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Bob Marley’s Son Builds a Coffee Empire

Bob Marley's Son Builds a Coffee Empire

Christine Birkner

​​Bob Marley’s son, Rohan, is building awareness for his fledgling coffee brand, Marley Coffee, by blending his father’s legacy with storytelling and a commitment to sustainability. 

From the farmlands of Jamaica, legendary reggae musician Bob Marley started a musical legacy that still lives on.

Marley’s music was released in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, but legions of fans spanning all age groups and corners of the globe still connect with his songs and their messages of social change and redemption, downloading them by the millions more than 30 years after his death. Bob Marley & the Wailers’ greatest hits album, Legend, originally released in 1984, hit the top 10 on the Billboard 200 chart in 2014, thanks, in part, to a surge in Google Play downloads. Marley has a robust social media following as well, and his 1.4 million Twitter followers and more than 74 million Facebook fans still check in for historical photos and quotes, and updates on his children’s charitable and business enterprises. 

One such enterprise is Denver-based Marley Coffee​, through which Bob’s son, Rohan, is forging his own movement, of sorts, from the same Jamaican farmland where his father grew up. Marley Coffee, whose corporate name is Jammin Java Corp., took root in Jamaica, and in three years, Rohan and his team have grown the business to $10 million in annual sales by slowly and strategically building a fan base.


Although one of Bob Marley’s early songs, “One Cup of Coffee,” accompanies Marley Coffee’s promotional videos, and the company’s tagline, “Stir. It. Up.,” is named after one of his songs, Rohan doesn’t want the brand to stand on his family’s celebrity, alone. “It’s a family business, but it’s not ‘rah, rah, rah.’ Those fans know my father. They don’t know me,” Marley says. “I’m introducing myself as a businessman who does things the organic way, in a way that’s going to be sustainable.” He’s attempting to stand out in a crowded coffee category—above giants like Starbucks, Peet’s and other CPG brands—by telling the story of the land and the coffee, the company’s commitment to the farmers who grow it, and the Marley family legacy.

A Business Percolates

Rohan Marley was a reluctant coffee entrepreneur, at first. He initially set out to be a professional athlete, playing in the Canadian Football League for one season and then getting a tryout to play professional soccer in Scotland. “But I looked at the weather in Scotland and saw how cold it was, and said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be able to do that,’ ” he says. In the late ’90s, Marley was inspired to forge a more traditional career path by former girlfriend and Fugees frontwoman Lauryn Hill. “She was having success in her career, winning a lot of Grammys, and I was just a house husband. One day, she said, ‘What do you actually do for a living?’ I was trying to figure out my life.”

Rohan Marley. 

Marley had just received $200,000 in royalties from a publishing deal for his father’s music when a friend told him about land in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains that previously had belonged to the Marley family. He fell in love with the property, and bought it, in 1999. “I thought, did I just commit $200K to something I don’t know what to do with? I’m walking on the property, and I’m thinking, what did I just do? At the same time, I can’t let the guy [showing me the farm] think I’m a joker. I asked, ‘What is the community known for?’ and he said, ‘Coffee.’ I didn’t know anything about coffee … and farming is hard in Jamaica if you don’t have the right qualifications. Then, I asked, ‘What’s on my property?’ and he said, ‘Coffee.’ And I said, ‘Do you know anything about coffee?’ and he said, ‘Yes, Mr. Marley, we’ve been farming coffee all of our lives.’ So I thought, that’s it. I’m in the coffee business.” 

To help expand his business, Marley enlisted current Marley Coffee CEO Brent Toevs (left, image courtesy of Brent Toevs Twitter account), a former coffee executive who previously ran the U.S. division of Timothy’s World Coffee and worked on celebrity-chef-branded coffees for Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse. “About five years ago, I met Rohan. I wasn’t sure if it was a licensing deal or what, but Ro was insistent that I go to Jamaica,” Toevs says. “If you get him going on the history of the company, he goes back to [talking about] his childhood, and growing up as Bob’s son in Jamaica, then moving to the U.S. and back. He said, ‘If you go to Jamaica, you’ll get it.’ I went there, and I was sold. Not knowing anything about coffee is an interesting way to start, but it really shaped him, and our company.”

On the farm in Jamaica, Marley set some ground rules. “I said, ‘You can’t use any chemicals on my property’ because if they were building a business that was going to make my life better, I wanted to make the community’s life better,” he says. “We also doubled [the farm workers’] wages. Whatever they paid, we doubled it; I didn’t care.”

Says Toevs, “When he made the decree that no chemicals be used on his farm, the farmers thought he was crazy. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is some of the most expensive coffee in the world and, back then, none of it was really all that sustainable.”

