For many brands and categories in the US, the last six months have brought dual shocks to long-held ways of doing business, as they juggle realigning their businesses around the impact of a worldwide pandemic and social unrest on a global scale.

Black Lives Matter

This article is part of an ongoing WARC series focused on educating brand marketers on diversity and activism, in light of the recent progressive steps made with the Black Lives Matter movement.

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Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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Against these backdrops, Curaleaf – perhaps the biggest cannabis company in the world – and its new CMO, Jason White, have been working to build the company and its brands, which includes Select, and most recently, Grassroots – while wrestling with crises that didn’t appear to be on the horizon when he took on the role in February.

In this Q&A – part of WARC’s series with the Global CMO Growth Council – White, who has also served as Global Head of Marketing for Beats by Dre and managed the Nike account globally for Wieden + Kennedy – talks with US Commissioning Editor Cathy Taylor about pursuing long-term and short-term goals simultaneously, the need to support Black and brown entrepreneurs, launching products in the middle of a pandemic, and the challenges of a product with so many different facets. Curaleaf operates in 23 states across the US, inclusive of both adult-use and medical markets, with over 250 SKUs sold in Curaleaf’s 61 operating dispensaries, as well as over 1,000 independent dispensaries across the US. Curaleaf and its brands have a high degree of awareness with many Americans while many, many others are barely familiar with it.

Q: How did things change over the last few months, not only with the pandemic but with the social unrest?

A: The biggest thing was the actual “essential” designation of cannabis. When coronavirus really ramped up in this country, for cannabis, it was actually a monumental moment. For it to be deemed an essential service was a huge recognition on how far the industry has come, and how it’s becoming increasingly accepted as a part of mainstream society. It also allowed us to continue to meet the needs of our patients and customers who rely on it for a variety of health and wellness needs during a difficult and stressful time. That was a huge opportunity to continue to change the narrative of cannabis in this country.

Q: How did your messaging change during that period to reflect not only tactical concerns but to communicate this new level of visibility and credibility?

A: We have three brands at Curaleaf. Curaleaf is the largest national retail dispensary brand in the US, as well as a premium cannabis brand which is predominantly on the east coast, and really focused on wellness. Then you have Select – which is America’s #1 cannabis oil brand – which is more of a West Coast lifestyle-driven brand. We also finalized the acquisition of Grassroots in July, which is based out of the midwest and really known for their premium flower products.

The common goal across all brands was for one, to make sure people knew that they were still going to be able to get the products they needed. Functionally, and logistically, we had to switch to curbside pick-up and delivery wherever we could; we switched to a tremendous amount of online business.

At the same time, we asked ourselves, “what do our brands stand for? And how do we still continue to speak from what the brands stand for?” If you take Select, for example, it's a brand based on what we call the “relentless pursuit of progress.” It's very optimistic. So for us, it was about, “How do we still show up for those folks who are on the frontlines, who are doing the work, and for the consumer who's staying at home.” We saw consumption ramping. So, we did a lot of work without marketing the work. We did a lot to support budtenders who became essential workers overnight. We wanted them to know we really appreciated them and the work they did every day, so we immediately started making masks and sending meals to dispensaries to say thank you.

Q: Once the pandemic hit, did the pace of change accelerate?

A: It did. The hours became a lot longer. We had to be very responsive. Every day the news changed. For example, Nevada went to curbside only and then went to delivery only, meanwhile Massachusetts temporarily closed adult-use stores and then re-opened them. We had to change our business models, state-by-state, in real time.

Adapting to these constant changes is an ongoing focus of ours. There are a couple of different factors that we have to look at. How is consumer behavior changing? Are they comfortable walking into our stores? Or do they want delivery? That shifts based on every state's condition and where they are with dealing with the Coronavirus.

We want our patients, customers and staff to know they are our foremost priority. We understand that access to our products and facilities offers a real benefit to our customers’ health, and we want to ensure those experiences are as safe as possible. From the initial emergency stage to where we are now, it’s been important that customers know they can rely on us. Not just our stores being open, but their safety being taken seriously. Our website traffic has doubled and tripled week on week on week, and we realized quickly we had to completely reinvent our digital platforms. We scrambled to design an entirely new website that was more conducive to delivery, more conducive to people ordering online.

Q: What about your mission? How has it been impacted?

A: I started in February as Curaleaf’s first CMO. We immediately started galvanizing our mission, our values, and our position on social equity and diversity, which came to a head real fast. We knew we were a mission driven company, because we believe in improving lives through clarity around cannabis and confidence around consumption. This was a moment to make sure people understood our values. So with building confidence around consumption, we wanted to make sure you knew you were going to get the products you need. Internally, we made sure our team knew they were helping improve lives. This was about being mission driven. It was about more than selling product.

Q: You actually did two new product launches over the last few months. How did that play out?

A: One is called Nano, which is a fast-acting gummy that allows you to have more of a reliable and more consistent experience with an edible. It was great to be able to provide that at a time when people were thinking about not wanting to inhale – and wanted an experience that was controlled and more consistent than a traditional edible which can take up to two hours to take full effect. These have a quicker onset time of 15-45 minutes and most experience the full effect in one hour. We have Curaleaf Nano Gummies in Massachusetts, and Select Nano Gummies available in Arizona, Maine, Nevada and California.

We also launched a product called Select Elite Live, which is a high-end broad-spectrum product that allows an experience much closer to smoking flower, although it was a vape. We say it provides “the ease of oil with the feeling of flower.” We found that a lot of people at home don't like to smoke flower because of the smell, so we could offer a high-quality product that accounts for some of those issues, but also still gives you a great experience. Select Elite Live is currently available in nine states, including Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon and Nevada.

