The Cannabrander With Ben Weinberg: Lessons From The Women Grow Leadership Summit

By Benjamin Weinberg

COLORADO: Hundreds of established and up-and-coming cannabis industry leaders came together to share stories and insights in Denver, Colorado, on February 1-2, 2018, at the Women Grow Leadership Summit (WGLS). During two intense days of learning and networking, they connected, educated, and empowered each other at the largest industry largest gathering focused primarily on women. I’m also sure that deals were being made because finding capital is an important element of all business verticals, and Women Grow (WG) helps connect ideas with funding.

As a non-traditional impact investment vehicle, WG fulfills a social mission using a for-profit structure. This is an increasingly important branding strategy in both cannabis and the at-large business world.

Women Grow 

Women Grow was created in Denver, Colorado, in 2014, and serves as a catalyst for women to influence and succeed in the cannabis industry. As the end of marijuana prohibition in the U.S. comes into clearer focus, WG connects, educates, inspires, and empowers the next generation of leaders by creating programs, community, and events for a diverse set of business executives and leaders in all segments of the cannabis industry.

Together, members have started more than 1,000 women-owned businesses in the marijuana industry, and there are monthly events in 35 cities across the U.S. and Canada. A popular Speakers Bureau ensures diversity at industry events and in media coverage, and an online Video Education series creates timely access to relevant content.

The Summit

Women control 85 percent of consumer spending, so it isn’t a stretch to say that female consumers will also come to dominate cannabis purchasing decisions. Therefore, marijuana products and services that women love are bound to rise to the top. But women and minorities are substantially underrepresented in cannabis leadership roles. Hence the need for WGLS.

There were several overlapping threads to this year’s Summit, including equality (women and minorities are underrepresented in cannabis, especially in positions of power), leadership (including the benefits of being together for the Summit), diversity, and navigating the legal issues of cannabis as a mainstream business.

While there was some content distributed on Wednesday, January 31, it was confined to Women Grow Market Leadership and Women Grow Members and consisted primarily of a special workshop, a welcome reception, and a professional development session. Thursday kicked off bright and early with a series of lightning talks. All sorts of topics were covered in short order, including such notables as Climbing in Heels – The Art of Exceeding Self-Expectation, From Target to THC: Confessions of a Corporate-to-Cannabis Crossover, Diversity in Cannabis Report, How-To For Women (Cannabis 101), The Intercultural Conversation – Cannabis Between Cultures, and Why Science Matters.

Friday was devoted to breakout sessions, small panels that included topics such as Addressing Sexual Harassment in The Workplace, Big Brand Insights to Guide Your Canna-business Marketing, Know The Law, Cannabis & the Feminine, Careers in Cannabis After 50 – How to Market Yourself, Investing in the Cannabis Industry, and How Women Grow.

Was It Worth It?

Sister Kate, Sisters of the Valley, an organization that sustains farm operations and compassionate activism by making products for people in a spiritual environment, related that the spiritual healing environment of WGLS, “The entire two days were a euphoric walk in the clouds with angels on angel-missions. Except these angels are of the bad-ass-warrior variety, carrying the most beautiful combination of femininity and strength. Here I found women who do not deny their scars, nor make excuses for their victimizers. Here I met women who re-purpose their own suffering in order to better help and understand others – to better connect and heal others.”

As for her thoughts on how WG approaches empowering underrepresented groups, Sister Kate is not sure what they are doing, but they are doing it well, “because we were so pleased to see the mix of colors and genders and ethnicities and religious beliefs. It was a beautiful tapestry of color in the conference. The women of color that we spoke with – many have had terrible hardship to overcome. Amazing stories that made my life look like a cake-walk. Their pure-bred warrior strength and courage is something to salute and something that brought tears to my eyes. We will definitely be back every year.”

Just Show Up

Sister Kate further advises newbies to “Show up. Just show up. You will heal from the experience. You will be healed, you will be strengthened, you will leave a Viking Warrioress intent on claiming her own bliss. Just show up. That’s all you have to do. The energy bath is incredible and might remain with you the rest of your life.”

Toward that end, this year’s Women Grow Leadership Summit focused on transforming careers in the cannabis industry. At the end, attendees left with a plethora of meaningful connections and vital industry knowledge that should ignite much success.

