At first glance, consumer-facing cannabis companies in the U.S. are confronted with a nearly impossible task—identifying consumer groups, discovering what they want, and learning how much they’ll pay for it.
The usual research tools have been a poor fit. How do you survey people about a product that the vast majority have never used, that may or may not work or have a consistent effect, and that hasn’t been fully decriminalized let alone destigmatized?
This is a question that preoccupies Ed Schmults, who was an executive in the retail industry before he became CEO of Las Vegas-based Calyx Peak Companies. Calyx capitalizes, operates, and manages cannabis-related assets, including products sold under brands Josh D (named for noted craft cultivator, Josh Del Rosso) and SONG Wellness (named for that brand’s chief medical officer).
Schmults brought to Calyx skills and knowledge gained during stints as COO of outdoor apparel and equipment retailer Patagonia and as CEO of FAO Schwarz, the legendary toy merchant. Nothing he learned before Calyx, however, could have prepared him for the rapid changes in the makeup of the cannabis consumer market just this year.
“I’ve been astonished at how many older friends and family—people who before would have been too shy to ask—are coming to me with pens and notepads, asking me for advice about products for insomnia, pain, anxiety, etc. Everything is happening much faster than we anticipated.”
Schmults reports that the primary market for cannabis is quickly shifting from traditional recreational users to a much broader group of consumers who have heard about and are intrigued by the benefits claimed for CBD. Awareness often begins with friends and relatives battling cancer and using cannabis to control nausea and other chemotherapy side effects. The shift has been so fast that Schmults says the industry’s efforts to onboard new customers have failed to keep up.
He also notes that cannabis—with a wide variance among strains in strength and effect—has yet to deliver the product consistency that people expect in every other consumable they use. Stories abound of folks who ate too many pot brownies and panicked. Schmults of Calyx says his company is in the process of collecting user data on the experience of cannabis to develop efficacy models. For example, there are differences in how some products affect men versus women. The company is investigating an even deeper dive into genetic differentiators as well as other data.
Acreage Holdings, one of the largest companies in the industry, hired Harris Damashek as its first chief marketing officer about two years ago. Damashek had been global brand and creative director for Anheuser-Busch’s international craft beer portfolio, now the world’s largest, and he said he found some branding similarities between beer and cannabis. Think Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada, and Leafs by Snoop (Dogg) and Purple City Genetics in Oakland, California (the “purple” in the name is a euphemism for marijuana). But those sorts of differentiators—a face, a place, and a story—aren’t applicable to the much larger health and wellness sector.
When he first joined Acreage, the stoner stigma associated with marijuana was still so prevalent that Damashek says, “It took me two months to tell my mother where I was working.” Now, mainstream consumers are becoming the primary target—known in business parlance as the “early majority”—and the emphasis is shifting away from recreational use.
“The forthcoming consumer is interested in cannabis in a very different way,” says Damashek, who recently stepped down from Acreage. “Getting high is secondary to pain, insomnia, anxiety, stress, and sexual health. That is a tectonic shift in the types of products and brands you want to create.”
Although there is still a lot of interest today in crafted strains of flower, the big bang is going to be in products that are identified with purpose, solutions, and affinity groups.
One other group that has found a way to overcome some of the branding challenges unique to this market is LB Equity, an investment firm focused on emerging brands in the beauty and personal care sectors. One of the firm’s initial investments was in Standard Dose, a digital retail platform focused on plant-based wellness, CBD and cannabinoids. Offering more than 120 SKUs across 40 brands, Standard Dose focuses on getting close to its customers and gaining insight into what products work best for them and what products they would like to see.
“The CBD and cannabis wellness space is still murky in some ways, but Standard Dose is setting itself apart and connecting with customers by building trust,” said Jay Lucas, Managing Partner of LB Equity. “The platform is focused on transparency, education and providing a carefully curated, carefully vetted product assortment, all of which encourages customers and visitors just looking to learn more to share their thoughts and preferences.”
Standard Dose fosters community by offering yoga and meditation classes on-site at its newly opened brick-and-mortar store in New York and by providing information and educational resources that range from an email newsletter to informational blogs such as “How to Relieve Pain with CBD.”
Generally, though, cannabis marketing and branding is so complex as to be unimaginable to anyone in traditional retailing. It is hobbled by multiple layers of regulation—state by state, county by county, sometimes town by town. “You need to create a separate marketing platform for each state,” says Damashek. “Packaging language differs state by state. Advertising rules differ. It’s at least as challenging as the pharmaceutical industry.”
But there are elements that can borrow directly from the sorts of analytics that traditional retailers are using today to identify attractive price points, consumer preferences and anticipated demand for the products these companies want to offer.
It is also possible to test market a delivery method, packaging, or campaign idea before a product is created. Beyond that, it’s hard to mine data that doesn’t yet exist.
Until state and federal laws are reformed, which appears unlikely any time soon, the cannabis branding race will be encumbered by all the rules and cross-currents of an unsettled legal landscape. Damashek uses Coca Cola to illustrate the point. “Imagine if, to create a bottle of Coca Cola, in each state you had to grow the sugar cane and you couldn’t use it in any other state; you had to process it within each state; you had to package it to meet each state’s regulations; you had to tailor your advertising to suit each jurisdiction, and so on.”
Indeed, a perplexing problem not easily solved, but most especially without data.
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