use.

DUNN: If this image was on a salad dressing, would you buy it?

Mr. GRANT: Not necessarily, but I would hate for them to sanitize his life.

Mr. DAN GAINOR (Vice President, Conservative Media Research Center): By looking at the products they're selling, I was wondering if they're going to include bongs and rolling paper.

DUNN: Dan Gainor is the vice president of the Conservative Media Research Center. He says there's no way around the fact that Bob Marley's image promotes drug use.

Mr. GAINOR: Not exactly a cultural icon I'd like to really see my kid wearing his T-shirt.

DUNN: But the people who are rolling out this campaign say they aren't concerned. They know that Bob Marley was a major stoner.

Mr. DAVID LIPMAN (Marketing Executive): I don't run away from it.

DUNN: David Lipman is a marketing executive. He works on the Marley account. He's known for designing couture shopping bags and promoting designer jewelry.

Mr. LIPMAN: I'm not going to promote drug use to children. And I don't know that I'm going to be selling marijuana on the streets of America or the world, but the courage that he had is this is who I am. I think to be able to do what he did is a beautiful thing.

DUNN: Lipman says he doesn't plan to use marijuana as part of the campaign. But he does think it's just another part of the Marley aesthetic, which is to say, chill.

Mr. JAMES SALTER (CEO, Hilco Consumer Capital): You know, whether it's candles, or bedspreads or towels, you know, Marley stands for a very relaxed lifestyle.

DUNN: That's James Salter of Hilco. They plan to introduce their products next year, when Marley would've been 65. The list of retail goods they're hoping to introduce includes spices, snowboards and headphones.

Katia Dunn, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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