Cannabis presents a plethora of challenges for entrepreneurs not seen in more traditional industries. Akin to the dot-com boom of the early 2000s, the cannabis industry has seen an astonishing flurry of business over the past decade. Within this dynamic landscape, new cannabis companies come and go on a near-daily basis.
To capitalize on novel markets’ potential, hopeful entrepreneurs from all walks of life have “jumped headfirst” into the cannabis space. This new breed of entrepreneurs must not only be smart, but they must also be challenging. Yet, as the cannabis industry evolves under the forces of legalization and innovation, our understanding of what defines cannabis entrepreneurs continues to change.
Cannabis businesses are shaped by the regulations, challenges and opportunities of specific market niches. As such, cannabis entrepreneurs have evolved with the environments in which they do business.
California & Proposition 215
California paved the way for the industry of today by legalizing medical cannabis in 1995. Since the passage of historic Proposition 215, cannabis has continued to gain momentum across the globe. This progress has happened through the visions and hard work of small business owners.
The early days of legal cannabis in California are now criticized for their lack of regulation. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, all you needed to start a cultivation business in California was a place to grow a garden. While early dispensaries did need local business licenses, they could legally purchase and sell untested products from unlicensed growers.
The genealogy of the modern cannabis industry can be traced directly back to the days of California’s Prop 215. During this era, the first cannabis dispensaries were founded – this model has since been replicated thousands of times. Also, the Prop 215 model gave rise to America’s first legal, commercial cannabis farms.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in California’s medical space focused primarily on developing the blueprints for a brand-new industry. To this end, they did not have the time or luxury to finetune the businesses for such things as operational efficiency and brand awareness. Even more, these people did not have to deal with such complexities as employee screening, product testing and seed-to-sale tracking.
Medical Cannabis Entrepreneurs
New medical markets stand in stark contrast to those seen in the early days of California. To this end, today’s medical markets operate within a web of stringent government regulations. For entrepreneurs, these rules set forth major emphases on both compliance and technology.
The Pennsylvania medical cannabis industry provides an excellent platform for understanding how the regulatory system of a market shapes entrepreneurial paths. For instance, medical cannabis cards are only issued to patients that meet the minimum criteria of 23 qualifying conditions, including severe conditions like aids, cancer and epilepsy. Beyond that, cannabis dispensaries in Pennsylvania must meet a slew of challenging criteria to operate and pay large sums of money in licensing fees.
To handle the regulatory requirements in places like Pennsylvania and remain profitable, medical cannabis entrepreneurs are incredibly dependent on technology. To this end, dispensaries utilize point-of-sale (POS) and seed-to-sale software to track inventory and stay compliant carefully. Even more, they use state-of-the-art security systems to safeguard their operations.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in medical markets must be able to run compliant operations and support their businesses with requisite technology. These elements stand in stark contradiction to the “wild west” mentality that pervaded the early industry. As such, it’s safe to assume that the rules of today’s markets force entrepreneurs to be more professional than in the days of CA Prop 215.
Adult-Use Cannabis Entrepreneurs
The most considerable difference between medical and adult-use cannabis companies has to do with their available customer base. Importantly, adult-use cannabis companies are only bound by minimum age requirements and state borders. Furthermore, limited restrictions on licensing create highly competitive markets that require sophisticated sales and marketing operations.
As there are no limits on potential customers, and limited regulations on license counts, business opportunities in adult-use markets are primarily directed by supply and demand rules. Because competition is the driving force in adult-use markets, entrepreneurs in this vertical have a good deal in common with peers outside the cannabis industry.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of adult-use entrepreneurs is an emphasis on branding and marketing. As adult-use markets mature in places like Colorado, a phenomenon known as “brand concentration” occurs when a few companies come to dominate a majority of the market. As smaller companies fight for market share, they must develop professional brands that appeal to a broad customer base.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in adult-use markets must master the skills required in medical cannabis while also expanding their knowledge base in modern business dealings. Of these, the development of professional brands is one of the most defining characteristics of adult-use entrepreneurs.
It’s astonishing to see how much the cannabis industry has grown and matured looking back just a few short years. As business opportunities come about with new legalization efforts, entrepreneurs quickly rise to take advantage of untapped markets. As the cannabis business continues to evolve with the times, entrepreneurs must pivot to stay compliant, relevant and successful.
While the early Prop 215 market in California barely resembles today’s industry, it’s important to remember where we came from. Namely, our understanding of the contemporary cannabis business results from everyone who came before us. As the industry progresses, we will continue to complement established best practices with the requisite innovations that come with new opportunities.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) extraction is a processing technique whereby CO2 is pressurized under carefully controlled temperatures to enable extraction of terpenes, cannabinoids and other plant molecules.
Green Mill Supercritical is a Pittsburgh-based manufacturing and engineering company focused on cannabis and hemp extraction. The company offers a range of CO2 extraction equipment where users can tune and control their extraction methods.
We spoke with Wes Reynolds, CEO of Green Mill Supercritical. Wes recently joined Green Mill as CEO and investor in the company after a long career at the Coca-Cola Company in senior sales and general management roles.
Aaron Green: Wes, thank you for taking the time to chat today. How did you get involved in Green Mill?
Wes Reynolds: I came out of a 20-year career at Coca-Cola, where I lived and worked around the world. I was a sales and general management guy with Coke, and learned a lot about running businesses and how to drive growth. I left Coke in 2017. After that successful career I wanted to be in the cannabis space. I felt like cannabis was a growing space with a lot of opportunity and a lot of misperceptions out there, particularly around the foundations of what I would call the “evil reputation” of cannabis. I just found that abhorrent and wanted to be part of changing it.
So I ran the Florida operations for Surterra, which is now called Parallel, for a year out of Tampa, and we did a great job of growing that business in Florida. As the president of the Florida operation for Surterra, I saw everything seed-to-shelf for the industry. We had a 300,000-square-foot greenhouse in Central Florida, we had dispensaries, we had all the production, distribution and all the marketing. I was really able to learn the industry top to bottom.
