In September of 2019, Charles Wilcoxen fell seriously ill after vaping cannabis oil from a cartridge. Just days after he began experiencing symptoms he was hospitalized and later diagnosed with lipoid pneumonia, the mysterious lung illness now known as EVALI associated with the 2019 vape crisis.
Wilcoxen spent three days in the hospital and ever since he was diagnosed, he has been unable to exercise, return to work full time or even play with his daughter. Attorneys for Herrmann Law Group representing Wilcoxen filed a product liability lawsuit, Wilcoxen v. Canna Brand Solutions, LLC, et al., in Washington State Court, naming six cannabis companies as defendants: Canna Brand Solutions, Conscious Cannabis, Rainbow’s Aloft, Leafwerx, MFused and Janes Garden.
Canna Brand Solutions, the primary defendant named in the complaint, is a packaging supplier and distributor for CCELL vaping products (heating elements, pens and batteries) in the state of Washington. The complaint alleges that Wilcoxen believes he used a CCELL vape. CCELL is a Chinese company, which makes it notoriously difficult to pursue legal action against them, hence why Canna Brand Solutions was listed as a defendant instead.
On August 31, 2020, Judge Michael Schwartz dismissed all claims against Canna Brand Solutions. “All claims asserted by Plaintiff against Canna Brand in the above-mentioned matter shall be voluntarily dismissed without prejudice and without costs or fees to any of the parties to this litigation,” Judge Schwartz says in the dismissal. Judge Schwartz dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning it could be brought to the court again should the plaintiff’s attorneys decide to do so.
With the allegations against Canna Brand Solutions focusing on CCELL products, it seems that the case was dismissed largely due to a lack of evidence connecting exactly which product resulted in the illness, as well as the lack of culpability for a distributor of products they did not manufacture.
Daniel Allen, founder and president of Canna Brands Solutions, claims that the product mentioned in the complaint did not come from his company. “We stand by our high quality and customizable CCELL vaporization products,” says Allen. “We feel vindicated in this case by the judge’s decision, which shows the claims against our company and products were completely unfounded from the beginning.”
He also added that the quality and safety of the products they distribute is their highest priority. “The product in question involved in this case did not come from Canna Brand Solutions,” says Allen.
Wilcoxen’s illness and subsequent long-term lung injury is extremely unfortunate. Thousands of people have been hospitalized and 68 deaths have been confirmed by the CDC. The CDC is still calling the illness EVALI (e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury). According to the CDC, there is no real known cause of EVALI, but they have found that vitamin E acetate is “strongly linked” to the outbreak. Knowing that, it is entirely possible that Mr. Wilcoxen’s illness was a result of one of the cannabis products he consumed, just most likely not anything that came from Canna Brand Solutions. A closer look at the contents with an independent lab test of the THC oil he consumed could shed some more light on what exactly caused the illness.
I would venture to guess that one of the products he consumed did have vitamin E acetate. Because the case was dismissed without prejudice, it could be brought to the court again if, say, Mr. Wilcoxen’s attorneys were to obtain more evidence, such as an independent lab report showing vitamin E acetate in the contents of one of the products he consumed. If Mr. Wilcoxen’s attorneys can figure out which product actually contained vitamin E acetate, perhaps the lawsuit could get a second shot and Mr. Wilcoxen could have a greater chance at getting some long-overdue and much-deserved restitution.
The e-cigarette or vaping use-associated lung injury (EVALI) outbreak of 2019 caught the attention of many, and has brought with it the scrutiny of both regulators and plaintiffs’ attorneys eager to act as “civil prosecutors.” As Tolkien would say, the Eye of Sauron has now turned its gaze towards the cannabis vapor industry.
With the misinformation and negative publicity that the EVALI outbreak brought to the industry, vaporizer device manufacturers should expect more lawsuits to be filed against them through 2020 and beyond. The cannabis vapor industry should also expect the theories of defect alleged against their products to become more sophisticated as more plaintiffs’ attorneys enter the arena.
One theory of defect you should expect plaintiff’s attorneys to pursue in 2020 is what I generally refer to as “temperature control litigation.”
Here is the problem:
Typical additives in cannabis oil, while once thought to be safe, can degrade at higher temperatures into toxic chemicals. For example, the Vape Crisis of 2019 was largely attributed to a cannabis oil additive known as vitamin E acetate. While typically regarded as safe for use in nutritional supplements or hand creams, when used in cannabis oil, investigators believe vitamin E acetate can degrade into a toxic chemical when vaped—and is responsible for causing mass pulmonary illness for thousands of consumers.
Researchers do not fully understand how this process occurs, but chemists from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland found in a recent study that the key is understanding how temperatures affect chemicals when vaping. Through a process known as pyrolysis, the study found that vitamin E acetate can possibly degrade into ketene when vaped at higher temperatures—depending on the type of coil resistance, voltage and temperature configuration used in a vaporizer device. (Ketene has a high pulmonary toxicity, and can be lethal at high concentrations, while low concentrations can cause central nervous system impairment.) Similar studies have also shown that additives like Propylene Glycol (PG), Vegetable Glycerin (VG), and Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) can degrade into toxic chemicals at high temperatures—which has led Colorado to ban the use of PEG for inhalable cannabis products altogether.
