Cannabis Industry Branding Expert Patrick Toste Urges Cannabis Brands to Cherish Your Customers and Rethink Instagram

In an ongoing series this year, we’d like you to get to know some of the fantastic companies and people we’ve had a chance to collaborate with over the years. Our first interview is with an incredibly talented branding expert, Patrick Toste, co-founder of Seattle-based cannabis branding agency, Highopes. 

 

First, a little background about you: 

I’m originally from Rhode Island and graduated from California State University Long Beach with a BFA in Graphic Design. I’ve been designing for over 10 years and have had the luxury of working with both large and small brands nationwide. I am the Creative Director and Co-Founder of HIGHOPES Design. We are a creative studio that focuses exclusively on helping cannabis businesses nationwide unlock their potential through branding, packaging, web design, and marketing services. Our client list consists of over 30 cannabis companies that include Have A Heart, VidaCann, and Nuvata.

 

When did you first start working in the cannabis industry?

Upon moving to Seattle and experiencing the recreational cannabis market for the first time, I recognized an opportunity, and established a passion for, helping cannabis businesses build successful brands. I captured a handful of freelance projects with cannabis clients in Washington and California that I completed some branding and packaging work for. From there, I decided it was best to brand myself as a more established business than just a freelancer to provide more growth opportunities for myself and my clients.

 

What were you doing prior to the cannabis industry? 

Before diving into the cannabis industry, I worked as a designer on the in-house branding team at The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf which is a nationwide coffee chain based in Southern California. In this position, I gained experienced managing and expanding a large brand through packaging design, digital advertising, in-store marketing, and other similar avenues. 

After moving to Seattle from Southern California, I decided to explore the world of advertising by joining the team at Publicis Seattle as a designer. At Publicis, I was able to work with even larger brands like T-Mobile and assist in a variety of nationwide digital advertising projects. However, my true passion for branding was established there when I led the design team on the rebrand of the locally world-famous radio station, KEXP. 

 

What lesson did you learn BEFORE cannabis that’s been most valuable in cannabis?

I’d say the lesson I learned before I entered the cannabis space that has been most valuable to HIGHOPES and our clients is the importance of knowing and understanding your customers. This methodology was something I gained over the years of working with larger, nationwide brands like The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, T-Mobile, and even Under Armour. I was able to realize how these companies were branded and marketing was significantly impacted by what their consumers think, want, need, and feel. 

Something I see all too often in the cannabis industry is a rush to bring a product to the market with the idea of targeting all consumers due to a scarcity mindset. Operationally I understand why these businesses feel this is the right approach, but in hindsight, they realize they do not know who their customer is and what delights them which results in an unfocused and unorganized brand direction. 

 

Is there a particular cannabis branding project you’d like to highlight? 

At HIGHOPES we are extremely proud of all the work we create for all of our clients, but I’d like to highlight the project we did for the California-based vaporizer brand, Nuvata. Nuvata approached our team with only a product and a vision so we assisted in establishing their positioning, messaging, branding, packaging, website, and marketing. Each branding and marketing effort we performed was put through the filter of the established strategy resulting in an immensely focused and concise brand for the market. With the Nuvata team’s help, we were able to identify and understand their target customer and then make every branding and marketing decision with the goal to bring them delight. The end result spoke for itself as within the first year they spread across the entire state of California and gained considerable brand awareness.  


What’s the biggest misconception cannabis companies have about branding? 

I think the biggest misconception about branding in the cannabis industry is that your brand is simply your logo when this could not be farther from the truth. In essence, your brand is actually not controlled by you but rather your customers. A brand is the opinion and feeling a customer has about your company based on a combination of your logo, products, packaging, website, marketing, social media, customer service, and so on. For that reason, cannabis companies can only strive to manipulate the emotional response of their customers with the goal of creating a positively recognized brand. 

 

In your view, what is the biggest branding challenge facing cannabis companies today? 