When I left Surterra, I started looking at various investment opportunities and thinking about what I might want to do next. I came across Green Mill out of Pittsburgh, and was really impressed with the technology that they had put together. Having run a company where we used CO2 extraction, I had experiences with systems that didn’t work when they were supposed to or didn’t work the way they were promised, which led to lots of downtime, lots of frustration and lots of babysitting. I was impressed with Green Mill’s engineering approach and decided that I’d like to be involved with them. I originally considered just being an investor, but more and more conversations led to a greater understanding of some basic business administrative needs that they had as well. One thing led to another and I agreed to come on as the CEO, and I’m also an investor.
I’m excited about what we’re doing at Green Mill. I think that bar none, we make the best supercritical CO2 extraction equipment out there. We continue to innovate on that every day. We want to push CO2 beyond known limits, which is our stated goal as a company. We believe in CO2 and we’re living our goal in that we really are pushing it beyond known limits. There are new things we’re uncovering every day where we go, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know we can do that with CO2!” So, that’s kind of fun.
Aaron: Can you tell me just a high-level overview of how CO2 extraction works?
Wes: A supercritical CO2 extraction system is a collection of extraction vessels and fractionation vessels or collection vessels. In our case fractionation because we’re doing multiple collections through a single run. Then you need a system of pumps and valves and tubing, etc. to move the solvent in a supercritical state through the packed biomass, and then move the extracted compounds into a set of collection vessels. It sounds very easy. But the key to supercritical CO2 extraction is controlling temperature, flow rate and pressure. The better you can control temperature, flow rate and pressure, the more precise of an outcome you’re going to get. For example, say you run a three-hour extraction run, and you want to run it at 3500 psi. Well, you know, a competitive system might fluctuate 300 to 400 psi on either side of 3500. Whereas our system currently fluctuates more like five to 10 psi on either side of the 3500. So, there is much more control and precision.
Our whole goal, when we’re talking about pushing CO2 beyond known limits, is how do we continue to chase that holy grail of perfect control of temperature, flow rate and pressure? One of our advances so far is a proprietary pump, for example, that’s a liquid displacement pump that we engineer and build. It ensures a very even and consistent flow, independent of the pressure setting. So, that flow rate doesn’t change in our system compared to what you would see with another system. It sounds like a minor thing, except that at the end of a run, if you expected to get a certain set of molecules, you’re going to get a different set of molecules if your temperature and flow rate and pressure are varying, because what you’re doing is disrupting the density of the CO2 as it flows.
It’s about building a system that is precise in that way, I think, that requires enormously skilled engineering effort and design effort on the front end, and then requires us to have advanced production and manufacturing capabilities in our shop in Pittsburgh. Our customers are clearly impressed with the levels of consistency that they’re getting out of their system.
Aaron: You talked about precision and consistency as two items. Is there anything else that makes Green Mill different?
Wes: I’m a brand guy. I believe in brands. I came out of a 20-year Coca-Cola career.
The way that the cannabis industry is going in total, in my opinion, is the consumer is going to get more and more discerning along the way. Up until this point, everybody thinks “oh, we have THC and CBD and we have intensity.” But the more sophisticated and educated consumers get, the more discerning they’re going to be about what products they want to put in their bodies.
What makes Green Mill different is that we’re building a system that allows the operator of that system to create differentiated products for the marketplace. So, it’s not simply “CBD is CBD.” It’s: what plant did you start with? How can you maintain as many of the characteristics of that plant as possible?
We’re going to create the most sophisticated tool possible to allow the operator to create products that can be differentiated in the marketplace for a discerning consumer at a premium price. That way, you can create a market where there might not have been a market before, instead of just “hey, I’ve got X pounds of biomass that I need to extract. Give me your bluntest instrument and let me extract.”
We currently make five different systems. First is the SFE Pro. We make a seven and a half liter and a 10-liter version, with two-vessel configurations of each of those. Then we have what we call a Parallel Pro, which has four 10-liter vessels and two pumps, with two streams running parallel to each other and emptying into shared collectors. It doubles the extraction rate, and you don’t expand the footprint very much. But 10-liter vessels are the biggest vessels we use. Because when you go too large with the vessel, you are giving up something in terms of the ability to control temperature, flow rate and pressure. Your efficiency starts to drop with higher vessel volume.
One of the things that makes Green Mill different is our extraction rate. Our Parallel Pro can do 145 pounds a day of biomass. We think that’s a significant amount, given the demand that’s out there for unique products. What we’re advocating for is multiple extraction systems instead of giant permanent installations of extraction systems, that end up limiting your flexibility. Big systems also prevent you from creating redundancies in your operating system. So, when your extraction system goes down, you’re done. Versus in our universe, we would say, you might want to have three or four extraction systems in different locations, running different products. Our price points are such that that’s very doable.
Aaron: How does the breakdown look between your cannabis and hemp clients?
Wes: A lot of that is legislative frankly. It has to do with what the environment is like at the moment. About 60% of our customers are small hemp farmers. And then we have the other 40% in the cannabis space that are medical or adult use producers.
CO2 extraction has a lot of applications beyond cannabis. We have a couple of customers using our system for hops extraction, for example. We see an enormous opportunity out there for non-cannabis botanical extraction, but our primary focus is cannabis. That is what we’re designing this system to do.
We find that small hemp farmers love our system because it is reliable and very automated. We have proprietary software that operates the whole system. You load and run various “recipes,” at least we call them recipes. What you are doing is setting flow rate, setting temperatures, setting pressures, etc., then that proprietary software has an unbelievable ability to control everything through the process. I’ve talked to several different operators who have used other machines, and then found themselves on a Green Mill system and couldn’t believe how easy, but also feature-rich it was.
I talk about it like it’s like an oven, you know, you set the oven at 375 degrees. And a really good oven stays right at 375. You still need to be a good chef to be able to make that perfect cheesecake. But without that oven, your hands are tied, so you are constantly trying to check those, “is it still 375? I don’t know!” With our system, if it says 375, it holds at 375. So we’re pretty excited about that.
And we’re going to continue to innovate. For example, we have a proprietary heat exchanger that we use on our systems. It’s actually 3D printed stainless steel. It’s about a 20-pound piece of steel that’s been printed to have a special tubing shape in the center only possible with 3D printing that allows us to heat CO₂ very quickly.