More shocking, is that such temperature control issues are not limited to additives. It is very common for experienced users to experiment with low to high temperatures when vaping cannabis; it is believed that vaping cannabis at low temperatures (325-350°F) results in a mild high, while vaping cannabis at higher temperatures (400-430°F) results in a more euphoric feeling and intense high. But when cannabis is vaped at even higher temperatures (450°F +), industry experts do not really know if or how cannabinoids and terpenes degrade, which combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes affect degradation and what the health risks could be. It’s anyone’s guess.
These temperature control issues are further complicated due to the universal 5/10 thread. Most consumers purchase cannabis oil through pre-filled “carts” (cartridges)—that are compatible with 90% of vaporizer batteries on the market because of universal 5/10 thread connectors. But vaporizer batteries can operate anywhere from sub-300 degrees to 800 degrees and above. Coupled with varying battery voltages, ceramic coil quality and oil quality, vaporizer batteries can produce a wide range of operating temperatures. Consequently, it is possible users could connect a cart to a vaporizer battery (set at too high a temperature configuration) and risk pyrolysis, change the chemicals inside their cannabis cart, and cause unknown harm to themselves.
Unquestionably, all of the above will result in lawsuits. Companies that manufacture cannabis oil will be sued for failing to conduct emissions testing to properly evaluate safe temperature settings for use of their carts. Vaporizer device manufacturers will be sued for failing to publish warnings, instructions and adequate owner’s manuals regarding the same. And the rallying cry against the cannabis vapor industry will be damaging. Plaintiff’s attorneys will accuse the industry of choosing profits over safety: “The cannabis vapor industry knew cannabis oils could turn into toxic chemicals when heated at high temperatures, but instead of conducting long-term emissions testing to evaluate those concerns, the industry chose profits over safety. As long as the industry made money, no one cared what dangers arose from elevated temperatures—and consumers paid the price.”
With the above as background, it is critical for the cannabis vapor industry to get serious about product testing. The industry needs to know if and why certain cannabinoids, terpenes and additives can turn into toxic chemicals when they are vaporized at high temperatures—and how the industry can guard against such dangers. And to cover their bases, the industry needs to publish proper warnings and owner’s manuals for all products. The time to act is now.
The cannabis industry is fraught with hypocrisy. Cannabis is good medicine as has been established by the numerous patients we have seen who are now off of their opioids, benzos and sleep agents due to the addition of medical cannabis products to their regimen. We see patients using cannabis when nothing else has worked and they tell us about their decreased suffering on a daily basis and thank us profusely for staying open during the COVID-19 shutdown, due to our designation as an essential business in Maryland.
The fact that this essential business has seen an increase in business due to the anxiety surrounding Covid-19 is an indication that our society will be dealing with the ramifications of anxiety, PTSD and depression for a long time to come as we deal with the fallout from the pandemic. Our forced shutdown of the workforce has resulted in the opportunity to look deeply at our basic assumptions and policies. Policing and incarceration for what is now a medically-necessary component to society is the crime. We believe that we have the opportunity to rectify the errors of our past and release those still imprisoned for cannabis possession, use, etc.
Further, as evidenced by our country’s recovery from the great depression, the legalization of alcohol certainly helped to bolster the economy. The US has the same opportunity with the cannabis industry. Tax revenue from the legalization of cannabis nationwide is sure to add a much-needed economic boost to help us recover from the disaster of this pandemic.
Our country has had an unfortunate historical relationship with a plant that has the potential to ease suffering safely and bring about some much-needed economic stimulation. It’s high time we fix the mistakes of our past and create a kinder and more inclusive future.
Back in late 2016, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) legalized delivery for cannabis products. Since then, dispensaries could offer a delivery option for their customers to purchase cannabis products without leaving the comfort of their home. Up until quite recently, that market was dominated by a handful of dispensaries who also conduct business at their physical location, offering delivery as an option while conducting most sales in-person.
Enter Pot Mates. Founded in 2018 by Hammond Potter, the company embarked on the long regulatory road towards licensing and beginning operations. On April 20, 2020, Pot Mates opened for business, starting their engines to take on the fledgling cannabis delivery market in Portland.
Pot Mates is a tech startup through and through. The founders are former Apple employees. Hakon Khajavei, the chief marketing officer at Pot Mates, founded Blackline Collective, a business and marketing consultancy, which is where he joined the Pot Mates team. The other co-founder of Pot Mates and chief technology officer, Jason Hinson, joined after serving in the US Navy as an electronics technician maintaining satellite communications networks.
With the sheer amount of regulations for cannabis businesses, coupled with the new delivery-based business model, Pot Mates had to focus on technology and automation from the get-go.
Not Just an Online Dispensary
For the cannabis companies already offering delivery in the Portland metro area, their websites seem to mimic the in-person dispensary experience. They offer dozens of products for each category, like concentrates, edibles and flower, making a customer pour through options, all at different price points, which can get confusing for the average consumer.
