This week’s Trailblazer is Adil Hirji, the Head of Marketing at GTEC Cannabis Co, a licensed producer that cultivates ultra-premium cannabis and has brought highly sought-after brands such as BLK MKT and Tenzo to market.
Questions with a Cannabis Industry Trailblazer
When did you first become involved in the cannabis industry and why?
Although I built a few cannabis-related web sites in 2014 and 2016, I’d say my involvement in the space started in August 2017. I still have the e-mail, when Norton (our CEO) e-mailed me with a single line asking me to help him build the biggest cannabis brand in Canada.
Norton was one of many clients for which I did branding and design work sporadically over the past decade. We had never met, and I knew almost nothing about him aside from the fact that we worked well together.
As someone who was already solo managing a portfolio of brands, doing consulting and design work for some of Canada’s top agencies, and running a health and fitness company on the side, what he was asking required a full-time commitment, which I was unable to offer.
We agreed to start off small with an allocation of 5 hours a day. After quickly realizing that wasn’t enough, he invited me to fly out to their head office in Kelowna to finally meet and see first-hand what they were building. After seeing his vision, and meeting the rest of the exec team; the COO who was the former CEO of SunRype; the Head of Cultivation who was the real deal and who gave me confidence that they could produce quality cannabis, I started to seriously consider the opportunity. To be at the forefront of an emerging industry; and rather than helping manage existing brands, to be at the helm to help define and build one from the ground up, was a challenge that enticed me.
It required me to walk away from agencies and several longstanding clients. But looking back, I’m glad I made that decision. I’ve learned so much and met so many incredible and talented people in this fast-evolving industry. Here we are a few years later, nominated for the Top Canadian Cannabis Brand of 2020. It’s been a truly rewarding experience.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced when working with cannabis companies/brands?
The cannabis industry offers no shortage of challenges. You’re brought into this heavily regulated world, purposed to conform to the (somewhat ambiguous) regulations while trying to find ways to be innovative and define a brand that will resonate with the wide array of cannabis consumers, all while not “evoking a feeling.” This is no easy feat. That considered, I’d still say the biggest marketing challenge I’ve faced has been the lack of resources at times.
”Many LP's are run like startups, lean and mean, and thus there’s a good chance you’ll be tackling a multitude of roles.
For example, I handle brand development, all marketing initiatives, all creative design (event, retail, print, web sites, social, decks, etc.), and photoshoots. I’m responsible for deciding on and sourcing all product packaging, helping manage and oversee new product launches, defining our product spec and training staff on packaging processes, as well as assisting with liquor board product registrations. I built and manage our GS1 SKU database, generate all barcodes, and design all product labels.
At large companies, a number of these tasks would fall under a different role entirely or outsourced. The marketing challenge this poses at a small to medium-sized company is that it can often leave little time for actual marketing.
If you could change one of the current Canadian or American marketing restrictions on cannabis, which would it be?
I would love to have more flexibility with packaging and labeling. Yes, it’s nonsensical that the marketing restrictions for cannabis are stricter than alcohol, but the truth is that’s advantageous for many of us. We cannot outspend the larger LPs, and the restrictions provide us with a level playing field.
”Being able to stand out among the crowd in this landscape requires us to be a little more creative and strategic, and that’s a challenge I enjoy.
I love the flexibility that the California market has with their packaging. Having the ability to use inserts, multiple colours, reverse type, embossing, die cuts so you can see the product inside, or even photos and patterns would really help better align our packaging with our brands and help improve the consumer experience.
In your observation, what marketing techniques or channels have been most effective for cannabis companies looking to connect with consumers?
Instagram has proven to be a very effective channel, allowing us to easily engage with both consumers and retailers, while keeping them informed on upcoming products. I believe Budtender engagement is also important. Budtenders are a gateway to your brand, and a crucial part of the consumer buying decision. Building a strong relationship with Budtenders by educating them on your products and being accessible and transparent with them, is a must in my opinion.
”If you’re working with a smaller marketing budget, you may need to find more creative and cost-effective ways to reach consumers and generate buzz.
I’ve tried to do this through innovation. By obsessively trying to understand our target consumers and delivering on what they desire, we can occasionally separate ourselves from the crowd and get people talking at the same time. Internally I pushed for glass jars for BLKMKT back in 2017, before there was one on the market. My desire to add the Terpene breakdown to our packaging is another example. It wasn’t a marketing ploy, it was the result of listening and understanding that cannabis connoisseurs cared about this, and non-connoisseurs will as well soon. This implementation showed consumers that we’re listening and that we care, and garnered an industry-wide reaction across multiple channels without a single dollar spent.
Are there any other Trailblazers in the cannabis industry that you follow?
My schedule leaves me little time to actively follow, but a few names that quickly come to mind are Josh Lyon, and his creative direction with HIKU and Tokyo Smoke. Mimi Lam of Superette, John Fowler, and the brand movement that 7acres initially created in Ontario. Matthew O’Brien is doing an incredible job fostering discussion, as does Shahbaaz Kara-Virani while also doing a phenomenal job at bringing people together.
What is one tip or piece of advice you would give to marketers looking to enter the cannabis industry?
If I had to offer only one tip, it would be to align yourself with a company that truly understands the importance of producing a quality product. When you look at many CPG companies, great marketing, packaging, and strategic pricing can often help offset a mediocre or uninspired product. Cannabis is different. You can develop a beautiful brand, thoughtful ad campaigns with stunning visuals and million-dollar ad buys, with enough swag to outfit every budtender in Canada… but if your product is subpar, it’ll be difficult to retain consumers.
Don’t get me wrong, a compelling brand and marketing is critical, especially in this environment which is quickly becoming more competitive, with brands consistently improving their product quality and offering. But if you want to be around for the long term, you need to first be able to give consumers what they truly want – a quality product, preferably at a reasonable price.
A big thank you to Adil for participating as this week’s Trailblazer! Stay tuned for another interview with a cannabis marketing Trailblazer next Thursday in the ADCANN blog.
Interested in working with one of these talented cannabis marketers? Check out our Agency Directory for a list of all the agencies that specialize in working with cannabis companies.