Aaron: That’s very cool. I’m noticing a lot actually, the innovations in cannabis are creating these adjacent market opportunities in botanicals. So, I think that’s interesting you point that out. You mentioned terpenes are one of the things you collect out of the CO2 extraction. Can you talk about the crude that comes off and how people are either monetizing or formulating that crude?
Wes: Our goal is to produce the “purest crude” possible. So, we want “less crude” crude. I think that we’re at the beginning of this, Aaron. We’re nowhere near the end, which is what I find so exciting, because all of our innovation, all of our continued development and all of our experimentation is designed to keep thinking, how do we push this further and further and further and get a more refined crude.
We just welcomed Jesse Turner to our team as Director of R&D, who is a well-known extraction guy in the industry. He came from Charlotte’s Web and Willie’s Reserve, and has been doing independent consulting. He’s just a rock star. He’s already off and running on experimenting with different stuff.
I think that we are just at the beginning of seeing more and more of that opportunity to help people realize, “Oh, my gosh, I did not know you could do this!” Terpenes are a good example. I think we are only scratching the surface of what terpenes can do. I mean, a cannabis plant has 400 plus molecules and we know a good bit about probably 10 or 12 of them. So, what are we going to find out about the other 390? And as we do, the Green Mill system will be ideal for separating those molecules that we don’t know today are valuable. So, I think that’s part of what we’re chasing as well.
Aaron: So where do you see CO2 extraction fitting into the cannabis and hemp supply chain?
Wes: For any product on the market that is not a smokable flower it helps to have an extraction process. There may be some products that come out that we don’t know about yet that are not going to qualify in that category. Whether you are talking about vape cartridges, or lozenges, or gummy bears, or whatever it is, they are going to start with extract. I think what consumers want is zero adulteration of their product. So if you take any botanical product, and if it is GMO-free, does not have any pesticides, maybe it is all organic, etc. — there is real consumer appeal to that. Whether you agree with it or not, it is what consumers want.
We believe that we can continue to push CO2 so that there’s no requirement for introduction of any other materials than just CO2, which is a completely inert gas. It’s got no residual effect whatsoever on the product. If we get where we want to go, then eventually you are talking about a pure botanical experience.
Initial upfront capital is higher than you are going to see with ethanol and butane extraction solutions for the same size equipment, but ongoing operating costs of those are much higher, when you weigh it out over a period of time. I think what we are going to find is that people are going to keep coming to CO2 because they realize there are things they can do with it that they can’t do any other way.
The end consumer is really who we want to keep in mind. I think for a long time, this industry was very demand driven. “I have X acres of cannabis product, whether that’s hemp, sativa, indica, whatever it is, and I need to extract this many pounds a day over this period of time.” And we keep asking the question, well, who’s going to buy that product on the other side? What do you want it to look like when you put it out on the market? As opposed to how much raw plant matter do you have? What’s the demand? And that was a difficult conversation. We’re starting to see more people come around to that conversation now. But I think that’s the question we want to keep answering is how do we create those products that are differentiated in the marketplace and that can pass muster in any regulatory environment? People are going to want to know what’s in their product.
Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry?
Wes: As the CEO, I’m particularly interested in the overall development of the landscape of the industry in terms of who’s playing, who’s winning, what’s happening with legislation, MSOs versus SSOs. I’m also interested in the international environment. We have a good bit of interest from multiple countries that have either ordered Green Mill systems or are talking to us about Green Mill systems, including Canada and Latin American countries, some European countries, Australia and New Zealand.“We’re really committed to educational efforts with a very rigorous scientific foundation, but in language that is approachable and people can understand.”
The trends that I’m particularly interested in are more on the business side of the equation, in terms of how this business is going to shake out particularly from a capitalization perspective, as banking laws continue to change, which is a big deal, and the legislative environment gets a little more predictable and a little more consistent.
Aaron: Okay, last question. So what are you personally interested in learning more about?
Wes: Everything, is the short answer! I constantly run this little challenge of trying to understand enough of the science. I’m not a scientist, I’m a sales guy. That was how I grew up: general management and sales. I’ve made my living over many years being wowed by the pros. Depending on the scientists and the very specialized folks to help provide the right answers to things. I’m fascinated by the chemistry and I’m fascinated by the mechanical engineering challenges of what we do at Green Mill. So, I’m always interested in learning about that.
I think there’s a need, and it is helpful to be able to talk about those things in language that the layperson can understand, as opposed to explaining everything in scientific language. I think what I am trying to do is help people put it into a language that they can get, but that is not simple. Language that is correlative to reality. I think there’s so much misunderstanding about how these things work and what’s happening. We’re really committed to educational efforts with a very rigorous scientific foundation, but in language that is approachable and people can understand.
Aaron: Okay, that’s it. Thank you for your time Wes!
Small cannabis dispensaries face different challenges than those seen with large, multi-state operators. To this end, massive companies like MedMen and Grassroots Cannabis need to accommodate multi-state operations’ compliance challenges. Conversely, small dispensaries must learn to compete with the big box retailers of the cannabis industry.
Small cannabis dispensaries must figure out how to make their size an advantage against larger business entities to stay competitive. To this end, they must critically assess the corporate structure of large cannabis companies like Green Thumb Industries to look for operations and marketing opportunities still “left on the table” for smaller operators.
Luckily, owning and operating a small cannabis dispensary affords creativity and innovation in the workplace. Namely, because small businesses can quickly implement change and pivot to the demands of the ever-changing cannabis landscape. Conversely, due to corporate structures’ difficult navigation, their larger counterparts must go through far more effort to implement operational changes. To better understand how small dispensaries can stay competitive in today’s market, we put together some criteria to examine.
Cross-Training Employee Teams
The fact that small cannabis dispensaries do not have many employees significantly reduces operating costs. However, to capitalize on the savings of a small employee team, you must cross-train your staff. Because if a small team can handle all the required tasks of a shift, you will never waste money on over-staffing your dispensary operation.
Looking at the specific jobs of a small cannabis dispensary, business owners should ensure that budtenders are trained to handle nearly every business task. To illustrate, you should train budtenders to open and close the store, conduct inventory work, recommend products and operate seed-to-sale software. Not only does this cross-training keep you from overstaffing your dispensary when it is slow, but it also insulates your business during busy market fluctuations.
