How to Grow a Brand in Cannabis: Q&A with Piers Cooper

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One of the great narratives of 2020 is the rise of brands in cannabis. State-by-state legalization measures are continuing apace, but the market remains fragmented in the U.S.

What are consumers to do? How can new and experienced consumers sift through the industry and find consistent brands that they can come to know and support? It’s a difficult question.

Piers Cooper, president of CalEthos, is overseeing the launch of the Showcase retail brand in California this year. The plan is to allow established and developing cannabis brands (edibles brands, beverage lines, etc.) into the store, where they’ll be showcased in their own boutique-style displays. And so, he’s been thinking a lot about cannabis branding lately.

Here, we spoke with Cooper about some of the fundamentals that go into cannabis branding—and the lessons that cannabis companies can draw from wineries, especially, around the international market.

Cannabis Dispensary: Can you describe the problems brands are facing in the cannabis market right now?

Piers Cooper: Well, it’s why we called our business Showcase—to be able to show all their product. The problem brands have today is they sell into dispensaries, and dispensaries are relatively small-footprint stores, mostly. That brand can usually only get a few of their SKUs onto a shelf. The dispensary only wants to have a couple of brands of pre-rolls, a couple of brands of this, a couple of brands of that. And maybe they want to change some suppliers, and the brand gets in there and can have two or three products out of maybe 500 products they make. So, it’s very hard for a brand to stand out in a typical dispensary.

CD: Brands obviously are a huge part of every other retail segment in the world. And obviously cannabis is sort of coming into its own. On the consumer side, how has that been hurting consumers, this lack of brand visibility?

PC: The brands that have emerged on a national level, it’s a one-off thing. The consumer really only thinks, ‘Oh, this company makes that. That company makes this other thing.’ They don’t realize there’s a whole range of products coming out of each brand. So, there’s no brand loyalty; there’s product loyalty today. And even that the consumers are finding frustrating, because the local dispensary often doesn’t have that product. Or they switched it out for a different thing.

RELATED: CalEthos Unveils Immersive Showcase Retail Concept for Cannabis Brands 

It creates confusion. The consumer is unhappy about that. So, we’re trying to, with our Showcase, have an experience where we will have all the brands, all the products from a particular brand in a boutique in the store. So, they know if they like a certain brand’s product, we’re going to have it. And there’s going to be an expert there that will describe the benefits that that brand has [information on] how they source, how they manufacture, all the good things about the brand.

CD: That seems key: getting the actual brand personnel in front of the customer.

PC: [Too often,] all they know is all that this brand apparently makes a really good 5:1 vape cartridge, right? ‘People tell me this is good. I tried it myself and I liked it.’ That’s the sort of conversation you’re going to have with a budtender. You’re not going to know about the terroir that the flower was grown in, and whether it was dry-cultivated or grown in a greenhouse or whatever, right? And all of this add to the flavor and what you’re getting in the end product.

CD: What are some of the early things that a company can do to distinguish its brand and set it up as some sort of consistent message to consumers?

PC: I think this goes to the core of branding itself for any product. You’ve got to think about what market we want to address with our product. What is different about our product? Why we differentiate it from any competition—or, if it’s a new space, why should this be of interest to the consumer? So, those things have got to be understood by the founders of the company to start with. Then a brand has to be built on top of those messages that conveys that to the public.

It’s branding that is used in all sections of all business, really. It’s cannabis it’s not really any different. What is different is cannabis is there’s just so much noise. Everyone’s shouting and screaming, ‘Look at me! I’ve got fantastic packaging! My packaging is beautiful!’ I looked at some really nice packaging for some new product from a grower that’s well known, a really good grower that supplies a lot of people in the industry, and they’re coming out with their own consumer line now. And I looked at their packaging—the packaging was beautiful. And that was the message they were pushing, rather than the history of the grow. They’ve gone with some really high-end design agency, and the stock looks stunning. It was Apple-esque and really nice, but it didn’t convey to me that these people have been crying for 15, 20 years. They knew everything. They had great strains, all that fun stuff. That never came through.

So, there’s a balance of having something that looks and feels good with conveying the history. It’s done fairly well in wine. You know, the wine’s come from this chateau in France, and it was established in this year and it’s got a label that conveys that history of growing great things.

CD: When it comes to capital raises and investors, maybe even shareholders, depending on the size of company, where does the brand come in on that point? How should that be communicated to that audience?

PC: If one was starting a brand today, I think if you have the right messages around the brand and you’ve really given us a lot of thought, you can go out and do a traditional sort of friends-and-family round to get something off the ground. Today, you can start a brand with no grow, no manufacturing facility and no ability to distribute. Because there are people that do all that for you. So if you are really good at the branding and the social media, you can create a brand relatively inexpensively and get it to market and use your own shoe-leather to go around local dispensaries and get it in stock and see how it goes. And some people have done that in the last couple of years and are being very successful.

The other side of the market is you’ve got the big guys coming in with Canadian money, who are trying to bring more generic brands in. I don’t think that that’s a good approach, although they are buying a lot of the craft brands up at the moment. I’m not sure about how consumers are going to take to that.

The wine market is once again pretty similar to this. Wine was always small growers, medium-sized growers. And there’s been a lot of consolidation of that over the last 10, 15 years. But they kept the brands, they kept the uniqueness around those brands, even though a lot of them are owned by big companies.

CD: What do you hope attendees will bring back to their business from your session at Cannabis Conference 2020?

PC: I would hope that they get the understanding that there are people out there to help them create the brand identity—very good branding agencies out there. If you’ve got an idea to build a brand, you can do it. And if you have a brand that is maybe struggling certain areas—maybe a distributor’s not too good and you need help finding another distributor. There are techniques for social media marketing that you can get away with—all sorts of stuff like that. And there are locations like ours where we want to showcase everything a brand produces and give brands direct communication with the consumer.

 

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