One smokin’ brand

How a Toronto-based company is planning to resurrect the Bob Marley name

One smokin’ brandIt’s been 4½ months since James Salter first met with the family of the late Bob Marley, and just days since news first broke that his private equity firm, Hilco Consumer Capital, will take over management of the Bob Marley brand. Even so, he still can’t quite believe it’s happening. “I’ve been dreaming about this for years,” says Salter. “I still have to pinch myself to see if it’s true.”

It seems many of the reggae icon’s fans can’t quite believe it either. On Feb. 10, Hilco said it would clamp down on the mass of counterfeit Marley goods that flood the market each year. On top of that, the firm plans to extend the Marley brand into food, headphones, musical instruments and even video games. The response from fans online was as swift as it was thoroughly predictable. Millions still see Marley as an anti-authoritarian hero, and the idea of a corporation using his name and image as a logo to make money is absolutely abhorrent to his legions of devoted, pot-smoking fans. In an expletive-laced tirade, the Gawker website trilled “Bob Marley Now Owned By Wall Street.” Well, that’s not exactly right. The private equity firm only got control of half of Marley’s licensing rights. And besides, it’s not Wall Street. It’s Bay Street.

How did a Toronto-based company come to control half of the rights to Bob Marley’s likeness, and in so doing, drive thousands of fans to pull out their dreadlocks? Amid the slumping economy, Hilco Consumer Capital has quietly made a name for itself buying up the remnants of fallen retail stars. Last month, the company bought the intellectual property rights to Linens ’N Things, the defunct home decor chain that closed its doors in 2008. Hilco already controls a slate of prominent brands such as Bombay home furnishings and Sharper Image, a failed U.S. electronics retailer. Meanwhile, Hilco is reportedly in talks to buy the trademark rights to Polaroid. In each case, the company brings the names back to life as merchandising brands that are then sold exclusively to retailers.

The deal to market Marley is an abrupt change of gears for Hilco CEO Salter, a branding wunderkind who co-founded Kemper Snowboards in the 1980s, before running a series of sporting goods companies. Hilco Consumer Capital was set up in 2006, and Salter owns it along with several other fund partners, two big U.S. financial firms and the Hilco Organization, a U.S. retail liquidator. Salter says he’s been on the hunt for a musical brand that he could license for years, exploring deals with numerous acts, including the Beatles, Supertramp and Pink Floyd. Last year, he pursued a deal to license Jimi Hendrix, but the talks went nowhere. “Hendrix would have been great, but Bob Marley is way better,” says Salter. “He stands for peace, love and redemption. With everything going on in the world, it just makes a lot of sense.”

It’s easy to see what drew Salter to the musical giant. Since his death in 1981 from cancer, Marley’s reach has extended to every corner of the globe, and his music has managed to transcend both age and nationality in a way few other musicians have been able to. That’s also made Marley merchandise a hot commodity worldwide. Every year, an estimated $600 million in goods bearing the Jamaican musician’s likeness swaps hands.

Yet only a fraction finds its way back to Marley’s family. And so, by teaming up with Hilco, the family hopes to reclaim control of Marley’s legacy. “My father has touched so many people and we want to have a grasp of what’s going on globally,” says Rohan Marley, the singer’s fourth son, who owns the Tuff Gong clothing line, and who once played football for the Ottawa Rough Riders. “As a family we want to help people and work with people. There are a lot of fans who love my dad. We’re not here to take from them. We’re just saying, let’s work together.”

Last fall the two sides met at the home of Rohan’s sister Cedella in Miami. Salter came prepared with his investment proposal, and found the family having a barbecue in the backyard, playing soccer and football. Salter and the Marleys hit it off, and began to talk about the possibilities of reclaiming control of their father’s identity. Hilco signed the deal to invest US$20 million in the House of Marley LLC joint venture on Feb. 5, the day before what would have been Marley’s 64th birthday. The company will develop merchandise to celebrate Marley’s 65th next year. Meanwhile, Salter plans to extend the Marley brand to video games such as the Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk series, while linking his likeness to luggage, stationary, clothing and collectibles. Rohan says once the family regains control of the Marley brand, they will use it to promote “more love, more green, ecology and organic farming, not just merchandising.”

What would Bob Marley himself think of the arrangement? “As long as it’s in the right environment and not done cheesy, I think Bob would be happy,” says Salter. “Everything we do has to pass the cool factor.”

But Salter’s plans must also overcome the collective sense of ownership many fans feel toward the man and his music. A backlash could potentially taint what the Marley name and image has come to stand for. We’ve seen such backlashes before, when musicians or their families have signed marketing deals that seemed to violate the principles their fans have ascribed to them. The sister of Janis Joplin was berated when she sold the rights to the anti-consumer song Mercedes Benz to the car company for use in a commercial.

Yet such criticisms are overly simplistic and all too easy to make when the artist in question is just a poster on the wall or a stolen iPod track, and not one’s own flesh and blood. “I can understand people viscerally saying ‘He’s ours,’ ” says Don Sexton, a marketing professor at Columbia Business School. “Well, yes, he is, but he also belongs to the family. We all try to do for our children whatever we can and you’d hope he would have liked his family to benefit from his immense talent.”

What’s more, the fact is much of the merchandise sold on street corners and in head shops isn’t the work of devout fans, but thieving knock-off artists in Asia and Latin America. And those Marley fans who balk at the idea of seeing his image merchandised, yet still wear unlicensed T-shirts, are essentially stealing from the legacy left for Marley’s children and grandchildren.

Rohan knows fans may be wary of the arrangement, but he encourages them to come to the family with any ideas for how to carry on his father’s memory and positive message. It’s just that, from now on, the final decision will rest with the Marleys and Hilco. “We’re bringing everything in-house, taking good care of the legacy and creating more opportunity,” he says. “We are growing and expanding what our father put in place, just like any other family.”