Please note, once you train budtenders to handle a variety of tasks, you should also pay them more than the industry average. In doing so, you insulate yourself from the high turnover rate that plagues the cannabis space.
Lean Operating Principles
Lean operating is a practice that has exploded in popularity across the business world. To help teach lean operating principles, specialty training companies offer Six Sigma certifications. These certifications help business owners and executives save money on operational efficiencies. Methods taken from Six Sigma can be incredibly impactful for small cannabis dispensary businesses.
According to the ASQ professional training website, “Lean Six Sigma … drives customer satisfaction and bottom-line results by reducing variation, waste, and cycle time, while promoting the use of standardization and flow, thereby creating a competitive advantage.”
Lean Six Sigma principles can be beneficial with inventory control in small cannabis dispensaries. To this end, these businesses should apply analytics to track consumer behavior within their stores. After that, they can use data to create precise sales forecasts and conduct highly accurate product procurement. The end goal being to increase liquidity by reducing money tied up in a bloated inventory of unsold cannabis products.
Due to their small size, single dispensaries have the luxury of customizing the retail shopping experience. As such, without the added pressures of corporate oversight, small operators have the creative freedom to make for highly memorable shopping experiences within their stores. In going the extra mile on things like interior design, small dispensaries can help ensure customer retention and benefit from word-of-mouth marketing.
For example, Barbary Coast Dispensary in San Francisco, CA, has the look and feel of a high-end speakeasy, making it the perfect match for the Bay Area’s aesthetic sensibilities. The dispensary interior is decorated with a 19th-century touch and features a dab bar, where clients can enjoy the surreal atmosphere while consuming some of California’s best cannabis. A visit to a small dispensary like this will likely leave a lasting impression.
Memorable retail shopping experiences often translate directly to customer loyalty. In turn, this dynamic directly impacts your bottom-line concerning marketing expenses. Notably, a steady base of loyal customers will sustain your business, significantly reducing your marketing costs. In the end, marketing can be directed at retaining clients through loyalty programs and customer engagement – both can be mainly handled “in house” and relatively inexpensively.
Small dispensaries can utilize product differentiation to stay competitive in today’s market. To this end, small operators are blessed with the ability to pivot quickly with new product offerings. Conversely, large dispensary chains with corporate structures must go through rigorous steps before launching new products at their stores.
Small cannabis dispensaries can immediately “get out ahead” on new product trends as they arise. For example, you can offer rare cannabis strains or boutique extracts that none of the larger dispensaries carry.
By the time the larger dispensaries in your area catch up on the current trends, you can move on to the next one. We recommend making alliances with some of the top craft growers in your area to make this possible.
Every year, the cannabis industry grows more competitive. As this business evolves from an underground affair to a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, the scope and sophistication of cannabis dispensary operations grows exponentially. Within this ever-changing dynamic, many small dispensaries fear the wayside will leave them.
Yet, if you approach the market with creativity and zeal, you can make the additional market pressure work to your benefit. By focusing on critical facets like cross-training employees, lean operating principles and product differentiation, you can build a profitable and sustainable cannabis dispensary by making small size a competitive advantage.
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 Aster Farms:
Aster Farms is based in Lake County, California and operates with an ethos of environmental sustainability. They call themselves the “cleanest, meanest and greenest around” and produce sungrown cannabis with “good genetics, clean cultivation and the power of nature.”
According to Pioneer Intelligence, Aster Farms is showing increased strength in each of the pillars they track: social media, earned media and web-related activities. The reason for such an improvement in performance? It starts with a number of earned media placements driving greater awareness for the brand, like this piece in SFWeekly or this one on Benzinga.
Engagement rates for Aster’s Instagram account have been growing for about two months and received a recent boost in the form of a sweepstakes giveaway. Their web activity performance improved as a result of keyword growth on their site.
All of these factors helped Aster Farms get on Pioneer’s list of Top 100 hottest U.S. cannabis brands for October, coming in at Number 60.
As more nations across the globe embrace the benefits of legal cannabis, to say the business is booming is an understatement. But with cannabis going corporate in a big way and marketing standards still hit or miss, the reality of unethical marketing practices that manipulate consumers and run roughshod over small businesses threatens to do harm if not brought under control.
Enter Cresco Labs, a major player in the international cannabis industry. Contrary to what you might expect, and bringing in a breath of fresh air, this giant is pushing to install marketing standards that protect the ethical interests of all cannabis businesses.
In this article, we will take a look at some key elements of ethical advertising in the cannabis industry and explore the Cresco Labs proposal.
The Power of Advertising
Advertising is a powerful medium for rebranding and influencing public perception. The messages conveyed by ads reflect the changing moral, ethical, and consumer opinions of society – and often create them in the first place. For cannabis, an industry rife with stereotypes, ads present a strong opportunity to change the popular face and perception of cannabis as nothing more than a vehicle to get high.
Today’s numbers tell a different story with a full 19% using it for pain relief and another 37% to relax. Even one successful ad campaign can change the mind of a skeptical consumer. So how to ethically harness this power?
Cannabis rebranding generally works best when it draws on four main elements:
Emphasize health and wellness benefits. Most new customers who are interested in cannabis these days are attracted by the inspiring health and wellness possibilities that cannabis products present. By redefining cannabis as a medical product suitable for families, the elderly and patients suffering from various ailments, and not simply as a way to get high, cannabis companies can target the audiences that will most benefit from their products.
Replace typical “juvenile” imagery with sophisticated graphic design approaches. With so many options for how to use and consume cannabis these days, it is no wonder that brands are embracing trendy, sophisticated, contemporary design techniques. Logos featuring minimalist and elegant fonts more accurately express the narrative behind products such as cannabis teas, cannabis-infused oils and edibles.
Highlight the science behind the products. For those naysayers still determined to limit cannabis to its recreational usages only, to the exclusion of its many health benefits, exploring the science is vital. By citing legitimate research studies and findings, and explaining the scientific processes at play when using cannabis, ads can debunk false myths while educating the public.