Conclusion

While there were some significant changes in the command structure of Women Grow that were announced at the Summit (Dr. Chanda Macias, CEO of National Holistic Center, has been named as Women Grow’s new Chairwoman of the Board of Managers, and Garcia’s second-in-command, Director of Communications Gia Morón, will be assuming a new position as Executive Vice President), the organization’s mission remains the same – to empower women and others who want to make a difference in the world of legal cannabis. It’s a textbook example of how an impact investment approach can be a highly successful branding strategy while also doing good in the world.


Ben Weinberg, JD, MBA, the President of Ben Weinberg Consultants, has more than 30 years of experience in harnessing his creativity to tell your company’s story, including strategic and tactical marketing, sales, operational, and administrative consulting for small- and medium-size businesses across diverse industries such as law, medicine, wellness, leisure, and hospitality.

The CannaBrander With Ben Weinberg. PLExD, LLC Profiting From A Design Sprint

COLORADO: I was recently engaged to oversee and facilitate a Google Ventures design sprint for Promethean Learning Experience Design (PLExD, LLC), a boutique e-learning design company in Denver, Colorado, owned by James Finder.  PLExD’s focus is on designing and developing content to get the most out of training for Millennials, Gen-Xers, and Baby Boomers alike, and legal cannabis is one of the spaces that PLExD plays in.

James already had a successful company based on subcontracting his e-learning services out to major players (contractors) in the space.  What he needed was a best-practices marketing plan, a map that outlined his next steps to move up the food chain and become one of those major players that does the farming out.

What’s a Design Sprint?

A design sprint is usually a multi-day process that seeks to answer critical business questions through designing, prototyping, and testing ideas.  One version, developed at Google Ventures, packages business strategy, innovation, behavioral science, and design thinking into a well-tested process that any team can use.

Working together in a facilitated sprint, a team can shortcut the endless debate cycle that is inherent to groupthink while compressing months of development time into a single week (or even less –- I’ve run sprints as short as two days).  Instead of waiting until after significant resources have been committed to launch a minimal product that, in turn, determines if an idea is any good, this process allows clear data to emerge from a realistic prototype that is developed during the sprint.  Decision makers are fast-forwarded into the future with a facsimile of the finished product that generates customer reactions before any expensive commitments are made.

What Happened

A sprint always starts by surveying the stated problem and developing a metric that can indicate the point at which the problem is solved.  Therefore, my team (including co-facilitator Annie Furlong along with team members Norbert Peyfuss, and Andrew Alvarez) first determined that James’s branding and marketing problem revolved around determining what distinguishes a contractor from a subcontractor.  We decided that prospecting, more specifically the nature of the prospect as ultimate client instead of contractor, fit that bill.  This led naturally to the proper metric, which was the number of generated quotes for ultimate clients.

We then worked dynamically with James to build up his strategy, quickly moving into prioritizing sub-issues and focusing on what seemed to be the most pressing element, that of implementing a new, rebranded website with an online quote generation engine to which all his other marketing efforts (also categorized during the sprint) could be directed.  This enabled James to think through exactly how he wanted visitors (especially his newly defined set of prospects) to experience his website.  We worked as a team to design a prototype of that experience we called, “The Journey,” that took a visitor through a short e-learning experience to devise a basic quote for the type of project she had in mind (or didn’t; many website visitors don’t have a clue what they want so we also had to design a pathway for them, as well).

Conclusion

To me, the most interesting part of the design sprint process is that it can work for any company, product, and service, even internal processes in branding, marketing, sales, operations, administration, and any combination of those vectors, because it is focused on first determining the nature of the real problem and an associated metric, then ideating around that problem until a testable prototype is generated.  This then leads to a fruitful direction for further development after the sprint is completed.  It’s also an exciting and fun way to build cohesion among a team in a way that generates immediate results without having to spend months (or years) and lots of resources examining the problem before testing a useable prototype.

