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Cannabis Brand-Building: The Consumer is Your Mirror

Cannabis Brand-Building: The Consumer is Your Mirror

As South Africa moves towards legalizing cannabis for adult-use, there will be an explosion of new retail brands vying for a share of the lucrative post-prohibition market. This is how to ensure your brand meets the mark in what will be a rapidly-evolving consumer landscape.

Nelson Lindsley, High Times

11 May 2024 at 08:00:00

This report from High Times published on 8 May 2024.

It’s an interesting time in the weed world. The federal government is slow-dancing a signal fest that weed is acceptable and welcome to the fold. Nothing has really changed except perceived sentiment, but things will change and things have changed. For one, who we have relationships with in the industry today is not the same as yesterday, and tomorrow we have no idea except a guess.

There is still a lingering holdover that still looks at the current state of cannabis the same way Kurt Cobain would look at a Nirvana song in a Hyundai commercial. Unfortunately the nostalgia-laden still have to eat and ultimately will take to YouTube or Instagram to sell some product under their brand. Some just bailed and grow for themselves working an impersonal day job to pay the bills. Some already made their money and can kick back and judge the scene from a balcony window. Anybody still playing the game is still fostering new and old relationships.

Creating Relationships

It’s a bit easier to create new relationships these days and at the same time harder to maintain them. People’s perceptions of you and your story change day to day based on surface level interpretations of who you are and what you are doing online, not necessarily in real life. This plays into how a brand sells and how much attention they can gather for a drop. 

This type of success can come and go with the wind. The handful of brands that have maintained success regardless of social media image have been tirelessly listening to their customers more so than what people are commenting on. Persevering through the online ups and downs, remaining visibly unaffected by whatever turd is being thrown your way and still getting to the work day with the intention of improving every part of the consumer experience is what defines the success of the less-than-half-a-dozen proprietors that have been continually winning. Winning can be reduced to profitability or in this market just keeping your business alive.

Another characteristic of the brands that are fostering success is how they collaborate with other smaller brands, elevating their brand by elevating another. This type of move reinforces the roots of where they came from by honoring the draft class of younger, smaller brands that have less visibility. This has worked more times than not and if things go sideways, the winning brands handle the drama offline. 

Any time the drama between these types of collabs enters the public online space it takes a piece of the larger brand back, regardless of the attention or engagement gathered. As much as the old adage “no press is bad press” is still a thing, a brand’s favor with consumers now more than ever can disappear into a wash of irrelevance if the narrative online paints them unfavorably. At some point the consumer gets tired of the story and that burnout point approaches fast as the world grows smaller the more it becomes interconnected.

What really stands out are the brands that continue to sit just above the line of obscurity, gathering engagement and conversation when needed, while creating a consistent product. As they grow, their brand name becomes more common and organically becomes a fixture in the space for as along as they can maintain it or until there is some legal duress that throws the trajectory for a loop. There are two brands at the moment that come to mind that are facing this sort of situation. 

There are also those types of brands that are designed to edge lord the entire business crossing into sub culture conversations that touch cannabis. Selling cannabis along side the open legs of porn stars or other types of lurid hooks. 

At some point these hooks lose their allure and the brands will either continue to push the limit or rebrand into the mainstream. That didn’t work out too well for Vice media, but that’s another conversation. The extreme marketing can work on creating virality and hype but maintaining that success when the focus is on how you are selling instead of what you are really selling—which is weed, in case we forgot—can go sideways real fast.

Calculating Costs

So with all this in mind, I am trying to do something with my brand that will try and meet a few of these worlds while reaching what matters most, consumer value. Looking at the retail numbers, at least in California, cost seems to be the number one thing consumers value the most. Which is a bit disheartening although understood when ruminating on the egregious taxes bestowed on the consumer shopping in the California retail cannabis market. 

There are suggested prices for top shelf product that are displayed along with the eternal sale price of $35-$40 for an 1/8th. What we would like to be paid compared to what people will pay for is a rub, especially when looking at the prices of some products in fancy unregulated packaging on telegram. As much as growers market how they grow it matters less to the consumer if there is a close to equivalent product for ten dollars less. 

Also if you come out with a listed product at $35-40 an 1/8th you’ve screwed yourself into what is called the retail dead zone. You can discount a product to that price but for your sake don’t come in at that price thinking you’ll be able to match the consumer perceived value of a discounted established brand. Consumers like to feel like they are getting a deal on that jar or bag. Also after taxes they end up paying the $55-60 but the delta goes to the state, the silent and suffocating partner of every legal cannabis company.

Consumers also value a cannabinoid analysis more than the actual product. Which is extremely frustrating and everyone has been yapping about how this is a terrible value metric for good while, and yet it’s barely moved the needle. What has moved the needle is the lack of testing in the black market and how those buyers care more about aroma, look, and packaging more than a test. That is a gift from the black market that is helping the rest of us when it comes to selections made based off THC numbers. I’m going to try and push against this with the selections I’m making but I can’t pretend that I don’t exhale easier when a test comes back over 25%. It still matters, and even more in the smaller market states. 

A smart approach when you are selling your brand to consumers is to weave in the dialogue how much more value there is in your product than just one number.

The Consumer Is Your Mirror

So let’s say you’ve got some heat and fresh packaging and you’re ready to start selling to retail locations. If you haven’t started developing relationships ahead of time with retail ownership, good luck. The amount of competition in the market is staggering and it makes sense when you do the math at how much cultivation is being backdoored when you stack up the total volume of metric tons produced to the demand from retailers. 

This backdooring has also created an undefeated black market where customers can get fresher product faster and at a lower price. Accessing shelf space at a dispensary to sell your flower is a cut-throat game, and if you think that getting on the shelf is the final mountain to climb, think again. Once you have the shelf space, you have to be present as much as possible at the retail and not only develop solid relationships with the staff at the store but also the customers, number 1 the customers. This could be looked at as a chore but really it’s your opportunity to maintain the relationship with the retail location with authentic customer outreach, because if your product struggles to sell that shelf space will evaporate. 

I tried this approach in a smaller market that was vocally unhappy with the state program and to this day there are still Reddit posts of the drops we did 3 years ago. This was directly due to myself as the grower, not a rep, communicating as much as possible with the retail buyers. 

I cannot recommend this enough to new brands, your people matter more than anybody else. They are the ones that keep you going and will be there to support your efforts as you grow and face adversity. Your customers must be invested in who you are, your products and your success. It is more like this in cannabis than any other market. The further a brand gets away from their consumer investment into their brand the quicker they fall. The consumer is your mirror, hear them out, listen to what they ask for, what they are happy with and what didn’t land. If something doesn’t land then it’s up to you to make it right and if you have been developing the relationships you will for sure be given the chance to make it right.

So you might have slogged through licensing and starting up a business. You might have hired a high end marketing consultant to build you a logo. You might have finally got your grow team up to speed and your harvest batches are hitting the marks. None of that matters unless you have built a loyal customer base that you are in service to.

It doesn’t matter how good your weed is unless people enjoy buying it as much as they do smoking it. So get out of the warehouse or off the hill and start cultivating the joy that got you growing in the first place with the people that are paying your power bill.


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