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.