Pot Mates does things a little differently. “Our start up process was thinking through how do we make this the best experience possible, how do we get rid of the unnecessary junk and how do we do things that only an online dispensary can do,” says Khajavei. They have flat pricing across the board. In each category, almost every product is priced the same, moving away from the common tiered-pricing model. This, Khajavei says, removes the decision barriers customers often face. Instead of choosing the right price point, they can choose the delivery mechanism and effect they desire uninhibited by a difference in cost.
It all comes back to focusing on the simplest way for someone to buy cannabis. “Shopping online is just very different,” says Khajavei. “Our process focuses on the customer journey and limits the number of products we offer. We have a mood system, where we tag our products from reviews to typify moods that you experience with different products.” All of that requires a lot of back-end technology built into their website.
The Long Regulatory Road
Technology has been a strong suit for Pot Mates since they opened their doors, and well before that too. Making the decision to be an online-only delivery cannabis company pushed them to pursue a very unique business model, but regulations dictate a lot of the same requirements that one might see in dispensaries.
The same rules apply to them when Pot Mates submitted their license application. You need to have a signed lease, extreme security measures, detailed business plans, integrated seed-to-sale traceability software (Metrc in Oregon) and much more. “During the months leading up to getting our license, we were able to iron out a lot of the regulatory details ahead of time,” says Khajavei. A lot of that was about security and tracking their products, which is why technology plays such a huge role in their ongoing regulatory compliance efforts. “We built in a lot of automation in our system for regulatory compliance,” says Khajavei. “Because of our technology, we are a lot faster.”
In the end, their licensing process through the state of Oregon as well as the city of Portland took about nine months. Once they had the license, they could finally get down to business and begin the process of building their website, their POS system, their inventory and reaching out to partners, producers, distributors and growers.
For any cannabis company, there are a number of regulations unique to their business. “We need to report every product movement in house through Metrc,” says Khajavei. “Every time something is repackaged it needs to be reported. We focus so much on our technology and automation because these regulations force us to do so.” But delivery companies are required to report even more. Pot Mates needs to report every single movement a product makes until it reaches the customer. Before the delivery can leave the shop, it is reported to Metrc with an intended route, using turn-by-turn directions. It complicates things when you make two or more deliveries in one trip. Reporting a daisy chain of deliveries a vehicle makes with turn-by-turn directions to regulatory authorities can get very tedious.
As far as regulations go for delivery parameters, they can legally deliver anywhere inside Portland city limits. “It is our job to figure that out, not the customer’s job; so we don’t have any distance limits, as long as it is residential,” Khajavei says. “We programmed customized technology that allows us to handle really small orders.” Without a minimum order policy or a distance limit, Pot Mates can reach a much bigger group of consumers.
Launching in the Midst of a Global Pandemic
Luckily, the Pot Mates team received their license just in time. About two weeks after they submitted their application, Oregon put a moratorium on any new dispensaries.
They went forward with their launch on April 20 this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic impacting just about every business in the world, including their marketing efforts tremendously. With cannabis deemed essential by the state, they could operate business as usual, just with some extra precautions. What’s good for PotMates is that they don’t need to worry about keeping social distancing policies for customers or curbside pickup, given the lack of storefront.
Advertising Cannabis in a Pandemic is No Easy Task
“The marketing aspect is where covid-19 really hurt us,” says Khajavei. “There are so many regulations for cannabis companies advertising already. Unlike other products, we can’t just put up advertisements anywhere. We have to follow very specific rules.” So, in addition to the normal marketing woes in the cannabis industry, the team then had to deal with a pandemic.
Pot Mates had to scrap their entire marketing strategy for 2020 and redo it. “We wanted to begin with a lot of face-to-face marketing at events, but that didn’t quite work out so well.” Without any concerts, industry events or large gatherings of any kind, Pot Mates had to pivot to digital marketing entirely. They started building their SEO, growing their following on social media, producing content in the form of blogs and education around cannabis and the local laws.
On an Upward Trajectory
Obviously, the short-term problem for a new cannabis company is reaching people, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. “We have a good trajectory though, we know we are growing our business, but we still have a ways to go,” says Khajavei. It doesn’t help that social media companies have nonsensical policies regarding cannabis. Their Facebook page was recently removed too.
But the bigger issue here is kind of surprising when you first hear it: “It’s not even a matter of customer preference, a lot of people just have no idea that delivery is even legal.”
It’s pretty evident that cannabis delivery has not really gone mainstream yet. “We’ve told people about our business in the past and a common answer we get is, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know we could get cannabis delivered.’” It’s never crossed their mind that they can get cannabis delivered to their home. It’s an awareness problem. It’s a marketing problem. But it’s a good problem to have and the solution lies in outreach. Through educational content they post on social media and in their blog, Khajavei wants to spread the word: “Hey, this is a real thing, you can get cannabis delivered.”
As the market develops and as consumers begin to key in on cannabis delivery, there’s nowhere to go but up. Especially in the age of Amazon and COVID-19 where consumers can get literally anything they can dream of delivered to their front door.