Tell a compelling, relatable story. Like all good advertising, the narrative is key to engaging audiences. Framing cannabis within the powerful context of a compelling story is a strong approach to making a memorable impact on consumers.
Wild West Advertising
Because cannabis is such a new industry, only recently becoming legal in many states (and countries), advertising agencies have been reticent to sign on with these companies. The lack of regular advertising standards means that cannabis advertising has been compared to the “wild west,” where anything goes. While some companies struggle to promote a more wholesome, consumer-friendly image of cannabis, marketing to broad audiences, other companies embrace stoner stereotypes and industry myths, often resulting in ads that depict unethical content.
Unofficial social media ads may target underage customers, with slogans featuring symbols like Santa Clause, or presenting underage people in their ads next to cannabis products, as in a recent Instagram ad from one brand, Dogwalkers. The ad shows a person holding a pre-rolled joint on the beach with a caption that reads “let the good times (pre) roll.” The image also features young-looking surfers in the background, an implied invitation to underage consumers to sample these products.
Without regulation, businesses are also free to create advertisements rife with false claims. Vulnerable people, patients with chronic illnesses, senior citizens and others may be susceptible to the claims presented in these ads. The FDA has recently begun to crack down on this spread of misinformation, but putting in place industry-wide advertising standards would also have a strong effect.
Operating in nine states in the U.S., Cresco Labs is a vertically integrated, publicly traded company that has recently released a proposal for establishing marketing rules for the cannabis industry. The proposal, entitled “Responsible Advertising and Marketing Standards for the U.S. Cannabis Industry” outlines a vision to hold the U.S. cannabis industry to a higher professional and ethical standard than is the current norm, thus legitimizing the industry.
Some specific rules in the proposal stipulate that ads depicting over-consumption as a fun or desirable outcome should violate industry standards. Additionally, the widespread adoption of this proposal would ban any marketing approaches that target underage consumers, ensuring that companies are better able to enforce legal age restrictions.
The company, alongside other large cannabis organizations, has released this proposal as part of an attempt to normalize the industry, allowing it to bring in top ad companies to help promote their brands. While cannabis retains the pop culture imagery of stoner culture and its associations with reckless behavior and teenage cannabis usage, regular advertising sources will remain skeptical about getting involved.
As the industry continues to evolve and expand, more regulation will be useful in terms of establishing dominant narratives to help redefine how cannabis appears in the popular imagination and what kind of clientele is attracted to cannabis products. But by redefining the acceptable standards of advertising, there is also a risk that cannabis will lose some of the intrigue and novelty that currently makes it a popular, trending topic.
Still, if rebranding campaigns can shift the story so that cannabis appeals to the masses, then everyone in the cannabis industry ultimately benefits.
Private labelling, or white labelling, is a popular option for brands looking to enter the CBD space. This practice is where a product is manufactured by one company but branded, marketed and sold by another.
There are several companies that specialize in manufacturing end-to-end finished CBD products. They commonly provide third-party test results, certificates and data to verify the purity and potency of products created. Technically, all new brands need to do is place their label on the package and start selling! However with any new venture, establishing a successful private label CBD brand will inevitably mean various challenges need to be overcome.
Securing Quality Sources of CBD
Finding the right partners to work with is a must. The best way to source credible and trustworthy suppliers and manufacturers is to look for certifications and audits from third-party agencies. These include the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), the Safe Quality Food (SQF), the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic certification program and others.
The USDA organic certification program is a rigorous multi-step audit process to increase supply chain sustainability. Organic certification is a form of elective, self-regulation for manufacturers which consumers have eagerly welcomed into the marketplace. Look for the USDA organic seal to help identify which manufacturers are trustworthy and can produce a range of organic products.
From a consumer perspective, certifying your products as organic is an additional way to provide both supply chain transparency and increase confidence when trying new CBD products. It also provides a form of quality assurance to skeptical consumers, especially those who avidly read product labels prior to making a purchasing decision. Members of this “label reader” demographic will consistently choose organic products for the quality and transparency they provide with pure and natural ingredients.
Creating a Unique Product
Innovation and creativity will continue to be important differentiators due to the highly competitive nature of the CBD marketplace. New ingredient innovations such as water dispersible materials are big game-changers. From chewing gum to energy drinks, the opportunities for new and unique CBD products under your own private label are limitless.
There are only a handful of CBD brands who are willing, or even able, to be certified organic today. USDA certification is an opportunity for brands looking to adapt to changing consumer preferences, diversify their product offerings and invest in supply chain transparency.
In the past, product differentiators involved third-party lab testing or providing COAs — today that’s just industry standard. The USDA organic seal is becoming one of the hemp industry’s most coveted certifications because it is a product differentiator.
Trustworthiness, transparency and traceability are important factors for consumers to consider when shopping for products. These factors should also be considered when producing products and while vetting vendors, partners, stakeholders and supply chain suppliers.
Credible certifications allow consumers to make informed decisions while feeling confident that they are purchasing products from reputable sources. Research has shown that today’s CBD market lacks credibility while consumers are desperately seeking comfort and are eager to purchase from trustworthy brands.
The cannabis marketplace is an ever changing one. The opportunities being generated in the UK space are immense. Yet despite the countless benefits cannabis can bring to the economy, patient care and supporting health and wellness for consumers, an image problem continues to persist.
Despite its expansive growth, there is still a lot of uncertainty and misinformation. Having worked with several cannabis businesses in recent years, I firmly believe there are a myriad of ways in which the industry can benefit from PR support. A strong PR strategy can not only drive media coverage, but help to reach customers, shorten sale cycles, bolster brand reputation and drive change within political and regulatory circles.
Whether you are a flourishing cannabis brand, a start-up or ancillary cannabis business, PR can help you stand out from the competition and become a credible voice in this competitive market.
Here are some key ways in which cannabis businesses can profit from PR:
Campaigning for progress
Each category of the cannabis sector faces its own reputational challenges. Medical cannabis is perhaps the most significant of these, yet it still goes largely misunderstood by the general public. This, along with regulatory restrictions and a lack of education in the clinical community means cannabis stigma continues to exist.