The bottom line is that we helped James to focus on what was immediately important, while at the same time giving him a road map to achieve what he wants his business to become.  What did James think?  Here’s only one of his post-sprint LinkedIn posts:  “#participated in a Google ventures #designsprint.  I know how powerful this is Benjamin Weinberg…”


ABOUT BEN WEINBERG: Ben Weinberg, JD, MBA, the President of Ben Weinberg Consultants, has more than 30 years of experience in harnessing his creativity to tell your company’s story, including strategic and tactical marketing, sales, operational, and administrative consulting for small- and medium-size businesses across diverse industries such as law, medicine, wellness, leisure, and hospitality.

The Cannabrander: Studio A64 Case Study: The Local Social Dimensions Of Best-Practice Branding

By Ben Weinberg

COLORADO: Studio A64 is a private, members-only cannabis club in Colorado Springs, Colorado that features a large, open space on the main floor as well as an upstairs lounge.  Studio A64 does not provide cannabis, and Ambur Racek who, along with Wanda Stark, owns and operates the club, wouldn’t have it any other way.  “We’re a social space for marijuana users, so we serve coffee and other drinks.  We also have a real soda fountain where we create awesome milkshakes!”

“We show movies,” says Stark, “have live music and comedy, play bingo, and curate all sorts of other social activities.  We even do ladies nights!”  With close to 2,000 registered members and continued strong membership growth, Studio A64 is a cannabis-focused business that understands the local social dimensions of best-practice branding.

Social vs. Social Media

Social media acts at a distance and can be very effective in raising a company’s profile.  But turning a prospect into a long-term customer generally requires more than just active Facebook and Twitter accounts.  Humans have evolved as social animals, which is why social media works, but our genetics use online activity as a mere proxy for face-to-face interaction, which is why in-person contact is so impactful.

Many of the social cues we normally consider (particularly smells and pheromones) are absent from social media, and thus interaction at a distance is not generally superior to the real thing.  How can a business owner capitalize on the natural dominance of local-area communication to promote her brand?

Being Friendly

Obviously, being social is easiest when there is a physical place of business.  But having a storefront isn’t marketing, and Colorado’s restrictions on legal cannabis mean that Studio A64 can’t advertise through regular channels.  So Racek and Stark have relied on both word of mouth and social media to promote their club.

A big part of Studio A64’s brand involves being picky about the type of person to whom they offer membership.  “We don’t allow just anyone in,” explains Racek, who has a background in the local restaurant scene.  “No large bags or pets, and we don’t show a lot of security but what’s there is always friendly.”

The user’s overall experience while onsite is another basis of the brand, a lesson the owners learned from the original owner, K.C. Stark.  “He really was the captain of the ship,” says Racek.  “K.C. was a pioneer who helped change history by campaigning to end marijuana prohibition once and for all.  UX was very important to him, and we’re just following in his footsteps.”

Stark (no relation) also credits the importance of a welcoming, professional vibe in bringing out targeted blocks of consumers who otherwise wouldn’t go to a cannabis club.  “We have a large contingent of female entrepreneurs, probably in part because they feel so safe here.”  Membership is evenly divided between locals and tourists, with most of the latter category coming specifically because they’ve previously heard about Studio A64 and not just because they’re on vacation in a legal cannabis state.

Franchising plans are already in the works, including to other parts of Colorado, California, Oregon, and Florida.  While navigating multiple jurisdictions in a quickly evolving legal space can be challenging, Stark believes that threading the needle on constantly changing laws requires a cannabis brand to continually branch out into new areas of expertise.  “We’re already almost five years old and the local government keeps trying to shut us down.  But as regulations become more lenient over time, the industry’s transition from medical to retail to social will also trace the evolution of our brand as a safe, social place for our members to consume legal cannabis.”

Being Social in a Virtual World

By partnering with a legal, physical space, a virtual company can add the benefits of one-on-one, in-person interaction to those already inherent in a lean, otherwise online-only operation.  In fact, locations such as Studio A64 are often eager to partner with outside vendors because the synergies are so obvious.

Conclusion

Studio A64, the United States first brick and mortar cannabis club, proudly sets a national standard for the future of the marijuana industry by incorporating the social element of branding into its products and services.  It’s a lesson that other cannabis companies, especially those with access to a physical storefront or other premises, should take very seriously.