Moving forward, Pot Mates has plans to expand as soon as they can. Right now, they’re limited to Portland city limits, but there’s a massive population just outside of Portland in towns like Beaverton, Tigard and Tualatin. “We are so close to these population centers but can’t deliver to them now because of the rules. We want to work with OLCC about this and hopefully change the rules to allow us to deliver outside of the city limits,” says Khajavei. In the long term, they plan to expand out of state, with Washington on their north border being first on the docket.
To the average person, one would think launching a delivery cannabis business in the midst of a global pandemic would be a walk in the park, but Pot Mates proved it’s no easy task. As the market develops and the health crisis continues, it seems the Oregon market will react positively to the nascent delivery market, but first they need to know it is even an option.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, most testing laboratories have been classified as relevant for the system or as carrying out essential activities for national governments. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain activities and optimally assess the changes that are occurring, framed within the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Analytica Alimentaria GmbH, a testing laboratory with its headquarters in Berlin, Germany and a branch office in Almeria, Spain, decided to focus its management on the analysis of events and the options available, at the legal and employment level, to ensure continuity of activities and reducing, as much as possible, the damage for the parties involved: employees and company. Accredited by the International Accreditation Service (IAS) to ISO/IEC 17025:2017, Analytica Alimentaria GmbH is required to implement risk-based thinking to identify, assess and treat risks and opportunities for the laboratory. Since March 12, 2020 a crisis committee was established, formed by the six members of the company’s management, covering general management, human resources, direction of production, finance and IT. The committee meets every day and it intends to:
Minimize the risks of contagion
Be able to continue providing the service required by our clients
ensure that the company as a whole will survive the economic impact of the crisis
Take measures that are within the legality of both countries where the laboratory operates (Spain and Germany),
Manage internal and external communication related to the crisis
To achieve correct decision making, daily meetings of the committee were established, to review the situations that were presented day after day and the actions that should be carried out. Each decision was analysed in a prioritized, objective, collaborative and global way.
The basis of the lab’s action plan was a well-developed risk assessment. In addition to the risk of getting a droplet or smear/contact infection with the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (risk I) by contact with other people, psychological stress caused by changing working conditions (home office), contact options and information channels were also identified (risk II).
As a result of the risk assessment, the conclusion was that a mix of various measures is the best form of prevention:
Avoid “super spreader” events
Regular communication between managers and personnel about the current situation and possible scenarios
The risk assessment took both areas into account. The following assessment was developed together with an external specialist and focused on risk I:
Protective measures / hygiene plan
Working hours and break arrangements
Limit the gathering of people and ensure a minimum distance:
Relocated work, break and mealtimes
Create fixed groups of shift-working staff
Time gap of 20 min. between the shifts
Enable home office wherever it is possible
Third party access
Few but “well-known” visitors:
Reduce the number of visits and keep internal contacts to a minimum
Ensure the contact chain
Inform visitors about the internal rules and obtain written consent
Isolation and immediate leave of the company:
Contactless fever measurement (in case of typical symptoms)
Leave the company or stay at home
If the infection is confirmed, find contact persons (including customers or visitors) and inform them about a possible risk of infection
Contact with other persons
Traffic route from home to work
Avoid public transportation:
Take a car, bicycle or go by foot
Enable mobile work and teleworking
Always keep a sufficient distance of 2.0 m from people:
If minimum distances cannot be maintained, wear protective masks or install physical barriers (acrylic glass)
Organize traffic routes so that minimum distances can be maintained (one-way routes, floor markings indicating a distance of 2 m)
Use digital meetings instead of physical ones
Remove virus-loaded droplet as often as possible:
Provide skin-friendly liquid soaps and towel dispensers
Shorten or intensify cleaning intervals
Hang out instructions for washing hands at the sink
Include instructions for proper hand-disinfection
Canteens, tea kitchens and break rooms
One person per 10 m² = minimum:
Reduce the number of chairs per table
Informative signs in every room, indicating the maximum number of permitted persons
Diluting or removing bioaerosols (1 µm virus-droplets):
Leave as many doors open as possible
Regular and documented shock ventilation every 30 minutes or more frequently, depending on the size of window
Operate ventilation and air-conditioning systems, since the transmission risk is classified as low here
Use of work equipment
Use tools and work equipment for personal use:
Regular cleaning with changing use (PC, hand tools, coffee machine, …)
If possible, use gloves when using equipment for a larger number of users
Use of protective masks as an additional measure, indicating that this does not replace keeping distance
Recommend wearing masks in commonly used areas and explain that they do not protect yourself, but help to protect others
Give clear instructions (written and oral) on how to use a mask correctly and explain the use and purpose of different mask-types
Distribute masks freely
A number of guidelines and concrete measures addressing the risks related to health issues are already in place. Those health issues in risk group II are more closely related to the psychological effects of the crisis, however, are also more complex to mitigate. The key strategy is communication and, in particular, actively listening to all employees of the company.