I think the biggest challenge cannabis companies face today when building a brand is the lack of beneficial advertising and marketing opportunities. As mentioned in my previous response, if your brand is simply the feeling a customer has of your company then it becomes very difficult to establish a positive association with customers when you cannot take advantage of the many ways of influencing their point of view. Additionally, customers cannot begin to create that strong bond with your company when you do not have the ability to raise awareness of your brand through advertising and marketing channels. 

What will be the biggest branding challenge in 2020? 

I believe the biggest branding challenge in 2020 will be establishing and solidifying customer loyalty. Most cannabis markets, both medical and recreational, are seeing a surplus of emerging brands which provides customers with an overwhelming amount of options to choose from. Additionally, product innovation has not kept pace with the number of companies entering the market leaving customers with a plethora of brands essentially selling the same product. These two factors combined prove the importance of understanding your specific customer and catering everything about your brand to what brings them delight. When that emotional bond is created with a customer it creates a sense of loyalty and trust in your brand that becomes invaluable to your success. 

 

What can companies do to alleviate their branding challenges?

When it comes to navigating the regulations around advertising and marketing in the cannabis space companies can look to outside-the-industry partnerships to alleviate these challenges. When a business understands their brand outside the lens of cannabis it allows the possibility of partnering with non-cannabis companies that share the same mission, vision, and values. Through these types of situations, cannabis brands can advertise and market indirectly through their partner to an audience that is similar, if not exactly, their type of customer. For example, Plus Edibles recently partnered with Casper for their line of CBD gummies as both brands can benefit from each other’s audience.

For establishing customer loyalty, cannabis companies simply need to take the time to understand who their target customer base is and either build or shift their branding to align with that audience. The more focused the ideal customer then the easier and more efficiently a brand can market to their wants and needs. Every move a cannabis brand makes should be filtered through the lens of their consumer. 

 

In your view, what is the most under-rated tool in the cannabis branding toolbox for cannabis companies?

I believe the most under-rated tool in the branding toolbox for cannabis companies is their brand website. This goes for cultivators, manufacturers, dispensaries, delivery, and ancillary businesses. With all the regulations surrounding advertising and marketing, your website tends to be the only platform where you can comprehensively communicate to your customer all the details of your brand. Additionally, depending on your business type, it tends to be a major channel in driving sales. For these reasons, the proper investment should be made in creating a website that is aesthetically attractive, engaging with content, and functions as a conversion tool for your business. At the end of the day, no matter who your customer is, people tend to take brands seriously that look like they take themselves seriously and your website is the perfect platform to communicate that. 

 

In your view, what is the most over-rated tool in the cannabis branding toolbox for cannabis companies?

Although still an important cog in a cannabis companies marketing plan, I believe the most over-rated tool in the branding toolbox for cannabis companies is their Instagram profile. Many of the cannabis brands we speak with feel that Instagram will drive a majority of their sales and the data just doesn’t support that theory. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very critical for cannabis brands to have a consistent Instagram presence to communicate credibility to customers but I don’t think it requires a premium-level investment. The customer journey from Instagram to purchase is long and complicated resulting in frequent drop-offs, especially for CPG brands. Additionally, with the algorithm changes in Instagram, it’s most likely that only a small fraction of a cannabis brand’s followers are even getting fed their posts. My recommendation to our cannabis clients is to invest in their Instagram as a way to raise brand awareness but don’t throw all their marketing dollars at it thinking it will drive sales.

 

What’s the BEST piece of cannabis branding expert advice you give everyone you work with?

Focus on a target audience. Your brand doesn’t need to alienate customers, but it needs to understand who is going to hear you the loudest.

Should your cannabis company double down on a marketing or PR campaign during 420? It’s popular for marketing firms and PR agencies to develop elaborate campaigns during this famous cannabis holiday. But is it worth it?

Maybe.

Who Are Your Cannabis Customers?

It depends on what kind of cannabis business you have and who your customers are. Today’s cannabis buyers aren’t ALL celebrating 420. Lots of people have to go to work, take care of kids, or have other responsibilities that still happen on that day – but they might view 420 promotions to stock up on their favorites, either before or after the day itself, but they might not be particularly engaged with a 420 PR campaign.

