Cedella Marley’s voice has an intoxicating Jamaica lilt, the sound of a heritage she has long shared with fans of her late father, Bob Marley. Cedella is the eldest child of the legendary reggae artist and spiritual leader of cannabis culture.
More than 35 years after his death, Cedella and the Marley family have jumped into the cannabis business in partnership with Seattle-based Privateer Holdings. They are launching Marley Natural, a line of hemp body products, elegant black walnut accessories and smartly packaged bud — what the superstar called “the herb.”
“We’re very excited to bring Marley Natural to Canada,” said Marley.
She adds the family waited years to find the right partner for a cannabis licensing deal. The company unveiled its first products with a high-profile event in Hollywood that was covered, of course, by Rolling Stone.
“We have the same values,” said Marley of Privateer. “Social change, environmental sustainability and to actually build a professional, responsible and legal cannabis industry.”
Back when her dad performed in packed, smoke-filled arenas, “the herb” came in plastic baggies. Rolling papers, roach clips, pipes and other paraphernalia were bought from a “head shop.” Cleaning the weed was part necessity, part ritual — separating the weed from the seed like so much wheat from the chaff.
Now, as the Canadian government prepares to become the first Group of Seven nation to legalize recreational pot, and the U.S. leans in the same direction, another cleaning ritual is underway.
Major investors are pouring money into grow facilities, distribution networks and product development, while celebrities sign licensing deals, marketing experts are getting ready to sell you something that bears little resemblance to the marijuana of your youth.
Olivia Mannix, founder of Cannabrand, a Colorado-based company specializing in cannabis product branding, says they have made the stereotypes associated with pot smoking their first target.
That meant changing not just what the product looks like, but how it’s described. First, language will be cleansed of words with sticky, outdated associations. You won’t be calling it marijuana anymore, for example.
A recent “editorial whitepaper” from SmokeReports.com also urged a move away from words like “reefer” and other slang and “historical perjoratives.” Cannabis is now the correct term. And in the new world order, as Frappucino is to coffee, so “cannabis” will be to weed.
Of course, if you’ve just smoked a bong full of some paranoia-inducing strain, you may see all this as a vast corporate conspiracy to control not just what you smoke, vape or ingest, but how you feel about it. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
For investors, it’s not about getting high, it’s about getting rich.
According to Brendan Kennedy, the Yale MBA CEO behind Privateer Holdings, a private equity firm that raises capital and invests solely in the “cannabis space,” brands are not going to emerge as a result of regulatory change, “brands are going to fuel the cultural change.”
It’s a clever inversion of the hippies Be the Change ethos. Think of it as brand the change.
Several years ago, when Kennedy and his partners Michael Blue and Christian Groh decided to develop a private equity fund and invest in cannabis, they lacked the hard data that would convince major investors this was a legitimate market about to explode.
“We set out on this old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground adventure to go to places like northern California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, British Columbia, Jamaica, Israel, Spain, the Netherlands trying to understand the status of the cannabis industry,” said Kennedy.
In the process, Privateer built a global network of cultivators, processors, dispensary owners, patients, pharmacists, physicians, lawyers, activists and knowledgeable experts. By the end of its research, which included eight weeks in Canada interviewing everyone from medical cannabis patients, to dispensary owners, to politicians, they had a thesis: “Cannabis is a mainstream product consumed by mainstream people around the world. Because of that, the end of prohibition is inevitable and brands will shape the future of this industry.”
Cannabis didn’t have a popularity problem, it had an image problem.
Privateer, the brand, would look more Wall Street than Haight-Ashbury. “We set out to create our own brand. We chose to wear suits. We weren’t going to use the typical slang words and clichés, we weren’t going to use the leaf all over the place and the colour green.”
Also evident in conversation with Kennedy is the subtle, but recognizable qualifier many of the new cannabis investors share. If you want to be part of the new cannabis mainstream, it’s good for business to position yourself as an outsider. Kennedy says that he entered the “cannabis space” as someone whose cultural history included, as a teenager, supporting the war on drugs and Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No.
“I bought into the This is Your Brain on Drugs and the egg cracking in the frying pan and all the clichés embraced by the media on this product,” he says.
Although he says he was “really skeptical about the medical benefits of cannabis early on,” his “boots on the ground” tour convinced him of the medical benefits of cannabis for epilepsy, migraines and severe pain. These become a rationale for ending the prohibition of recreational pot, a sort of open back door to the front room where the door can be opened to everyone and everything else.
To draw big investors, Privateer would have to re-position cannabis. “We wanted to do it right,” said Kennedy.
American country singer Willie Nelson takes a drag off a joint while relaxing at his home in Texas circa 2000. (Liaison / Getty Images)
Privateer made three strategic brand acquisitions — a portfolio that is as carefully curated as its image. First, it picked up Leafly, an online cannabis resource with no revenue but lots of reach (the background of its logo was changed from a grassy green to a more neutral white). Next, Privateer landed one of Canada’s coveted medical cannabis licences in Nanaimo, B.C. It opened a facility, branded “Tilray,” a name that is appropriately neutral, pharmaceutical-sounding. It was the first medical cannabis producer to start exporting to the European Union and also ships to Australia. It is also handily positioned to meet the needs of recreational markets once prohibition ends. ”
We’d like to scale up and we certainly believe that we are capable of doing it,” saidKennedy.