Analytica’s robust company culture, based on values established in coordination with the whole staff, has been of significant help during the crisis. The some 150 staff members are organized by over 22 team coordinators. During the crisis, active communication has been intensified significantly. The crisis management team set up regular alignment meetings with all the coordinators and with individual persons with particular situations. This way, not only was it possible to explain the development of the crisis and the subsequent measures, the conversations with coordinators were also the most important source of information enabling the appropriate decisions. The coordinators, closely aligned and in sync with management, were then able to communicate with their team members with a high degree of confidence. One outcome of the communication was a measure that proved very effective in fortifying trust within the company: all measures and evaluations, as well as a chronological review, are published in a dynamic internal report and are made available, with full transparency, to all staff members. Besides the many individual and group alignment meetings (usually held by video conference), this has been a key measure to establish confidence and security within the company.
On the other hand, the company made a great effort to balance the effect of the general closure of kindergartens and schools in Spain and Germany. Each case where staff members were required to care for children at home was studied individually and agreements were established, adapting shifts and making use of time accounts, to allow childcare at home without significant loss of income.
The success of the measures is shown by the continuous work of both laboratories during the crisis. Besides the personal tragedy of a possible infection, the identified risk to the company has the consequence of a (partial) quarantine due to an infected person in contact with the staff and the consequent loss of work-power which might lead, in extreme cases, to a closure of the laboratory. According to the governmental regulation in Germany, if an infection occurs (confirmed by the health department), contact persons cat. 1 (more than 15 min. contact face to face) are identified and sent to quarantine. Other contact persons, e.g. contact persons cat. 2 (same room without face to face) must be identified quickly with the collaboration of the infected person and notified and, if necessary, sent in quarantine. In this case, there is a confirmed emergency plan that maintains the laboratory’s ability to work, defining replacements and alternative work-flow strategies.
It has been part of our strategy to validate all our measures with the relevant guidance documents made available by the official competent institutions. The German Federal Office for Public Safety and Civil Protection (Bundesamt für Bevölkerungsschutz und Katastrophenhilfe) has published a guide, “Crisis Management in Companies, 9-point Checklist” especially for critical infrastructure companies in the CoVid-19 crisis.
Having been classified as a core business enterprise (Spain) and “relevant to the system” (Germany), we consider it important to use them as a reference to confirm our level of alignment with your proposal for crisis management.
An important effect, relevant to any leader in times of crisis, is that the confirmation of all points of such a checklist provides certain peace of mind regarding the question: Have we done everything we could?
The COVID-19 crisis is plunging the global economy into recession, changing consumer behavior and the world of business. Cannabis businesses are no stranger to operating in a challenging landscape. The constantly evolving legal status, regulatory hurdles and social stigma has forced founders in this space to be nimble and more financially wise with their capital.
While the market has experienced a seismic shift that has already attracted investors to inject capital into the cannabis industry and seen neighboring industries, including tobacco, alcohol and pharma, come into the fray, COVID-19 will change key industry structures and operations. To succeed and cultivate value, cannabis companies must adapt to the new realities of the marketplace to be well positioned for continued growth after the pandemic subsides.
With social distancing guidelines suddenly forcing brick-and-mortar retailers to move their businesses and customer experiences online and disruptions to the supply chain due to international travel and business directions, some businesses will struggle to stay afloat.
As consumer behaviour and online shopping patterns adjust to a new way of living (affecting B2B sales, online ordering, deliveries and manufacturing), leadership and strategic thinking will be paramount.
By understanding where the challenges and opportunities lie, cannabis businesses can thrive. Here are some focus areas and tactics to consider:
Targeted consumer segmentation through social media
When starting a cannabis business, it is key to understand who your core consumers are and what they want from their products. This has become even more acute because of the pandemic with consumers flocking to all sorts of health-focused products including CBD.
With everybody spending more time online, social media use is on the rise. Executing a social media plan to include influencer outreach can increase brand visibility, build a solid consumer base and create brand advocates.
Instagram is essential to a cannabis business building an online presence but it’s important that it doesn’t become a “hard sell, please buy me” channel. Plan and make Insta-worthy content that educates and entertains followers to increase engagement, click-through rates and leads. Brands may want to pair with an influencer on either a gifting or paid-for basis which will mean the brand appears in a potential customer’s feed as they interact with their favourite accounts.
The art is finding key influencers whose audience is one that you would like to interact with. This type of positioning will allow cannabis businesses to reach a new audience or group of people.
Marketing and PR
In times like these, many companies choose to pull back on communication activities and expenditures for fear of spending too much for what they perceive as little return, however, marketing and PR, when executed well, can be the lifeline of any business.
With so much noise in the market about the “next best thing in cannabis”, effective marketing and PR can distinguish brands that are credible and offer a strong value proposition to those that are all smoke and mirrors.
The current needs of businesses and consumers are much different than they were just a few short months ago, so it’s important to understand these needs and spending habits while combatting negative perceptions of cannabis.
As cannabis companies are not able to advertise like mainstream companies, a strong public relations and marketing strategy will enable firms to communicate their identity, build trust, shift perceptions through media coverage, enhance reputations and reach customers, partners and investors.
Businesses in every sector are cutting costs to keep their businesses afloat. This needs to be done strategically and requires senior leadership teams to explore cost reduction strategies and streamline non-essential costs.