For the next seven years, Marley figured out how to manage his farm, Toevs says. “For seven years, he got his farm whipped into shape without really selling anything. He realized that the farming thing was really tough, but trying to sell a product is even tougher, especially in the U.S. You’re dealing with the grocery industry, which is made up of billion-dollar brands. There’s a reason why a lot of small brands don’t make it: There’s a lack of funding.” 

Furthermore, they needed more product to sell. Enter Marley’s 2006 visit to an Ethiopian monastery, which helped him tie the bean to his Rastafari religion and increase the company’s coffee production. 

“[I’m] a Rasta man, and Rasta men don’t drink coffee. But I walked into the monastery and the first thing I saw was coffee trees, and I was laughing to myself. I came to a realization that this is a monastery, so it doesn’t get holier than this. Whatever I see here, it has to be right.” – Rohan Marel

As Toevs puts it, “It clicked that he didn’t need to be a Jamaican coffee company. He could be a worldwide coffee brand, so he started bringing beans over from Ethiopia.” The company now sources beans from Ethiopia, Central and South America and Jamaica, and all are sustainably grown and ethically farmed. Marley officially founded the business in 2007, and it was incorporated under the name Jammin Java in 2009. Product hit the shelves in 2012.

​Green Beans

The farming process used to extract coffee beans from the soil sometimes can pollute local rivers and drinking water supplies, so Marley Coffee works to combat that by supporting clean water initiatives in communities where it sources its beans. Marley Coffee works with Water Wise Coffee​, a company that helps coffee mills in Ethiopia reduce water use, compost coffee waste, plant grass wetlands and build aquifers and filtering systems. Marley Coffee donates one cent to Water Wise for every single-serve cup it sells in stores, and contributed more than $80,000 to the organization in 2014. Marley Coffee and Water Wise teamed up to produce a documentary on Water Wise’s efforts, which appears on both companies’ websites. The documentary includes interviews with coffee farmers in Ethiopia, who discuss their families’ coffee farming history, and details coffee’s negative impact on the environment and water supply in Ethiopia and Water Wise’s efforts to combat it. Viewers are encouraged to visit Water Wise’s website to donate to their efforts, and tweet about the movement using the hashtag #WaterWiseMovement. Marley Coffee promoted the documentary through media outreach efforts and social media. 

The partnership with Water Wise and the documentary have alerted consumers to Marley Coffee’s commitment to sustainability in an authentic way, Toevs says. “What we’re doing is quantifiable. We’re letting people know that we’re making a difference … and consumers tell us they feel good when they drink our coffee. Once they understand what we’re all about and what we’re doing, it’s a no-brainer.”

Like the company’s sustainability initiatives, Marley Coffee also rests some of its branding strategy on telling the story of its Jamaican roots, with a short video on the history of coffee and coffee farmers in Jamaica on its website, showing what conditions are like for the farmers. “Ours was one of the first organic farms in Jamaica, and it’s important to me. One should care where their products come from,” Marley says. 

Toevs’ team takes inspiration from his visits to Jamaica for the company’s marketing efforts, he says. “A lot of companies kind of make up the story, and build marketing campaigns around it, but our coffee brand came from a coffee farm. When I went to Kingston and saw 300 women sorting coffee by hand, and went to a farm and talked to the farmers, I was blown away by their stories. I thought, if this makes me want to work for this guy, and we can translate it to consumers, they’re going to want to drink our coffee.”

Marley Coffee’s sustainability efforts also are reflected in its product line, which includes recyclable K-Cups, single-serve coffee pods used in Keurig coffeemakers. In October 2015, it launched a social media effort to promote them with House of Marley, the Marley family’s retail product arm, asking fans to post about their efforts to clean up the environment on Instagram using the hashtag #EcoCup. The effort garnered 3,400 posts on Instagram. Overall, the company’s sustainability story helps it compete in crowded coffee category, Toevs says. “We’re not making up catchphrases. It starts with a great story and product. Then, we walk the talk. Our competitor, Green Mountain, said they wanted to [have recyclable packaging] by 2020, and little Marley Coffee beat them to the punch by five years. Having an innovative product like that is phenomenal from a marketing perspective.” 

Anita Nelson, president of IN Food Marketing & Design​, a Minneapolis-based food marketing agency, says this is a smart strategy. “It’s such a crowded space that anything they can do to bring forth the sustainability message even stronger is good. Getting granular and focused on what they’re doing with sustainability is a great way for them to break through in that space.” 

Scaling Up

Marley Coffee now is available in 61 grocery store chains across the U.S., and 14 in Canada, with distribution in Mexico, Colombia, Chile and South Korea. It opened seven Marley Coffeehouses in Seoul in 2015 and will open 18 more in 2016. Toevs credits the global appeal of the Marley name for the brand’s expansion in South Korea. “Our distributor in South Korea was mostly focused on food service. They were looking to open a coffeehouse, and the CEO saw our brand and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ If you go to downtown Santiago, you see Marley Coffee signs everywhere. It’s incredible. Ro is a larger than life person, and we get calls every week from all around the world.” 