Those products were already in the pipeline before COVID. And then once we saw the need in the marketplace, we fast-tracked those products, and we're still in the process of rolling them out, state by state by state.

Having to move faster was true for every business, but when you think about the cannabis industry, the difficulty and the logistics of that are tenfold, because you’re not rolling out one product across the country in one swoop. You have to manufacture that product in every state you operate in. At the same time, we are building the first national brands in cannabis, so you want to make sure the product you try in Arizona as the same product you try in California.

On the THC side of the business, we operate in accordance with stringent regulations that vary substantially from state to state. Every state is like a country of its own, so I always say it's much more like global marketing. At Beats by Dre, when I launched a product in the UK, France, Germany, China, Australia, Japan, that's no different from launching a product in New York, Florida, Maryland, Arizona – it’s a completely separate process.

There are product formats, for example, that are legal in one state and not in another. Take THC-infused edibles, which were just legalized in Florida. One week earlier, we were first-to-market with Curaleaf Sublingual Tablets there, On the CBD side of the business, that's where you have a national program, and you can roll out products nationally, for the most part.

The other piece that makes it very unique once you get past the regulatory level is that you're in an agriculture business. I may not be able to get the same products in Michigan that I can get in California. Or there are products and markets where there are different levels of sophistication and comfort. It’s where rolling that product out in New Jersey, you're not going to be able to demand the price that you can demand for it in California because there's not the same level of sophistication.

Q: You've worked with Beats by Dre, of course, and Nike. How has working with them impacted the way you brand Curaleaf?

A: I feel like I've pulled from every trick in the bag that I have. I spent five years of my career working for packaged goods companies. I was at Saatchi, and Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson were my clients. What I'm doing now is commercializing a consumer product. We are thinking about channel marketing. We are thinking about reasons to believe. We're thinking about first moment of truth.

Then you have the aspect of the business where cannabis is a cultural item. Cannabis lives in music. Cannabis lives in your homes. Cannabis lives in sports. Cannabis lives in medicine – so in that respect, I very much pulled from Beats by Dre because that's what music is. Having come from spending 10 years working on the Nike brand all over the world, you learn. Your values are your values. Your vision is your vision. You have to understand how to stand by those values, and then how to deliver those through a marketing promise, through an advertising promise into a product promise. You never know if you're dipping into the P&G bag or the Nike bag.

One last thing to add … Beats by Dre was a wholesale product, And that is no different from walking into a dispensary, like Medmen, and saying, here's how we're backing Select in the marketplace, here are the stories we're going to tell, here's why you should bring Select into your store.

Now look at the Nike model, where Nike owns a lot of their retail, and they know how to do storytelling at every stage – it’s methodical. Now look at the Curaleaf side of my business where we have 57 retail stores, and thinking through with my retail partners, what are the consumer journeys through that store? How are we making sure we're converting? So again, pulling from so many different aspects of businesses I've been fortunate enough to touch.

Q: So, concerning Black Lives Matter, you were talking about how you were focusing on company mission. How has that changed over the last few months?

A: First of all, I would say it's no secret to understand or to recognize that cannabis is a very visual example of a lot of the war on drugs.

Cannabis has been weaponized, and prohibition sends an incredible number of Americans through the criminal justice system, ruining countless lives. It’s a good example of the greater issues that have happened in this country over the last hundred years. We already had a really strong position here, and were building out initiatives that prioritize resources for social equity programming so we can deliver real opportunity across the cannabis ecosystem. When the George Floyd moment happened, we found ourselves in a very, very difficult position. There's an expectation because of the history of cannabis and because of the connection to the Black community that cannabis companies came out and were loud.

But, we're not a company that has touted the work we’ve done. We realized we needed to step a little more into the light and we chose to do an open letter from our CEO that came from our value of respect for all and spoke to what we are doing without diving into all the detail. We've now gotten our diversity, equity, and Inclusion policy completely signed off in the company, and then more importantly, we're very close to our three next steps on social equity – specifically around franchise level involvement for Black and brown people so they know how to use the tools of this business and how to get access into this business, mentorship and training, and, then also funding and capital.

Q: It sounds like you didn't realize you were preparing for that moment, but in fact, you were.

A:  To use an analogy, I think our foundation was built – the cement was still drying, but the foundation was there. We've been a mission driven company for 10 years. This is just another room that we've been building on the house, specifically around social equity and diversity and inclusion.

Q: What's your media strategy look like now and how has it changed during COVID?

A: Our long-term goal is to build two of the first national brands in cannabis. Typically, you do that by working outside in, at the same time you work inside out. We've got to build a brand, we've got to let people see what the brand stands for. How do you build awareness?

What we needed to do was put the brakes on the outside-in approach and just focus on the inside-out. How are we taking steps that are measurable, that we can show conversion, that we can show our partners that we understand the needs of their business? We have to build brands through product, through efficacy, and emotion, all at the same time. We don't have the luxury of just speaking to brand ethos and just speaking to big awareness measures. To give you an imperfect analogy that Nike’s strategy was to say “Just Do It.” At Nike, we really wanted you to feel the brand – and then after that we would make a spot on the Airmax running shoe or Nike Air, or whatever. In cannabis, every spot has to say “Just Do It” and Nike Air. That’s a great test of great marketing – how do you communicate short-term value and how do you drive conversion while you’re also communicating long-term brand value and long-term brand point of view?