For example, if you’re a cannabis dispensary, your core customer is probably expecting discounts. But they’re also getting discounts from every other dispensary, and probably a few brands. Would you get more bang for your buck with a “prepare for 420” campaign, or maybe a “replenish your stash” campaign AFTER 420?

In 2021, the Eaze Cannabis Report identified several days that were bigger sales days than 420 – and a lot of those holidays are all but ignored by many cannabis brands, while journalists are still looking for holiday gift guide inclusions.

If you’re a 420 B2B company, you probably know better than to run any kind of promotion to your B2B cannabis customers – it’s a time of year that is particularly stressed for cannabis brands with consumer customers.

Can You Create a Splash?

What about CPG cannabis brands? A lot of cannabis brands will use 420 as an opportunity to create a word of mouth or cannabis PR campaign. But is that the time for your brand? If your idea shows an incredible understanding of your community, or is truly newsworthy, then it very well may be a great time to grab that coveted coverage, but it probably comes at a diluted share of voice against your competitors.

Does Your Budget Compete?

Is a 420 PR campaign even in your budget? If you don’t have a budget that competes with your aspirational competitor, then you might very well be better off developing an omnichannel or a PR campaign at a different time of year, that gives you a great share of the attention. Think about what Amazon did with Prime Day, and consider ways you could own a day when no one else is looking.  It’s one way you can make your PR budget go further.

Or you could look at 420 to open the conversation with a whole new audience through a guerilla marketing or word-of-mouth PR stunt that creates buzz.

Activism and impact are a core part of the 420 culture. 420 might be the start of a year-long purpose-driven initiative for one of the many social and cultural causes important to your community.

There’s no right or wrong answer to whether of not a 420 PR campaign is right for your brand. It’s more a matter of whether 420 fits in with your strategy.

 

 

Meet Allison Disney, for Receptor Brands, Allison serves as Partner and Business Strategist for cannabis brands who want to stand out from the “sea of sameness.”

First, a little background about Allison Disney:

I love my job. At Receptor Brands, we transform relationships between cannabis brands and their customers. As Business Strategist, I help define the field of opportunity for my clients’ businesses in this exciting new economy.

I’ve spent almost two decades leading global teams to produce award-winning advertising and marketing campaigns for some of the world’s most beloved brands, including M&Ms, Ziploc, Bacardi, YouTube, Special K, Cheez-It, and Johnson & Johnson.

After working in highly regulated and nuanced markets my entire career, I’m excited by the opportunity to work alongside our client partners and build culturally relevant, attention-getting brands in cannabis.

I live in Chicago with my botanist husband, Ryan, and, tiny boss, Maxine.

When did you first start working in cannabis?

2019

Do you sit on any industry boards or associations that you’d like to mention?

NCIA Marketing Committee – Officer

What lesson did you learn BEFORE cannabis that’s been most valuable in cannabis?

I didn’t expect my experience managing global brands to be as relevant as it has been. Particularly when working with multi-state operators, understanding how to develop strategic brand communications that travel well, while taking into consideration local nuance and regulatory guidance, enables us to deliver more effective solutions more quickly.

Is there a particular cannabis project you’d like to highlight?

One of my favorite projects continues to be the art program we’ve developed for Cresco’s Sunnyside dispensaries. As a creative agency, having the opportunity to collaborate with local artists to create an inclusive and welcoming space for shoppers is a dream assignment.

What’s the biggest misconception cannabis companies have about marketing?

The biggest misconception is that “marketing and advertising aren’t possible in cannabis.” It’s simply not true. Brands must comply with regulations, but there are lots of ways to engage customers if you’re willing to think creatively and be innovative about how.

What were you doing prior to cannabis?

I was an SVP, Client Service Director at Energy BBDO in Chicago, and before that a Client Parter at AMV BBDO in London.

In your view, what is the biggest cannabis marketing challenge facing cannabis companies today?

I see too many cannabis brands getting lost in a “sea of sameness” because they believe, or more often hope, that their product experience will be enough to convince consumers to choose them. The competition in the industry continues to increase and consumers are becoming more familiar with shopping in the regulated market.

