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Buyer Beware For Distressed Cannabis Assets

By Joanne Molinaro, Geoffrey S. Goodman, Ronald Eppen
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The legalized cannabis industry remains a budding market in the United States. As the legislative dominoes started to cascade from state-to-state across the country, entrants of all categories—operators, investors, lenders, and retailers—were willing to stand in line for their tickets.  However, signs of fatigue, caused largely by the continuing murkiness of regulatory guidance and investors’ waning appetite for reading the legislative crystal ball, were already surfacing towards the end of 2018 and continued its slide downward into 2019. From March 2019, market capitalization for the 33 biggest cannabis stocks was down 45% by the end of 2019, falling from $54 billion to $30 billion and projected revenues dropped a whopping 17% as well.

Has COVID Made Things Worse?

Against this backdrop, COVID-19 arrived on the scene. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), cannabis seemed to be somewhat insulated from unprecedented disruptions to supply chains and artificial nose dives in demand. Many operators noted a sharp uptick in sales as states implemented shelter-in-place orders. Ironically, the supply chain hurdles created by the lack of federal legalization rendered operators—even multistate operators (MSOs)—uniquely equipped to handle the supply chain woes that others were struggling to contain. Meanwhile, as more and more states slapped the essential label onto both medical and adult use cannabis, operators were permitted to run business as usual (under the circumstances) and legalized cannabis started to look a little more “normal” in the most abnormal of times.

Thus, for a moment, cannabis looked like it might be a counter indicator (or recession-resilient)—while others were going down, cannabis was going up. But, after this brief surge, sales settled down and states began reporting decreases from this time last year and the outlook for the cannabis industry remains unclear.

Is This An Opportunity?

Declining demand, coupled with the issues described above, spells cash-flow problems for cannabis companies – many of which are still relative “infants” compared to their consumer goods counterparts and thus may have yet to create a “rainy day fund.” However, liquidity issues can create opportunities for those who still have cash to inject. In the last year, 13 special-purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) have listed on exchanges with an eye towards “cheap cannabis assets.”Cheap cannabis assets (or distressed cannabis assets) can offer a lowered barrier to entry into what many still believe to be a bull market. However, investors should proceed with caution. While the assets themselves may bear bargain basement price tags as the world grapples with the current recession, the cost of entry is more onerous than many realize. It is thus critical for potential investors to do their pre-due diligence on the who, what, when, where and how of acquiring distressed cannabis assets.

Where Do Distressed Cannabis Companies Go?

Ordinarily, distressed companies requiring capital restructuring look towards the US Bankruptcy Code. Deploying the broad injunctive relief afforded by the automatic stay as both a sword and shield, ailing companies can focus on lining up debtor-in-possession financing while they prospect feasible long-term exit strategies (through a reorganization, asset sale, or some combination of the two). The other major advantage of a chapter 11 is, of course, the “free and clear” order—the veritable clean slate provided by a federal court to good faith purchasers of the distressed assets that allow buyers to proceed with very few strings attached.

These federal benefits are not available to adult use and medical cannabis companies (hemp companies can file for chapter 11). Indeed, some bankruptcy courts have shut the door on not just the operators themselves, but companies that have even tangential dealings with cannabis companies.  With federal legalization, that will likely change; however in the meantime, distressed cannabis companies must look to pseudo-bankruptcy proceedings that offer some of the benefits that a federal bankruptcy can.

Is A State Receivership A Good Restructuring Vehicle For Distressed Cannabis Companies?

The number one option for many distressed cannabis companies will be state receivership. Much like a chapter 11 bankruptcy, the receivership provides for a stay against actions against the company’s assets, i.e., the breathing space it needs to hatch a plan for rehabilitation or exit the game as painlessly as possible. The receiver will be empowered to run the business while ironing out its operational/cash issues or conduct an orderly sale of the assets, usually through an auction process, during which the secured lender will be afforded the right to credit bid. The costs associated with that sale may be charged to the sale proceeds. Thus, in many ways, the state receivership acts like a federal bankruptcy.

How Is A State Receivership Different From A Federal Bankruptcy?

There are two main differences that investors should be aware of between a federal bankruptcy and a state receivership.

As with anything else that’s up for sale, where there’s a will, there’s a way.First, the court appointed receiver (often handpicked by the company’s primary secured lender) will be calling most of the shots from an operational, transactional, and financial perspective. That receiver may not have the kind of operational know-how of running a cannabis company that a typical debtor-in-possession might, making any major transaction more challenging. Even if the receiver has some background in the cannabis industry, he or she will still have a steep learning curve when it comes to the company’s specific business.

Second, the laws vary from state to state on whether a receiver can sell assets free and clear of any and all liens, claims, and encumbrances without the consent or satisfaction of those claims. Accordingly, buyers of distressed cannabis assets will want to take a close look at potential successor liability risks on a state-by-state basis.

Can Anyone Buy Or Invest In Distressed Cannabis Assets?