Although the celebrity name has helped the business grow, to a point, its marketing strategies have gotten them the rest of the way, Toevs says. “Having the name Marley helps, and gets us in a lot of doors, but that only goes so far. You have to have a great-tasting product, and you also have to have the marketing programs behind it.” 

Those marketing programs include in-store promotions and a careful pricing strategy. “The grocery business is very scientific. It’s about getting on the shelf, which is hard. What’s even harder is moving off the shelf. It takes massive amounts of money,” Toevs says. “We know what moves the needle, and it’s basically putting something on sale. We’re $9.99 [per pound], and we know that when we go on sale at $6.99, that’s when people buy the product.” In the past year, Marley has switched its focus from getting new accounts to driving its product off the shelf through sales, demos, promos, experiential campaigns and events at grocery stores. 

The company also sends its products to coffee critics and conducts sampling efforts with the media. Marley and the company have been profiled on The Daily Beast, Fox News, MSNBC, InStyle, Food & Wine and The Guardian, among others. And Marley Coffee also activates the power of Bob Marley’s social media following to post about company news, albeit very sparingly and strategically, Marley says. “My dad’s Facebook is not my promotional tool. We don’t use it that way. I use my social network. It’s my word first, so I stand by it.”

Adds Toevs, “There’s power in that Facebook following, but it’s very non-commercial. There are no Marley Coffee ads. We’ll only put [Marley Coffee] messages up if we feel something is really unique; for instance, when Ro was [honored by] Water Wise Coffee. In 24 hours, we had 75,000 hits on that post and 5,000 comments. It’s crazy stuff.”

Marley Coffee also runs print and outdoor ads in Denver, where the company is headquartered, and has partnerships with local sports teams including the NFL’s Denver Broncos and MLB’s Colorado Rockies, which both serve the coffee in their stadiums. “The [Broncos] owner has one complaint: When visitors come in, all of the coffee in the visitors’ clubhouse gets taken,” Toevs says.

So far, the promotional efforts are working. “When I first met Ro, he sold $25,000 worth of coffee, then we went to $450,000 to $1.8 million, and we did $10 million last year,” Toevs says. “Consumers are really loving the product.”

While the company is doing everything right on paper, it will be difficult for Marley Coffee to stand out in the coffee space long-term, says Allen Adamson, founder of New York-based branding and marketing consultancy Brand Simple Consulting. “They’re tied to the right causes, they’re doing the right branding execution. The challenge is, in this category, scale matters, and the big guys—Starbucks and Peet’s—are doing the same thing and have so much more leverage and scale. While Marley is being authentic and true to what he believes in, at the end of the day, I don’t think he’ll succeed,” he says. “The coffee category is brutal. The one card he has to play is that his dad’s music will live on. Rather than resist it, he should embrace it. He’s trying to be his own person and move away from his father’s legacy, and I think he should double down on it.”

Cynthia Jones, director of strategy at the Cincinnati office of global branding agency Interbrand​, whose clients include Keurig, agrees. “If you go down the coffee aisle and you see all of those brands, every one is shouting louder than the other, and with the influx of new brands, it’s getting tougher. It’s great to focus on sustainability, but all of the major coffee brands also have sustainability efforts as well. To hang their hat there is fine, but it’s a very interesting choice to put the Marley name in the background when there definitely could be more that could be leveraged there. They’re in a bit of a tough spot.” Still, she adds, “Starbucks didn’t grow to what it was overnight. To get the distribution that they have and be such a young brand, they’re doing pretty well.”

Toevs remains optimistic about the company’s future. “We’ve grown very quickly, but it’s been very calculated. We have an opportunity to be a significant worldwide brand. We have big aspirations. Starbucks was once a privately held company, and look at what they’ve done. It can be done. People love coffee, and we’ve got a passionate following, something that’s resonating with people, so we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”

Marley is a bit more poetic about his coffee brand. “It’s a journey. I didn’t inherit [Marley Coffee], I created it, put my face on the bag and my signature so, if it fails, you can blame me. It’s wonderful that I came from a place where I didn’t know anything about coffee to be able to be in this business. It’s great to be able to tap into something that was here centuries before me and is going to be around long after me. I’m not only doing coffee, I’m creating opportunity for people, enriching the land, teaching people to be more self-sustainable, and advancing the organic movement. I hope the coffee-drinking community understands that I’m not kidding around. Coffee has been in Jamaica since the 17th century. It’s part of my DNA.” 

Christine Birkner is a freelance writer in Chicago.