As companies look to sustain early business success, the role of their brand and how they connect people with it through marketing and advertising activities is incredibly important.

I applaud every operator who successfully gets their product or service to market; that is a particularly difficult task in cannabis. Getting that product or service into people’s hands, lots of people’s hands, and having them come back to buy or use it again is the next, biggest challenge that will determine the success of cannabis companies.

What will get easier in cannabis marketing? What will get harder?

As cannabis becomes more mainstream, companies will have to do less-and-less to educate people on the positive impact of an increasingly complex industry. It won’t be a fast change, but the need to explain the benefits of cannabis to consumers, the positive impact to regulators and the opportunity for potential business partners should get easier. Although, I acknowledge, the [cannabis] industry will inherently become more complex as it grows.

Increased competition will make it harder for companies operating in the industry. Obviously, the struggle for investment capital, the retention of talent, and the fight for customer attention all get harder with increased competition.

What can companies do to ease their cannabis branding challenges?

Get help from capable agency partners, specifically those with cannabis experience and a commitment to staying on top of the rapid changes within the industry. Faster, more creative, and more effective solutions are much more likely when your agency partners are actively engaged in the industry every day.

In your view, what is the most under-rated tool in the brand marketing toolbox for cannabis companies?

Talking to consumers. Cannabis companies are finally getting access to a meaningful volume of consumer data, but purchase data is a backward-looking view of WHAT people do.

Understanding WHY people do what they do is important for building brand strategy, marketing plans, and advertising or PR campaigns. If you’re searching for ways to create a more innovative product, attention-grabbing campaign, or compelling promotion, meet with your core customers and listen to why and how they use this category.

In your view, what is the most over-rated tool in the branding toolbox for cannabis companies?

A brand logo. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a well-designed visual identity, but what good is a fantastic brand mark if no one ever sees it, remembers it, or has any attachment to it? Building a great brand takes more than choosing a great name and designing a beautiful logo.

What’s the BEST piece of advice you give everyone you work with?

Choose good partners. Nothing will be more costly to your business than time, energy, and capital spent with a poor-fitting partner.

What’s your advice for people who want to get into cannabis brand marketing?

Be clear about why you want to work in the cannabis industry. There are a lot of opportunities to work in marketing and advertising at incredible companies where you can get a much more structured introduction to the field. While there are many advantages to working in cannabis, you won’t find a playbook for how to do your job. If you’re not clear why you’ve chosen to work at a cannabis company, you may get lost in the ambiguity that is inherent in the industry.

How can someone contact you, Allison?

receptorbrands.com
Twitter: @apark_disney
Instagram: @allisondisney
LinkedIn: @allisondisney

Thanks for sharing your cannabis branding insights with us today, Allison.

 

Meet Melinda Adamec, SVP at Gabriel Marketing, an agency specializing in cannabis industry marketing strategy consulting, digital marketing and advertising, SEO, marketing automation, and content development.

First, a little background about Melinda Adamec:

 

Over 20 years of experience in advertising, marketing, and public relations. Recently joined the GMG team to lead GMG’s delivery of client services in marketing strategy. Prior to GMG, I lead OMI Industries’ cannabis market business including serving as brand manager for Cannabolish plant-based smoke odor removers. Before OMI Industries, I held various executive and leadership roles at PR/marketing firm GolinHarris and DBC PR + New Media. Some of my clients included Ace Hardware, AT&T, Blackboard, Hair Cuttery, IAC, Mars, McDonalds, Microsoft, Reuters, Rosetta Stone, U.S. Mint, and U.S. Postal Service. And I am a very proud member of the NCIA’s Marketing & Advertising Committee!

When did you first start working in cannabis?

5 years ago. My first event attended was the WomenGrow conference in Denver. I fell in love with the industry and the people and knew it was a very special opportunity to be part of this community.

Do you sit on any industry boards or associations that you’d like to mention?

NCIA Marketing Committee

What lesson did you learn BEFORE cannabis that’s been most valuable in cannabis?