About Ben Weinberg

Ben Weinberg, JD, MBA, the President of Ben Weinberg Consultants, has more than 30 years of experience in harnessing his creativity to tell your company’s story, including strategic and tactical marketing, sales, operational, and administrative consulting for small- and medium-size businesses across diverse industries such as law, medicine, wellness, leisure, and hospitality. Ben has written professionally for many international magazines and newspapers, online and in print, including as a contributing editor and Editor-in-Chief, is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and has won multiple awards for creative writing.  Visit his website and sign up for his newsletter.

The Cannabrander: Canopy Case Study: The Branding Advantage of Thought Leadership

By Ben Weinberg

CanopyBoulder is a seed-stage business accelerator, operated under the Canopy parasol in Boulder, Colorado, where it focuses on the legal cannabis space.  It provides capital, a 16-week mentor-driven boot camp, and critical industry knowledge in return for a 6-9.5 percent equity stake in each hand-picked member of every incoming class.  After a three-month program, in which members are groomed to successfully access venture capital, the top three companies in each class also have access to a convertible note to aid in continued growth.

There are now 67 companies in CanopyBoulder’s portfolio, and classes for new entrants start twice each year, in the spring and fall.  In fact, the concept has been so successful that the Canopy accelerator model has expanded its reach to California, which necessitated a change in branding strategy from ‘CanopyBoulder’ to just ‘Canopy.’  “We use the CanopyBoulder and Canopy San Diego designations for the accelerators in those locations,” says Patrick Rea, Canopy’s Founder and CEO, “which allows the Canopy name to be an umbrella for our current and future programs, as well as other organizational branches that we hope to roll out in the future.”

Clearly the company is onto something big, and being a thought leader is a huge part of its up-and-coming brand.

The Front of the House

Rea has a background in natural foods and venture capitalism but moved to legal cannabis in 2013.  “I found a gap between those who wanted to start cannabis-related companies and those who brought lean startup best-practices and financing to the table.  There was clearly a need for a business accelerator specifically designed for this space.”

According to Program Director Mason Levy, the company is dedicated to building outstanding, professional businesses that help move the cannabis industry forward.  “We work with adult-use and medicinally focused firms, and are always looking to add tech plays, data analytics, market research, sales, advertising, and consumption devices to our portfolio.”

The Secret Sauce

Levy, who has a degree in Mechanical Engineering, an MBA, and a blackbelt certification in Lean 6 Sigma methodologies, admits that a portion of CanopyBoulder’s success is due to the Boulder-Denver metro area being the business nexus of and a model for the U.S. cannabis industry.  Business Insider has also named Boulder to its list of the 20 Most Innovative Cities, Atlantic Cities online named it one of the top 15 cities nationwide in attracting venture capital, and over the past five years it has garnered about 33 percent of all venture capital investment in Colorado companies.  Boulder boasts unparalleled scenic beauty, favorable cost of living, a highly educated workforce, a diverse mix of large and small businesses, and a world class university.

But a large part of Canopy’s program is based on process, not locational perks, and to Levy that means being a thought leader in consumer and agricultural technology.  “We focus on what each part of the whole is best at to achieve a greater goal.  What will the cannabis industry look like in 30 years?  That’s where we want to be.”

The company is built around the idea that cannabis is one of the first industries to come to maturity during the information revolution.  While Levy is passionate about empowering individuals in the new economy, at the same time he recognizes that traditional best-practices in branding, marketing, and the like are all still extremely relevant.  “Treating cannabis as a completely different animal means you’re trying too hard, but it’s easy to be excited about the fastest growing industry in the world!”

Rea believes that the core values of a modern economic methodology (transparency, shared profit, and impact investing) are crucial to his company’s brand.  An important consequence is that the decision-making processes of cannabis thought leaders should always be filtered through caring and empathy.  “Technology now exists for consumers to care as much as they want about anything and everything.  That’s why each mentor we connect to our members brings invaluable perspective on starting and growing a business, plus an extensive professional network.  Above all, these relationships are committed to Canopy’s companies, with everyone giving generously of their time and leveraging their experiences for ultimate success.”

Thought Leadership; A Final Word

Canopy focuses on thought leadership as a part of their core methodology.  I would also argue that thought leadership in general is an excellent place to start a brand, particularly in a space that is coming to maturity in the information age


 

About Ben Weinberg

Ben Weinberg, JD, MBA, the President of Ben Weinberg Consultants, has more than 30 years of experience in harnessing his creativity to tell your company’s story, including strategic and tactical marketing, sales, operational, and administrative consulting for small- and medium-size businesses across diverse industries such as law, medicine, wellness, leisure, and hospitality.