This may mean further consolidation of cannabis companies and supply chains to manage cash flow and maximise resources. Companies may even look to create strategic partnerships with complementary businesses in the industry or push some firms towards mergers and acquisitions.
Business models will evolve as cannabis companies identify inefficiencies and reconfigure their operations and messaging. This could range from assessing their R&D capabilities, agricultural assets, manufacturing chains or route to market.
The postponement of countless CBD Expos, trade shows and cannabis conferences are creating new demand and opportunities for businesses. To reach prospective wholesale clients, investors and connect to their customer base, firms are entering the digital marketplace. Digital events, Zoom investor pitch panels and email marketing and sampling is on the rise and expected to grow over the coming months.
CBD brands should work in parallel with their retail partners to influence product samples in digital offers and create a touchless transaction. Buying products online is going to become a permanently entrenched habit, even when restrictions are fully lifted so it’s worth looking at how technology can support and enhance sales while offering a smooth customer experience.
Everyone in the cannabis industry will be affected by COVID-19 so maintaining positive relationships is vital in these tough times. Calling investors or partners to tell them what is going on with your business or checking in on others in your ecosystem means information can be shared to iron out any issues and help generate ideas to future proof the business. “A problem shared is a problem halved!”
COVID-19 is creating incredible business challenges. As we navigate the new normal, it’s important to adapt and grow. As more products come to market and brands/services develop distinguished offerings, expectations will change so cannabis businesses need to be ready for greener pastures.
Although the COVID-19 crisis has halted many normal business practices, that doesn’t mean that high brand engagement rates have to come to a close. In many states, the cannabis industry has been deemed an essential business. This designation as ‘essential’ opens up a prime opportunity for social media accounts to achieve positive gains and educate people about the valuable benefits of cannabis, especially with so many people staying online for longer periods of time.
It’s been clear for years that social media marketing is one of the most cost-effective ways for a business to reach customers and prospects. However, when it comes to cannabis and cannabis-related businesses, serious social media challenges are everyday occurrences. So how are you supposed to effectively market your business when you can’t promote your products and services? As a marketing professional, I know it’s a tall order, but with some smart strategic moves, it can be done.
There are a few ground rules that cannabis businesses should follow during this ongoing crisis to keep their social media engagement metrics as high as their loyal customers, while remaining in compliance with the strict rules for cannabis marketing. While the laws vary from state to state, that pesky federal illegality and Schedule I designator the DEA is dragging its feet on means that you must pay careful attention to even the smallest details. When it comes to CBD products, the FDA has been outspoken on what not to do as well. Slip up, and mainstream social platforms like Instagram and Facebook can and will restrict or even remove your brand pages. Losing all your followers and posts and having to start from scratch is not fun.
You’ll also need to get creative with your posts. Remember, never promote products, or encourage your audience to get in contact with your business, so always review and proof carefully before posting anything to your feeds. Make these simple mistakes, and your business could be seen by the platform as directly or indirectly soliciting use of an illegal substance. Cannabis businesses already have enough headaches to contend with right now without inadvertently adding to them.
So what should you post and how often? Now is the time to double down on educational and lifestyle related content, and for sharing how your business is addressing the ongoing COVID-19 threat. Share any new procedures and precautions to underscore that your business is dedicated to safety for staff and consumers. Post often, but don’t overdo it. Your posting frequency will be a matter of trial and error, but aim for 3-4 times per week per channel, and be sure to tailor your posts for the platform it will appear on.
Educational content doesn’t automatically mean boring! Keep your content easy to read, and choose a single topical focus or benefit. Use a variety of formats – from publishing informative blogs and podcasts that you can share to your social media accounts to direct posts of how-to and behind-the-scenes videos and rich lifestyle imagery (no product photos, please). Posting these types of media with smart captions can help gain the attention of your audience and are easy for viewers to share with their friends and followers. Speaking of which…
Embrace earned media opportunities and social media influencers who can promote your brand. If you’re not familiar with the term, earned media is the bucket we use to describe content that’s being shared and talked about by users, or even created by them. That organic exposure to a wider audience is the highly desirable side-effect of having great content – positive attention that gets shared by others.
If you’re considering working social media influencers, look for those that are already engaged with members of your target audience or that would have appeal to your customers. Be sure they can demonstrate real ROI and that they understand the importance of remaining compliant with FTC and platform specific guidelines for posting, including compensation disclosures – before signing them. Many marketing and PR agencies provide vetting of influencers, and can even negotiate contracts, often at better rates. Before deciding if influencers are right for your brand, you may want to consult with a reputable agency that has experience with hiring (and firing) social influencers.
Finally, if you haven’t yet done so, consider establishing a profile on one or more of the rapidly growing cannabis-friendly social media platforms. These include sites such as Weedable, duby, and CannaSOS. There are also a number of social media platforms focused specifically on cannabis businesses and professionals, such as Leafwire and MJLink (formerly WeedCircles). If you’re still not sure or cannot tackle this yourself, consult with an experienced marketing agency. Now get out there (safely, of course) and conquer those social media platforms the right way! Stay the course, and by the time this crisis is over, your brand could achieve a more solid position on social media, and more engaged followers.
