Kim Bellware Reporter, The Huffington Post
"We’re really building a lifestyle brand, not a cannabis brand."
Glance into a stoner's den -- or any college dorm room -- and odds are good you'll find a Bob Marley poster on the wall.
Since Bob Marley's 1981 death, the musician's image has remained popular in stoner culture. Now the reggae star's family, in partnership with a cannabis-oriented private equity firm, hope to channel that association into a higher-end lifestyle brand, Marley Natural.
The brand, which launches Friday (one day shy of Marley's 71st birthday), has ambitious plans to shape mainstream America's evolving relationship with cannabis.
"We are fortunate to be living during a promising time of positive change, especially with regard to cannabis and how people understand it," the singer's daughter Cedella Marley said in a statement. "My dad would be so happy to see so many people appreciating the natural, healing power of the herb."
The inaugural product line includes about a dozen items, including cannabis oils, edible and smokable marijuana, body products and "preparation and storage" accessories. The consumable products will be available only in California at first, and later in other states where recreational marijuana is legal, said spokesman Zach Hutson. The other items -- which must be made with imported ingredients -- will go on sale later this year.
"Americans consume about $600 million worth of hemp-based product a year," said Hutson, a spokesman for Privateer Holdings, the cannabis-focused private equity firm that partnered with Marley's estate on the product line. "And they’re all imported from abroad, especially from Canada, China and Germany."
The U.S. has the distinction of being the world's No. 1 hemp consumer while also being the only major industrialized country that bans domestic hemp production.
Both hemp and marijuana are derived from the cannabis plant. Unlike marijuana, hemp contains little to none of the psychoactive ingredient THC that creates the sensation of being high.
The brains behind Marley Natural, sharply aware they could be pigeonholed, are trying hard to push beyond the "stoner" stereotype.
“We’re really building a lifestyle brand, not a cannabis brand," said Hutson. The brand aims for a sleek, upscale look, which it achieved partly by hiring designers and product developers from outside the cannabis industries.
It's also trying to appeal to people who are not (or not yet) cannabis consumers. Each product emphasizes its natural, no-pesticide, no-additive, sustainable composition. Everything from the smoking paraphernalia to the label is designed to be display-worthy.
Having a body care line available in retail stores allows the company to "introduce it and show people what it can look like even if they’re not looking for a cannabis product," Hutson said.
"People race toward the cliches in this industry. I hope we begin to see less and less of that over time," he added.
The brand even has a magazine.
"We’ll have a story about juicing cannabis, or stories about Bob," said Tahira Rehmatullah, general manager of Marley Natural. "We want to be the brand that can teach and be a trusted resource for patients and consumers for life."
The company's business strategy is indicative of how the market has matured, said Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.
“There is an increasing emphasis on developing a brand identity for your product,” West said. "Marley Natural is appealing to people who haven’t necessarily been cannabis consumers for a long time, and are looking for customers who aren’t just the pop culture stereotypes."
While Marley Natural isn’t the first brand to try that approach, “they have the potential to be very influential in that space,” West said.
The Marley family approached Privateer a few years ago with the idea of a cannabis brand that fused his passion for social justice and environmentalism, Rehmatullah explained.
"It was important to the family that Marley Natural operated with a strong social consciousness," Rehmatullah said. "That applies not only to sourcing but how we positively impact communities."
The philanthropic portion of Marley Natural is central to the brand, Hutson said.
"We had heard a story from Stephen Marley, one of Bob’s sons. People would line up outside of Bob’s house on 56 Hope Road in Kingston and ask for favors large and small: Car loans, small payments," Hutson said. "That inspired us to want to fuel projects both in Jamaica and in the other communities we work in."
Planned collaborations include helping local women in Jamaica start up apiaries so they can harvest honey and wax products to sell. Another, Farm Up Jamaica, aims to support local farming in the country. In the U.S., Hutson said the business will focus on former prisoners in California who have been harmed by prohibition laws.
"We're focusing on people re-entering society from being incarcerated. Whether that’s job training, getting their records expunged, getting help with their resume," Hutson said.
While philanthropic efforts can add a sheen to a business' image, they're a crucial part of being in the cannabis industry, West noted.
“More than other industries, this is built on a movement. A lot of the industry pioneers started on the advocacy side, so it’s important to a lot of people in this industry that we don’t lose sight of that.”
West called Marley Natural’s RiseUp initiative a “smart move.”
“Depending on where you live, you can still be arrested for being part of this industry,” West said. Buying and cultivating marijuana is still illegal in many U.S. states and under federal law. "There are still a lot of people in jail or with criminal records because of this plant," she said. "It’s important that this business not forget that."
COURTESY OF MARLEY NATURAL