Privateer also bagged financing from Silicon Valley financier Peter Thiel’s Founder’s Fund and most recently launched the Marley line.
The celebrity licensing model is not just the gold standard for a cannabis brand, it’s almost a necessity. Cannabis smokeables and psychoactive edibles cannot be patented or trademarked in the U.S. because the product is still classified as a Schedule One drug, with heroin. By aligning your product with a high-profile celebrity (Leafs by Snoop, Willie Nelson’s Willie’s Reserve, or Marley Natural), you can claim something that may be even more valuable: a kind of social patent.
A celebrity with a massive social media following can neatly sidestep regulatory issues on advertising as well.
“Celebrities are social media influencers who can market and brand their product through Instagram and Facebook,” said Mannix.
Much love Canada ! #positiveprogress http://bit.ly/1QuNAHF
Indeed, when Snoop Dogg signed on this year to a deal with Tweed, a licence medical cannabis operation in Smith Falls, Ont., he tweeted a picture of himself wearing a Tweed T-shirt. That picture reached his 14.3 million followers, not including re-tweets. An Instagram post or Tweet can also reach residents of states and territories where marijuana advertising is prohibited by law.
Scott Lowry, Privateer’s brand director, saw marijuana’s image problem as a creative opportunity.
Lowry was with Heckler, the Seattle agency that created Starbucks logo and, arguably, was responsible for creating a new coffee culture. When Privateer approached Heckler, Lowry was skeptical, but Kennedy produced enough research to convince him there was a market.
“I remember leaving that meeting and thinking two things. One was, If these guys are right this is probably the biggest opportunity we’ve seen come through Heckler’s doors since Starbucks,” said Lowry in a phone interview. It was also a huge branding challenge—and that made it fun.
He eventually left Heckler and joined Privateer as a partner. Like Kennedy, he is careful to couch his affiliation with cannabis by adding a little medical context.
“It was my 72-year-old father-in-law who basically told me he was having some health issues, who was telling me cannabis was the best medicine he had and he was like, you have to do this,” he said.
“This plant had been demonized for a long time. There were conceptions of the consumer that were fairly inaccurate, so for me from a branding perspective coming into a situation where you really have some things working against you, and to see how you could really work in a marketplace that had these strong preconceptions.”
Lowry had to figure out out how branding could fuel the cultural change, and attract real investors.
Lowry used Honda’s entry into the U.S. market as an example of how a market could open up simply by changing perceptions of the product and the user.
“Honda came into the American market in the 1950s when motorcycles were associated with gang members and gearheads.” Honda launched a campaign with the tagline “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda.” The ads featured a mother with a child on a Honda, a boy and his dog, even Santa Claus riding their vehicles. “Within four years they had four times the dealerships that Harley did. To me it was a really good example of the way a brand had changed the market,” explains Lowry.
Lowry says their research shows a high interest among consumers for understanding of the product, the means of production and how it will differ from its black market origins. The strategic challenge in vaporizing old stereotypes to try and influence and grow a new culture, one that is potentially as lucrative as the alcohol industry, without alienating the counterculture that popularized it.
Los Angeles-based Cheryl Shuman, who has been dubbed the “Martha Stewart of the Pot Com Boom,” takes her branding message in a different direction. Her Twitter avatar shows a glamorous blonde, peering through a veil of smoke. Unlike the Privateer crew, she is an unapologetic activist whose roots as a cannabis user are deep, Shuman, who divides her time between homes in L.A., Vancouver and Toronto, is up front about being an avid recreational and medical cannabis consumer. Once known as “the optician to the stars,” she counted pop star Michael Jackson among her clients. She also had patients who were treating their glaucoma with cannabis.
“Back then, a couple of different celebrities were talking about (cannabis), but it was kind of like talking about being gay. I equate it very much to coming out of the closet.”
Shuman turned to cannabis herself after a doctor recommended she try it as a mood stabilizer.
“I thought I was on Candid Camera, but it saved my life. They had me on 80 mg of Prozac a day, five Xanax, a pill to go to sleep, another pill to wake up. I felt like a pillhead,” she recalled.
“Cannabis changed all that. Once I started using cannabis, my kids got their mom back.”
The best way to build credibility in the cannabis industry is through storytelling, she says.
“The people that are really successful in the cannabis industry are people who have been touched personally by either not being able to get the plant to save someone’s life, or being able to save someone’s life by being involved with the plant.”
Charitable alliances are another way to build cannabis brands says Shuman. “We have the financial capabilities to sponsor events to the tune of millions of dollars, to be the sponsor and open up that conversation and get people who have been using cannabis for medical reasons to get out and tell their stories. You don’t have to be a celebrity to have a brand in this industry. In this industry the people themselves are the heroes.”
Many of her consulting clients are in Canada, and our prime minister is one of her favourite cannabis celebrities. “Justin Trudeau is God’s gift to cannabis. Right now Canada is the role model for the entire industry globally. Everyone is looking to Canada.”
Shuman, who has two cannabis-related reality series in development with Bravo, sees “healing” for communities that legalize the plant. “We are literally witnessing the beginning of the end of cannabis prohibition world wide, and the healing of various nations and economies worldwide in terms of job creation and tax benefits.”