Relationships are everything. Strong relationships (with co-workers, peers, and customers) can truly make your business. I have stayed connected with so many people I’ve worked for and with over the years, which has resulted in the learning of new opportunities, growing skillsets, support in new endeavors, and help in connecting with others in the industry. Cannabis just reinforced this by 100%.

Is there a particular cannabis project you’d like to highlight?

YES! The NCIA’s Best of 420 Awards, which was produced and launched during the middle of the pandemic. Not only I was so proud to be part of this team that put together a fantastic program within weeks – but so impressed with the brands that brought forth incredibly creative campaigns that highlighted their cannabis businesses using a variety of methods. And I could not be more thrilled to co-chair this subcommittee again this year. Stay tuned for more details about this exciting opportunity to shine a spotlight on some fantastic cannabis businesses!

What’s the biggest misconception cannabis companies have about marketing?

In my opinion – budget. You can do a lot with a small budget. It’s not how much you spend, but how you spend it. The first step is setting specific marketing goals that align with your business goals. Once you have those goals in place, with some creativity and using a customized approach you’d be amazed at the results that can be achieved. It’s not a one-size-fits all solution either. Understanding your market, customer, and how to drive real value takes a creative, omnichannel approach before you’ll see real results.

What were you doing prior to cannabis?

I was focused on increasing brand awareness and sales for a company that made all plant-based odor-removing solutions. 12 years ago natural products were viewed as “not as effective”, so it took a tremendous amount of work to educate consumers and B2B customers about the effectiveness of our products, the health risks of toxic products, and the lack of regulation around these. I like to say we were green before green was cool. So coming from that space into cannabis, educating and amplifying messages was the foundation for everything we did to grow the Cannabolish brand.

In your view, what is the biggest cannabis marketing challenge facing cannabis companies today?

One of the biggest challenges hands down is the restrictions on advertising and promotions. But even more importantly, the gray areas – in particular with consumer goods and social media. Until there are clear regulations and advertising guidelines in place it will continue to be a space that must be navigated carefully and with a team experienced in this space.

What will get easier in cannabis marketing? What will get harder?

In my opinion, once there are Federal regulations in place the marketing world of cannabis will become easier in terms of the navigation. However, more difficult for brands to compete – in particular smaller brands with smaller budgets. But I think that’s where you’ll see some incredibly creative teams rise to the occasion.

What can companies do to ease their digital marketing challenges?

You really need to find someone you trust to help guide you through the ins and outs of branding and marketing in cannabis. It’s not only about understanding the rules and regs, but also what is trusted and valued by consumers in this community. Authenticity and transparency is crucial to earning the trust of your customers.

In your view, what is the most under-rated tool in the digital marketing toolbox for cannabis companies?

Authentic content – social media content, blog content – it’s the best way to communicate with your customers, and share what makes your brand unique.

In your view, what is the most over-rated digital marketing toolbox for cannabis companies?

Big event sponsorships. You don’t need to spend a fortune to be seen and heard.

What’s the BEST piece of advice you give everyone you work with?Listen.

Listen to your customers – even when they are sharing information you may not want to hear. It’s the only way you learn and improve.

What’s your advice for people who want to get into cannabis digital marketing?

Connect with people who have experience in this space. It’s the quickest way to learn about the industry, get advice and understand the nuances. You can really avoid some big mistakes early on by hearing from people who have some level of expertise within the industry.

How can someone contact you, Melinda?

Gabriel Marketing

Thanks for sharing your marketing insights with us today, Melinda.

 

Meet Laura Wilkinson Sinton, Cannabis Dispensary Exert, and Consultant for legal dispensary applicants. Founder of Caligrown.

First, a little background about Laura Wilkinson Sinton:

I live in San Diego with 4 kids and 5 grandkids. My husband is a cancer survivor that honed my cannabis chops, and I am a master composter and sea swimmer.

 

When did you first start working in cannabis?

2015. I got involved in several dispensaries’ marketing operations, as my brother and I owned an alternative rock radio station in Bend, Oregon. Apparently, no one would sell radio advertising to cannabis businesses, and we thought hey, it’s a state-legal business, of course, we can (and we were right). So, that’s how I got started, learning their business model and helping them grow the customer base and promote 4/20 events.