The Cannabrander: CBD + Co. A First Product Case Study

By Ben Weinberg 

CBD + Co. produces pharmaceutical grade cannabidiol (CBD) in a well-equipped laboratory northeast of Boulder, Colorado.  “Our chief innovation is a water-soluble isolate that can be ingested sublingually,” relates Founder Stephen Bernard, a mechanical engineer who has spent more than a decade in the cannabis industry.  This means it continues to release active ingredients in a biocompatible way even after being swallowed.  It’s a major step, and given his company’s focus it makes no sense to follow the branding practices of stoner subculture, “not if we want to reach serious people while providing legitimacy to the business of cannabis.”

Bernard and Alex Cullota, the company’s Cofounder, first looked at other available CBDs, which are most popular as tinctures (alcoholic extracts that don’t fit everyone’s taste).  They then incorporated their water-soluble isolate into honey, a natural product with positive health connotations.  Another critical decision was to package Honey Drops in blue glass, representative of laboratory packaging, instead of subculture-standard colors and materials.

According to Cullota, a veteran consultant in chemicals, oil, gas, and construction, such tactics build on CBD + Co.’s reputation for bringing the science of cannabis front-and-center.  “We cater to ‘Productive Potheads’, people who use cannabis to do creative things, and our branding proposition reflects this.”

The Hard Part

Of course, there have been stumbles along the way.  Facebook shut down Bernard’s personal page, and early on there were misunderstandings about online marketing.  “We originally built big,” explains Douglas Wilson, a former military man who now consults for CBD + Co. in IT and cybersecurity, “with an expensive website that wasn’t exactly turnkey.  But we had no effective content management and we weren’t sure if we could actually sell something about which we couldn’t openly converse.”

Wilson bursts through this paradigm via the clever use of pictures and videos depicting bright, sunny places where consumers engage in productive activities such as yoga, gaming, and athletics.  “We’re changing the image of the cannabis user by showing off the science behind a healthy lifestyle that includes our products.”

Cullota believes that the closest space in this regard is Big Pharma, and that many branding problems can be solved by looking there.  “Drug companies sell their most controversial products by socially engineering their target markets.  This usually involves aligning the general perception of their drugs with productive lifestyle choices.”

Wilson also believes that simply pointing out the government’s acceptance of CBD and other compounds via U.S. patent can help people accept life empowering solutions.  To quote the patent abstract, “Cannabinoids have been found to have antioxidant properties… This newfound property makes cannabinoids useful in the treatment and prophylaxis of a wide variety of oxidation associated diseases, such as ischemic, age-related, inflammatory and autoimmune…”  Spreading awareness via the major actors in CBD-manageable illnesses, primarily chronic pain issues such as fibromyalgia and arthritis, and neurodegenerative quirks like cerebral palsy and epilepsy, also make intuitive sense.

The Future

The company continues to innovate as a major part of its value proposition.  “We’re currently isolating tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and THCA,” says Bernard, “and we’re working on THCV, cannabigerol (CBG), and cannabinol (CBN).”  It’s taken CBD + Co. three years to get to this point, and the plan is to continue to improve incrementally while creating qualitative differences versus the competition.  A long-term goal is to eventually sell to Big Pharma and anyone else who needs high quality, cannabis derived compounds.

The Bottom Line

Branding a cannabis related product, particularly a company’s first foray into the marketplace, can be a distinct challenge.  One way to cut through the chaff of subculture is to focus on pictures and especially video as a form of social engineering that leans toward the customers who represent the best of your targeted market.

 


Ben Weinberg, JD, MBA, the President of Ben Weinberg Consultants, has more than 30 years of experience in harnessing his creativity to tell your company’s story, including strategic and tactical marketing, sales, operational, and administrative consulting for small- and medium-size businesses across diverse industries such as law, medicine, wellness, leisure, and hospitality. Ben has written professionally for many international magazines and newspapers, online and in print, including as a contributing editor and Editor-in-Chief, is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and has won multiple awards for creative writing.