For the thousands of patients suffering with the likes of multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, still struggling to access this fully legal drug, this is a tragic, pressing issue. There are several families and individuals across the UK who campaign for medical cannabis access to be improved, by leveraging their story via the press and lobbying Parliament. Some of these high-profile families have been supported through strategic communications at The PHA Group, most notably Hannah Deacon, the mother who successfully campaigned for the first NHS cannabis license for her son, as well as the parents of toddler Charlie Hughes, who are currently seeking Judicial Review against NICE.
Both cases offer strong proof of the powerful role PR can play in supporting those in need of medical cannabis. Through speaking to media and generating coverage of the stories of both families, the complex issue of medical cannabis access has been thrust into the public eye, this in turn putting fresh pressure on the Government to address this through much-needed change. For cannabis leaders and professionals looking to invest in PR, it is critical that your PR partner understands the key issues, culture and complexities of the industry to create credible stories and campaigns to gain cut through in the media.
CBD is the most established sector of the UK cannabis industry, having become firmly attached to the lifestyle scene in recent years with its broad spectrum of health and wellness products. With approximately 7.3 million people in the UK using CBD products each year through a market already worth an estimated £300 million, the industry is predicted to grow at a rapid rate, with experts claiming this figure will more than triple in the next five years.
Despite its impressive growth, the industry has faced its own stumbling blocks. Until this year, CBD had been in a period of regulatory uncertainty and the industry faced understandable criticism when high profile cannabis probes found over half of the most popular CBD oils did not contain the amount of CBD promised on the label. This did nothing to help the already precarious public perception of CBD in the UK, meaning firms have had to work extremely hard to heal their reputations and ensure their brands are deemed trustworthy by consumers going forward.
With hundreds of brands claiming to be the best option, establishing credibility and becoming a trusted voice is key. Educating your audience by positioning company experts will help to keep your audience up to speed on the most current information and allow your brand to achieve an authoritative voice within the cannabis space.
Driving awareness drives revenue. It doesn’t matter if your story and products are revolutionary if nobody knows they exist! PR can help build a narrative which conveys the purpose of your business, along with its vision and products, whilst promoting key insights to keep your company relevant. The power of public relations in this regard is very similar to that of positive word-of-mouth.
Strategic brand building
Cannabis companies can’t advertise like mainstream companies, so they must tread carefully in the marketing of their products. However, there are great possibilities within PR. Through case studies and careful product placement, PRs can work carefully with CBD companies to raise awareness of the benefits of their products and solidify their brand image, without risking trouble with the ASA. With CBD brands and manufacturers springing up left and right, there are opportunities aplenty for PR firms to lend support, whether that’s from a consumer perspective, across food and drink, beauty or general wellness, or from a strategic business view.
Stories sell. It’s vital for a brand that wants to develop a sustainable, long-term plan to build a story which resonates with its audience. Strategic PR can therefore increase brand value and coupled with a digital marketing and social media strategy, boost engagement and elevate the profile of the business.
A wealth of opportunities
The legal cannabis industry is gaining traction and is one to watch. In relation to medical cannabis, the industry has called for change to improve patient access and pressure has been exerted on the government and regulatory bodies to normalise cannabis as an effective treatment for a myriad of health conditions In parallel, the CBD sector is only set to grow and in recent years, there has been increasing interest and investment into hemp, a versatile variety of the cannabis plant hailed as the next big thing in sustainability.
Cannabis is a commonplace yet spectacularly complex plant. It therefore needs a PR strategy which can uncover key angles and opportunities across a multitude of avenues to position brands within the space for success and growth.
Whilst there is still much to learn and navigate in cannabis, PR has an important role to play in changing attitudes as the industry continues to expand and evolve. I am excited to see where it goes next.
Communicating with consumers through the telephone—either by text messages or by calls—is a great way to engage with them. Indeed, a recent analysis of text messaging trends reveals that most consumers check their cell phones more than 20 times a day, with almost 20% saying they check it more than 50 times.1 Text messages have a nearly five-times higher open rate than email, and the average consumer has 96 unread emails in his inbox compared to about one unread text message at any given time.2 In short, used properly, text messaging is an effective medium to reach consumers. And cannabis companies have embraced texting with open arms, especially given that other forms of advertising currently are off limits to the industry.
But with the utility of text messaging consumers comes substantial risk. Cannabis companies are frequent targets of private litigation arising out of their texting practices. Over the past two years, dozens of class action lawsuits alleging unlawful text messages have been filed against cannabis companies, including well-known multistate operators and less recognizable ones. Most of these cases are ongoing and may rightfully be considered “bet the company” litigations. For example, a pending case against cannabis delivery company Eaze Solutions, Inc. alleges that unsolicited text messages were sent to 52,104 individuals.3 Assuming each putative class member received just one text from Eaze, the statutory damages exposure ranges between $26 million and $78 million. The court twice has rejected proposed class settlements of $1.75 million and, later, $3.5 million as being too low. Given the potential exposure, before cannabis companies click the send button on a text message, they need to ensure that they’re abiding by the law.
At the federal level, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) regulates all types of text messages, telemarketing and transactional/informational alike. Generally speaking, the TCPA governs how text messages are sent (i.e., manually versus automatically dialed), and how calls are conducted and voicemail messages delivered (live representative versus “artificial or prerecorded voice”).4 The TCPA also contains do not call rules applicable to marketing messages. The TCPA is enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and, notably, through private lawsuits, including class actions. Under the TCPA, a private plaintiff can seek statutory damages of $500 for each unsolicited autodialed text message (or unsolicited call that utilizes an artificial or prerecorded voice or delivers a prerecorded message). If a solicitation text is sent to a telephone number registered on the National Do Not Call Registry or the cannabis seller’s own internal do not call list, the statutory damages are “up to” $500 per call or text. In all cases, statutory damages may be trebled to $1,500 if the TCPA violation was committed either knowingly or willfully.
These rules fit atop myriad state telemarketing and do-not-call laws, which may be more restrictive than the TCPA.
While I could fill up this entire website with the various calling and texting issues with which sellers generally struggle under the TCPA—such as the use of artificial or prerecorded voices and prerecorded messages, how to handle reassigned numbers, revocation of consent issues, etc.—this article focuses on the basic rules governing how cannabis companies can text consumers, and what types of consent they need to do so under the Act.