Do you sit on any industry boards or associations that you’d like to mention?

Yes. I am active in the NCIA and serve on the MAC (Marketing and Advertising Committee) and on the NCIA Sustainability Committee. Both are really great groups of professionals, and serving the nascent industry in this capacity has been really rewarding and great networking.

I am also active in the ArcView Women’s Inclusion Network, which has incredible benefits (access to lawyers and accountants and really smart people with experience and business intelligence). The ArcView group is geared towards helping you become successful, which is why the WIN is such a great group full of women with generous spirits. Several small cannabis organizations have cropped up locally, but it’s pretty fragmented and their missions may differ from each other. I am a board member of the local South County Economic Development Council. They promote economic development, and cannabis businesses present that very economic opportunity. It has been very influential in informing elected officials in adopting and allowing commercial cannabis. In California, it’s the individual cities that determine whether or not to allow them. And that last mile” has been really hard to push through in California, as we know.

 

What lesson did you learn BEFORE cannabis that’s been most valuable in cannabis?

In radio, in information security, and in other start-ups I have done, it’s to roll with the punches, plan for the long game, and bring your best self every day. And there are a lot of punches. Anybody who thinks cannabis is a “get rich quick” scheme is [off] the mark.

Is there a particular cannabis project you’d like to highlight?

Yes, a pending application for a micro-business in National City, CA (San Diego). Our location is actually ON a transit stop, 3 stops from the San Diego Convention Center (think Comic-Con!), has 65 parking spaces, and is actually on the Interstate 5 exit (with on AND off-ramps). San Diego area dispensaries have been relegated to industrial areas, car-dependent and tough parking because of overly restrictive land-use policy. You can’t suspend the rules of retail just for cannabis. It has to be accessible, and San Diego county is way behind the rest of California in permitting. There’s a dearth of dispensaries (50, where the economy can support over 570). So cross your fingers for us. We’ll be the first qualified social equity candidates 100% woman-owned entity (majority women of color) in San Diego.

What’s the biggest misconception cannabis companies have about cannabis marketing?

That big social media will come around (Facebook, Instagram, Google). Go elsewhere and stop spinning your wheels and raging against the machine. Not gonna happen.

What were you doing prior to cannabis?

I’ve been an entrepreneur in many places – information security start-ups, precious metals recycling, owning and operating radio stations and media of several types. I’m an entrepreneur at heart, and my husband is a cancer survivor; my mom died from Multiple Sclerosis. Cannabis has been a part of medicine in my family for a while.

In your view, what is the biggest digital marketing challenge facing cannabis companies today?

Misinformation, illicit marketers, breaking out.

What will get easier in cannabis marketing? What will get harder?

Easier? Public awareness of consumption methods. Harder? Nothing. It’s not an easy business now. Too many over-promised and disappointing results. It was oversold by public Canadian companies and private investors. Big plans, delayed delivery. Cannabis was to be legal nationwide by now in every prospectus I reviewed. Like a vacation- bring twice the money and half the clothes.

What can companies do to ease their marketing challenges?

Be patient. Results take time in marketing. Use a mix of media – digital alone will never get it done.

In your view, what is the most under-rated tool in the digital marketing toolbox for cannabis companies?

Creative. It matters more than anything to breakthrough. What do you have today that applies to your audience? Not relevant to YOU – relevant to your customer.

In your view, what is the most over-rated marketing toolbox for cannabis companies?

Digital reliance. It’s really fragmented at this point. And your share of voice matters.

What’s the BEST piece of advice you give everyone you work with?

Meditate daily and enjoy the impermanence in this life. Enjoy every day.

What’s your advice for people who want to get into cannabis marketing?

Be flexible. Leave toxic bosses quickly. Embrace the women in this industry, and lift them up.

How can someone contact you, Laura?

Twitter @laurawilkinsonsinton

Instagram @laurawilkinsonsinton

Thanks for sharing your digital marketing insights with us today, Laura.