But as the economy grows in the cannabis industry, it’s also important to make sure a celebrity endorser or entrepreneur aligns their portfolio with a purpose. “I get a lot of phone calls from celebrities who want to start a cannabis brand,” said Troy Datcher, CEO of parent company, owner of Jay-Z-backed weed brand Monogram.
“The first question I asked them was what is their connection to the industry, what is their connection to the factory or the work that we find important because we help shape the industry,” Datcher said. “And when someone says they want to make more money or start with ‘this is a new source of income’, the conversation is quick. For me, when it’s born into authenticity, it becomes a part of cultural conversation.
Mark Flores, director of brand engagement at weed-focused agency Receptor Brands, said the key to growing and maintaining brand loyalty among marijuana consumers is “having a soul.” .
“Having a brand identity that connects with people, not necessarily the pharmaceutical route, which is more transaction-based,” Flores said, noting that the mindset may be common in newly legalized states. “We see brands that genuinely care about their consumers and try to engage with them as often as they can. And when I say having a soul, I mean caring about the communities you serve goes a long way in helping you differentiate from brands that do not necessarily do so.
Many may jump at the idea that the federal legalization of cannabis is the final hurdle to solving these problems, especially since the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Clearance (MORE) Act was approved at the House of Representatives earlier this month and is moving towards a vote in the Senate. Flores doesn’t think it’s that simple.
While federal legalization would have major implications allowing companies to localize the production process before shipping products across states, its effect on marketing and branding would be more like an umbrella effect, or have the potential to influence state regulations without necessarily unifying them.
“Bureaucracies are always going to get in the way, but there are organizations — and I’ll give you an example: the National Cannabis Industry Association, where I sit on the state regulatory committee. Harmonizing some of these laws is one of our goals to facilitate federal legalization if and once it happens,” Flores said. “As you have more multi-state operators pressuring [states’] name to make these laws a bit more consistent, this is going to happen. It’s just an uphill battle and it will take time, but the industry is growing fast. The money behind some of these efforts to make laws consistent is there and we will get there.
Asked if he thinks the hopes for legalization should be excited by the current round of legislation, Flores added: “We should be very excited because at the end of the day it’s getting us closer and closer to the normalizing the cannabis conversation because now it’s making national headlines every day. And it’s exciting.
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Many political conversations around cannabis legalization revolve around racial justice. For example, New York’s licensing process, which is considered one of the most progressive, inherently favors local operations, especially those previously impacted by marijuana laws.
“We’ve had the opportunity to see what other states have done and how they’ve succeeded or failed, and particularly when they’ve tried to implement what they call equity programs, which is really this effort to put licenses in the hands of those affected by disproportionate enforcement,” said Freeman Klopott, a representative with the New York State Office of Cannabis Management. As the state begins licensing vendors, which it says will be allowed to operate by the end of 2022, it is emphasizing largely serving communities of color who have been oppressed by disproportionately by cannabis laws.
But as governments incorporate social equity into their legislation, not all brands are equally eager to address the topic. Flores’ advice as new states open up their recreational markets is to join the conversation head-on. He said brands outside of the cannabis industry have played an important role in providing a financial avenue for “social equity seekers to enter the industry without having to touch plants. That’s fine for now, but it doesn’t answer the social equity question of how cannabis as an industry should give back to the communities that cannabis has historically affected.
Last year, Monogram ran a series of outdoor ads highlighting the hypocrisy of cannabis laws in the United States. Another says: “The War on Drugs worked, if systemic racism was the goal.”
“It was a really brave place for a brand to start communicating as they’re trying to get their name out there, but it’s also central to who the monogram is,” Datcher said. “It reflects the community we serve and so, for us, it allows us to have conversations.”