The Brand Marketing Byte showcases highlights from Pioneer Intelligence’s Cannabis Brand Marketing Snapshots, featuring data-led case studies covering marketing and business development activities of U.S. licensed cannabis companies.
Here is a data-led, shallow dive on Chalice Farms:
Chalice Farms – Business Development Impact
Based in Oregon, this company is a retail and edibles brand in the Golden Leaf Holdings portfolio. Chalice Farms has a number of locations in the Portland area, capitalizing on an effective regional strategy.
However, 2019 was a tough year for Oregon cannabis companies. Increased competition and heavy market saturation led to plummeting prices, forcing Chalice Farms to implement layoffs last Spring. 2020 appears to show Chalice Farms doing much better than the previous year.
In addition to tightening operations, the company engaged in several new business development initiatives recently. They’ve expanded distribution of their signature fruit chews into California and Nevada. They also implemented a sales initiative called “an extended 420 celebration,” covering the month of April. All six of the company’s branded retail locations have pivoted to curbside pickup and home delivery during the coronavirus pandemic.
All of those initiatives led to a boom in earned media for Chalice Farms. They were mentioned on CNN and in Forbes, among other national news outlets. The company also improved their web activities considerably, adding keywords, backlinks and a notable increase in web traffic.
Chalice Farms ended the month of April on a high note, moving to the 11th hottest web property, according to data from Pioneer Intelligence. This continued into May; Chalice Farms claimed the #26 position on the Pioneer Index, the highest it has been to date.
Discussion of supply chain disruption has permeated media reports almost daily since the advent of the current COVID-19 crisis – from shortages of toilet paper to cleaning products and meat. Cannabis businesses have not been immune to impacts on their supplies, and for an industry that faces unique challenges during normal times, a disrupted supply chain has emerged as one of the biggest issues to business due to the coronavirus. Deemed essential in many states, cannabis has weathered the storm relating to government-imposed restrictions only to face logistics problems or a scarcity of supplies necessary for manufacturing and/or distributing products to consumers. For many companies, cannabis ERP software has provided a necessary and supportive structure to efficiently manage and mitigate supply chain challenges during this unprecedented time – facilitating continuity and trust in the supply chain for their customers.
What is COVID-19’s impact on the cannabis supply chain?
During this pandemic, the global supply chain has been disrupted due to factory closures, worker illness, slowed production, closed ports and altered transportation routes – leading to shipping delays and fewer supplies available, from cultivating essentials and vaping accessories, to baking ingredients for edible manufacturers and packaging materials. A quarantined workforce, as well as a shortage of healthy crop care and production workers necessary to grow and harvest crops, has also had an effect. Similar to other current supply issues, there has been significant inventory depletion as consumers prepared to stock up on cannabis products for “stay at home” orders in anticipation of spending extended periods of time at their residence. Uniquely pertinent to the cannabis industry, due to the lack of federal legalization, regulation occurs at the state level and therefore each state governs its cannabis inventory available for sale. These factors have all led to the two biggest problems facing today’s cannabis industry – companies lacking visibility into their inventory and the fact that many do not have alternate vendors for their supplies to meet current consumer demands.
How a cannabis ERP software solution can help
During a disruption to the supply chain such as the COVID-19 outbreak, natural disasters, or other unexpected events, here are three ways an industry-specific ERP system supports effective supply chain management for the cannabis industry:
1) Continuous management and monitoring of inventory and effective material planning – With a real-time tracking system that monitors the movement and storage of inventory by managing and automating transactions and providing lot tracking and traceability, cannabis companies have up-to-the-minute access to crucial inventory data. Accurate analysis of future requirements, as well as procurement guidelines that include minimum order quantities and safety stock levels, ensure the proper planning and reordering of materials – avoiding lags in production due to inventory shortages. Using the information recorded in an ERP solution’s centralized database, such as vendor lead times, shelf life and production timelines, buyers and planners are able to effectively utilize materials requirements planning (MRP) functionality to factor supply, demand and forecasted requirements to plan production and purchasing. Customer purchasing fluctuations throughout the year for holidays and seasonal consumer trends are also tracked in the system, and its analytics software provides growers, cultivators and manufacturers with the visibility to mitigate supply shock and analyze previous periods of hardship to provide actionable insight.
An integral part of inventory control includes testing protocols and quality processes that are automated in an ERP solution. These workflows and approval processes ensure that specific quality standards are met and non-compliant raw materials are quarantined, removed from production and issues are rectified – keeping undeclared substances, harmful chemicals and impure ingredients from infiltrating the supply chain or ending up in finished goods. During these critical and trying times, assurances that materials and ingredients are safely managed and monitored is imperative.