While many industries offer pay to play options for investors and lenders, the cannabis industry may not be as welcoming. Many lenders eyeing potentially lucrative refinancing possibilities that include an “equity kicker” (e.g., warrants) should be aware that states and municipalities often require investors aiming to own or control a substantial portion of the company’s business to satisfy most, if not all, of the regulatory requirements for holding the various licenses for operating in the cannabis space. For those interested in MSOs, a deep dive into each applicable state or city’s licensing requirements will be necessary.  Similarly, many states have onerous disclosure requirements for owners or financial interest holders of cannabis companies. Failures to disclose can lead to license suspensions or even forfeitures.

These are just some of the hurdles potential investors and lenders may need to scale. But as with anything else that’s up for sale, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Jennifer Whetzel

Branding for Cannabis Companies 101: Part 1

By Jennifer Whetzel
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Jennifer Whetzel

Busy entrepreneurs often skip steps in their business development process, particularly in the cannabis space. Since this is a new industry, there isn’t a long history of marketing/advertising efforts to look back on; the standards are still being developed. But more often, businesses simply may not have a budget large enough to pay an agency, and they may not feel confident executing these efforts on their own.

Fortunately, you can do a lot independently to get your name out there. This three-part series will give you a quick primer on branding – what it is, why it’s important and how to do it. But first, we need to discuss the differences between branding, marketing and advertising so that you know what kind of tools you have at your disposal.

What is Branding?

Branding should be considered a prerequisite to marketing and advertising.

Branding: Who
Marketing: What & Why
Advertising: Where & When

Branding is simply thinking about your company from the inside-out. It’s asking yourself questions about the kind of person your brand would be, down to its beliefs, personality and sense of style. Ultimately, we do this to build a deep emotional connection with potential customers. When you know who you are and put yourself out in the world, you’re signaling to them that you are a good match for each other.

When you have a brand that consistently forms emotional relationships with customers, that bond converts to both income and long-term company value, making your spending on marketing and advertising go further. It gives you a competitive advantage over companies with weak or non-existent branding (and in the U.S. cannabis industry, there are plenty of those). Moreover, it’s a key factor that venture capitalists and friendly Fortune 500s look for in potential investments.

So, what should you be asking yourself when it comes to branding? Start with exploring the fundamentals. Decide on the philosophical, emotional and visual characteristics of your brand.

As far as the philosophical questions go, it’s important to codify your mission, brand values, customer promise, core competency and future vision to build a strategic brand. Think about what you’re offering, how it will change lives, and what unique qualities will help you make it all happen.

The Four Ps: Product, Price, Place and Promotion.The philosophical characteristics help you decide who you are. Your emotional characteristics are the ones that connect you with the world. These would include your creation story, your brand personality and tone of voice. How does your brand see and respond to the world? Why? People love consistency. Having a consistent presentation makes your brand feel more authentic; in turn, people are more receptive to you.

The visual qualities are how the world should see you. These assets should include your color palette, fonts, imagery and logo. Making decisions about your brand’s appearance may feel subjective and overwhelming to people, but it doesn’t have to be. Basically, evaluate these ideas and assets in terms of how your audience is likely to respond to these elements. For example, how does your happy-go-lucky audience feel about a logo that is lime green versus corporate blue? Which color best reflects your brand sensibility? You know who you are; the visual characteristics are how you plan to show it.

Marketing

As a discipline, marketing traditionally involves making strategic decisions about the four Ps: Product, Price, Place and Promotion. These decisions become significantly easier once you have defined your brand.

Essentially, marketing addresses the way your brand lives in the world. It tells potential customers what you sell, and why they should choose your brand. It involves making thoughtful decisions and having a strategy for decisions such as product names and your corporate culture.

You also need to think about your pricing strategy and how that manifests in front of customers. For example, are you a high-end product with a premium price or the Walmart of weed? What’s your customer service strategy? Are your budtenders in flannel or lab coats?By now, you know who your brand is and how you want to present it to the world. Now you need to get consumers to see it that way. That’s where advertising comes into play.

Marketing also involves decisions about collateral—namely, your product packaging, brochures, signs and trade show booths. It also impacts your brand’s in-person presence. That could include experiences like events your company attends, trade shows where you have a booth or table, sensory experiences or even AR/VR experiences with your product.

By now, you know who your brand is and how you want to present it to the world. Now you need to get consumers to see it that way. That’s where advertising comes into play.

Advertising

Generally, advertising relates to paid campaigns that are carefully written and designed to tell potential customers where, when, why and how to connect with your brand and buy your products and services.

Fortunately, you have the tools to thrive by putting in the work to get to know your brand.These campaigns are often launched within the space of owned media, such as television commercials, radio and print ads and billboards. There are tons of digital and social media options. Your job is to find the ones that your customers interact with and decide what you want to say about yourself. For example, what kind of sites would you want to place ads on? What state of mind are customers in when they go to those sites? And what message do you want them to get from you in that moment?

Normally, answering these questions would be daunting. But since you’ve already decided who your brand is, you may already know what colors you want to use for this ad. You’ve already considered what your mission is. You know how your brand should appear to the world. And since you’ve unlocked these truths, you’ll be able to develop campaigns that feel genuine, unique, and memorable.

Connecting with consumers and making them remember you isn’t optional. It’s what will ultimately decide whether your business survives or not. Fortunately, you have the tools to thrive by putting in the work to get to know your brand. It’s tough, and it may not come easily at first. But we don’t start a business because it’s easy. We accept the risks and frustrations because we love what we do. Tell everyone why they should too.