Overview of TCPA’s Consent Rules
Under the TCPA, a seller is required to have a consumer’s “prior express consent” in order to send an autodialed non-marketing text message to a cell phone; The consent rule for autodialed marketing text messages to cell phones are different in that they require “prior express written consent” (EWC). No consent is needed in order to manually send a text message (and note that “manually” does not necessarily mean that an individual must dial all ten digits and click send from a standard smartphone).
“Prior express consent” is a lower level form of consent and generally exists where a consumer voluntarily has provided her telephone number to the seller.
“Prior express written consent,” on the other hand, is a heightened consent standard requiring a written agreement bearing (1) the signature of the person called (either traditional “wet” signature or an electronic/digital one) that clearly authorizes the seller to deliver or cause to be delivered to the consumer telemarketing messages; and (2) the telephone number to which the signatory authorizes such telemarketing messages to be delivered. If the seller utilizes an autodialer to send a marketing text message to a cell phone, then the written agreement with the consumer must also clearly and conspicuously disclose both that (a) the text may be sent using an autodialer, and (b) the consumer is not required to provide his consent as a condition of purchasing any goods or services. This EWC to be contacted must have been provided by the consumer before the text is sent. Unlike the lower standard for prior express consent, the mere provision of a cell phone number to the seller does not constitute the required EWC to be contacted at that number via an autodialer marketing purposes.
Confusing enough? Don’t worry, a table summarizing the current TCPA consent rules is below:
What Type of Text Are You Sending?
Generally, the type of consumer consent that is needed to send a text message is a function of the type of text and how it is being sent. “Telephone solicitations” are subject to more restrictions than purely informational or transactional text messages. The TCPA defines “telephone solicitation” to be “the initiation of a [text] message for the purpose of encouraging the purchase or rental of, or investment in, property, goods, or services.”
On the other end of the spectrum lie pure informational or transactional text messages. These are communications designed to provide information, rather than promote products and services (in the case of informational calls), and to “facilitate, complete, or confirm a commercial transaction that the recipient has previously agreed to enter into” (in the case of transactional calls). For example, customer satisfaction survey texts and texts to confirm orders and deliveries are informational and transactional, respectively.
Finally, the TCPA also covers a third category of text messages—“dual purpose” texts. These are texts with either a customer service or informational component as well as a marketing one. Because courts and the FCC take an expansive view of what constitutes telemarketing, dual purpose texts are treated as pure marketing messages and subject to the more rigorous standards to obtain the requisite level of consumer consent.
Common examples of texts that cannabis companies send and the corresponding level of consent needed are as follows:
Autodialed Text Messages: Under the TCPA, an autodialer is defined to be equipment, which has the capacity to store or produce telephone numbers to be called using a random or sequential number generator, and to dial such numbers without a requisite level of human involvement. However, there currently is a “significant fog of uncertainty” as to what is and is not an autodialer, with different courts reaching conflicting decisions as to, for example, whether simply dialing from a curated list of targeted telephone numbers constitutes autodialing, or whether the numbers on that list must have been randomly or sequentially generated in order for a platform to constitute an autodialer.
While proceedings are ongoing at the FCC to clarify the autodialer definition, the Supreme Court recently agreed to decide the autodialer issue during its next term in a TCPA case filed against Facebook; a decision is expected by May or June 2021. Notably, in mid-September 2020, the Department of Justice filed a “friend of the court” brief taking the industry-favorable position that a platform itself must randomly or sequentially generate the telephone numbers that it texts to be considered an autodialer under the statute.
Texts sent by autodialer (whether the autodialing functionality is actually used to send the text or not) require consent from the recipient. Note that this rule generally applies to both individual and business cell phone numbers. As long as the text is not a solicitation message, then consent may be obtained orally. Alternatively, if a consumer provides his cellular telephone number to you via an online lead form or during the checkout process, then this should be sufficient to constitute “prior express consent” to receive autodialed non-solicitation texts, such as order confirmations or delivery updates. The key to obtaining prior express consent, however, is that the consumer provide you with his telephone number voluntarily.
However, EWC is required to send a text for marketing purposes using an autodialer. The EWC requirements are described above and examples of EWC are below.
Note that, under the TCPA, the seller has the burden of demonstrating that it had the requisite level of consent to send the text in question. Thus, cannabis companies should maintain records evidencing such consent. A good rule of thumb is to maintain such records for a period of five years from the date of text, which covers the TCPA’s statute of limitations and the limitations periods under most state telemarketing laws.
Manually-Dialed Text Messages: If a cannabis company manually sends text messages—e., using a device that does not have the capacity to autodial—then no special consent is needed. However, even for manually-dialed texts, applicable do not call lists must be checked.
Texts to Numbers on Do Not Call Lists: The TCPA also prohibits companies from sending marketing texts to consumers whose telephone numbers are registered on either the National Do Not Call Registry or the seller’s own internal do not call list, unless an exemption applies, such as calls with the consumer’s EWC or to consumers with whom the seller has an “established business relationship.”5 The TCPA’s do not call rules are agnostic to how a telephone number is dialed, whether it be manually or by automated means. Be sure to scrub against relevant do not call lists.
Best Practices for Obtaining Proper Consent
As noted above, for autodialed non-marketing text messages to cell phones, the lower level of simple “prior express consent” is required. Prior express consent is deemed to exist by virtue of a consumer having provided his telephone number to a cannabis company, either orally or in writing.
EWC for autodialed solicitation text messages, however, requires more. First, specific disclosures must be made “clearly and conspicuously” to the consumer. Specifically, a consumer should be advised and agree that, by providing his telephone number to the cannabis company, he is agreeing (1) to receive potentially autodialed (2) marketing text messages, and (3) that he is not required to provide his consent as a condition of making a purchase. This disclosure should not be placed beneath a submission button on a lead form or checkout page (unless an unchecked check box is utilized to demonstrate that the consumer has reviewed and accepted the disclosure); it needs to be unavoidable. The disclosure should be presented in readable, crisp font, both in size and in color, that contrasts against its background. For example, the following disclosures likely would pass muster to demonstrate EWC:
As you may now appreciate, the TCPA is a minefield (and this article just scratches the surface). However, with planning and a good compliance program, the law can be navigated to minimize risk while, at the same time, allowing for communications with cannabis consumers. Remember, an ounce of compliance now can lead to a pound of litigation prevention later.