2)Maintenance of supplier information and rankings – A cannabis ERP solution provides features for managing supplier and item specific details to monitor and control which materials can and should be purchased from each vendor. A strong relationship with each supplier is critical in gathering this information, as this helps assign and manage a risk level with each supplier. Current and accurate information (either provided by the vendor or acquired from on-site visits) regarding sanitation programs in place, security measures, physical distancing policies and other details ensures that a cannabis company starts with a foundation of quality raw materials for their products. An ERP solution maintains a list of these approved suppliers to provide already vetted and documented alternatives should a primary supplier’s materials be unavailable. Once vendors are recorded they can be ranked in order of preference and/or risk level so that if a supplier becomes unavailable, another can be quickly identified and used in its place. An ERP’s maintenance of approved supplier lists is an industry best practice that provides supply chain visibility to enhance the assurance of safety.
3)Establishment of supplier transparency through audit rights and communication – An ERP’s ability to manage and monitor all supplier transactions and communications helps facilitate audit rights to evaluate the financial viability of vendor partners. Data is collected regarding vendor price points, historical transactions, average lead times and quality control results in order to identify vendor trends and build a risk assessment with a scorecard rating system for each supplier. Potential supply chain issues can be identified in real-time – such as price increases or delivery delays – prompting communication with suppliers to address problems or triggering the change to an alternate source for materials. Transparency and open communication are key to vendor analysis by researching all suppliers. An ERP solution’s maintenance of current, accurate information is essential to keeping a consistent inventory.
A centralized ERP system facilitates the maintenance and management of the supply chain when a crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19 hinders supplies from arriving or the safety of vendor materials comes into question. Inventory management best practices within the solution help to avoid production lags due to inventory shortages, materials planning provides insight into scheduling and production, and quality assurance procedures prevent harmful products from being sold to consumers. By utilizing features such as the approved supplier and alternative supplier processes within the system should a primary suppliers’ materials be unavailable, there is no need to scramble to find replacement vendors, as they are already vetted and documented within the solution. The system also provides transparency of supplier information to make key decisions regarding vendor rankings and risk level. While the cannabis supply chain is relatively new and untested, proactive companies have the technological tools available in an ERP solution at their disposal to weather the current crisis and face future industry challenges head-on.
The cannabis industry is not immune from global setbacks. Discussions about how resistant the vertical is to this (next) setback have been widely disseminated, from mainstream news to the blogosphere.
Yes, the UN punted global reform down the pike another 9 months – affecting the international industry. And so far, the entire vertical has been left out of the relief bill in the United States (although there are lobbying efforts everywhere to correct the oversight on subsequent bills now almost inevitably in the legislative hopper).
However, there are signs that the industry is actually gaining credibility if not forging new victories during a time likely to go down as this century’s “Great Depression.”
Here is a look at some of the trends afoot that are already bearing fruit and bringing relief.
Cannabis Business Is Essential Business
Some important battles have been won in many states in the U.S. as well as several other countries (including but not limited to Canada). This starts with the designation of the industry as “essential,” at least on the medical side. The issue of delivery and cashless payments have been on the front burner just about everywhere. And this time, there are few if any objections with a national lobby to voice said concerns.
In Europe of course the conversation is also different depending on where you are, but there are still signs that things are clearly changing.
In the UK, authorities have made it easier for cannabis importing. In Germany, pharmacies are on the front line in a way unseen just about anywhere else.
And in Spain, with most patients reliant on cannabis clubs, the lockdown and subsequent hardship for the most vulnerable has led to widespread calls to make deliveries a possibility. Even if the clubs are not functioning as “lounges,” their operators might not get fined for opening their doors, much less “importing” product from the outskirts of town to a central distribution point.
Pivoting To Respond In Times Of Crisis
It is impossible to forget that the emergent industry has been on the forefront of the medical industry and certified production for a long time, even if that, at least up to this point, has received little respect.
Health Canada has asked testing labs to repurpose their activities for Covid-19 testing.
Canadian and American producers are also on the front lines of providing PPE (personal protective equipment) that can be multi-purposed. Masks, gowns and gloves have all been donated from multiple companies. Others are literally repurposing ethanol used for extraction to make hand sanitizer for vulnerable populations. More than a few, including in Europe, have directly been involved in helping to fundraise for foodbanks.
GMP Licensing and Other Developments Still Cooking
While some companies waiting for certification have been stymied because of a lack of foreign travel (EU-GMP requires German inspectors to travel to Canada for example), there are other indications that global companies are finding the way through anyway.
New deals are being inked all over the planet, including international provision deals from unlikely places. This is in part because new export and sales channels are being forged – literally out of desperation. See the story of Little Green Pharma and Astral Health, an Australian company now exporting to the UK (a first). Or the New Mexico company Ultra Health, which just started to export to Israel. Not to mention the source of Israel’s other international purchase of cannabis this month – from Uganda of all places.
Down under, things are certainly developing in an interesting way during the crisis. Indeed, New Zealand decided to proceed with its own cannabis cultivation, with signs that more reform is on the agenda for later in the year.
Back in the Northern Hemisphere, North Macedonia, home of one of the most developed cannabis economies adjacent to Europe, is literally one amendment away from entering the European and global business with flower as well as extracts (which is on the table this month as the government begins to reconvene.)
In summary, while times are tough, everywhere, the entrepreneurs who have forged their way through laws of man to create reform, are also showing up to battle against this century’s so far most emergent threat.
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