Disclaimer: Using, distributing, possessing, and/or selling marijuana is illegal under existing federal law. Compliance with state law does not guarantee or constitute compliance with federal law. This informational overview is not intended to provide any legal advice or any guidance or assistance in violating federal law.
Zipwhip, 2020 State of Texting, at 4 (2020).
Id. at 11.
See Lloyd v. Eaze Solutions, Inc., No. 3:18-cv-05176 (N.D. Cal.).
Although the TCPA utilizes the term “calls,” courts have found the statute applies with the same force to text messages. This article focuses on text messaging but most of the principles extend to calls as well.
There are two types of “established business relationships” (EBRs) under the TCPA: (1) inquiry EBRs and (2) transactional EBRs. Pursuant to a transactional EBR, a seller may text a consumer whose telephone number is listed on the National Do Not Call Registry for up to 18 months after the consumer’s last purchase, delivery, or payment—i.e., from the date of the seller’s last transaction with the former customer—unless the consumer asks the seller to stop calling him. In that case, the seller must honor the do not call request by placing the consumer’s telephone number on its own internal do not call list. Under an inquiry EBR, the seller may text a consumer who has inquired about its products or services, but only for up to three months. Again, if the consumer asks the seller to stop calling within that three-month timeframe, it must honor the request and add the consumer’s telephone number to its internal do not call list. Telephone numbers on the seller’s internal do not call list should remain on that list indefinitely or until the consumer subsequently provides her prior express written consent (or explicitly asks to be removed from the internal do not call list); a new EBR will not override an internal do not call request. Indeed, as to the latter, the Federal Trade Commission and several state attorneys general made this point clear in their briefing in a recent TCPA and Telemarketing Sales Rule litigation then-pending in Illinois federal court; the practical reason for the rule is that a consumer may wish to do business with a seller yet not receive telemarketing calls.
With the death of Facebook arbitrage, direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketers are forced to look for new ways to drive sales more quickly than ever before. Enter TV. Once seen primarily as a branding medium, DTC brands are now using television to drive online and in-store sales. The continued growth and sophistication of attribution modeling in television has allowed marketers and their agency partners to more directly measure television’s impact on KPIs.
But what if you are a brand that can’t be on Facebook or Google due to ad restrictions? Or your potential customer base is spread across multiple demographics? TV is a great, if not the only, way to reach CBD customers on a mass scale. CBD brands face the same challenges that all DTC brands face with the added bonus of additional restrictions due to product perception, and can also vary drastically state-by-state around the country. These restrictions however, also create a huge opportunity for the savvy marketer to dive in and own share of voice in the CBD market. With Facebook off the table, CBD brands are spared the expense of learning that Facebook arbitrage no longer exists. The opportunity to scale an emerging CBD brand on TV has never been more accessible.
The acceptance of CBD brands on television still faces restrictions as each network group has their own standards and practices. However, the number of networks accepting CBD products grows by the day. As education and understanding around the efficacy of CBD increase, so are the networks’ willingness to accept advertising. Remember, there once was a time when liquor brands couldn’t advertise on TV!
Looking at other media platforms for reaching potential CBD customers through advertising, terrestrial radio also provides very strict guidelines, if allowed at all; the same can be said for digital options and satellite radio. Whereas podcasts are a popular option due to regulations mostly being decided upon by the podcast’s producers, it’s hard to compare the reach to consumers of podcasts vs. television.
The nuances of navigating the media landscape for CBD brands remains complex. The opportunity to capture market share through TV is wide open. The CBD brand who recognizes this and acts most quickly has the chance to become the undisputed brand leader in a market that projects to exceed $45 billion by the year 2024.
Over the past year, more and more consumer class actions have been filed against manufacturers and distributors of CBD-infused products. These actions typically assert claims based on how the product is marketed, such as whether it (i) contained the advertised amount of CBD, (ii) contained more THC than it should have or (iii) has the ability to provide the therapeutic benefits touted. The marketing of these products is subject to regulation by FDA, which has yet to issue pertinent regulations that have been expected since passage of the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing hemp and CBD products derived therefrom. Thus, in recent months, a number of federal courts have stopped these class actions in their tracks pending further guidance from FDA as to how CBD-infused products should be regulated. This growing body of precedent should be welcome news for the CBD supply chain, as it may provide a disincentive to the plaintiffs’ bar to expend their resources on similar actions until the regulatory framework is clear.
The first case that was put on hold until the “FDA completes its rulemaking regarding the marketing, including labeling, of hemp-derived ingestible products” was Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida, a case about the content of CBD in Green Roads’ products pendingin the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Then, in May, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California took the same approach, deciding to stay the case of Colette v. CV Sciences, Inc., also on account of the lack of FDA regulations. Less than one month later, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, relying on the rulings in Snyder and Colette, stayed Glass v. Global Widget, LLC, also under the primary jurisdiction—a doctrine implicated where the claims involve a federal agency’s expertise concerning a regulated product.
On August 11, 2020, two federal judges became the most recent to stay putative class actions involving the sale of CBD products under the primary jurisdiction doctrine: Pfister v. Charlotte’s Web Holdings, Inc., in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and Ahumada v. Global Widget LLC, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Both were stayed on account of a lack of regulatory direction from FDA.
A trend appears to be developing, but not all courts faced with the option to stay the proceedings pursuant to the primary jurisdiction doctrine have chosen to put their respective cases on hold. In March, the judge overseeing Potter v. Diamond CBD (pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida) declined to stay the proceedings despite the absence of FDA regulations concerning ingestible CBD products. Despite the defendant’s objection, the court declined to stay the proceedings, finding that to the extent FDA regulations were forthcoming, they would be unlikely to change the food labeling requirements which were at issue in that case.
The stays of federal court cases involving CBD products highlight the need for FDA to issue regulations that cover the marketing of them. They also may provide the CBD product supply chain with a break in the number of consumer class actions filed until such regulations are issued.
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