This week’s Trailblazer is AJ Fay, Brand Strategist at STONERHUSTLE, a co-op of professional stoners with deep roots and experience in the cannabis industry; focusing on brand development, product innovation, public consumption and experiential marketing.
Questions with a Cannabis Industry Trailblazer
When did you first become involved in the cannabis industry and why?
My background is originally in social activism, community organizing and campaign management. I spent over a decade working with non-profits including Amnesty International, the American Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee, as well as co-founding my own non-profit at the age of 15. I’ve always been passionate about the environment and sustainability, human rights; especially women’s rights and the rights of those disenfranchised by Western colonial powers… and I’ve been a long-time advocate for plant medicines and psychedelics.
I began exploring the quasi-legal cannabis industry back in 2014 as states in the U.S. were moving further into medically legal status and closer to adult-use or recreational regulations. Cannabis has played an integral part in my life since my late teens and early 20s, the plant has helped me navigate anxiety and depression, and promoted overall well-being that further supports growth in my career.
Before formally entering the industry I spent over a year learning from and visiting the various legal markets in the U.S., notably California, Oregon and Colorado. Like many of us, growing up I never considered the cannabis industry to be a career option until that point in time; so I wanted to better understand the state of the industry, the players in the space, and where it was all heading. Most importantly, I wanted to further educate myself on the plant, its medicinal properties and the various product applications or methods of consumption.
In 2016, I had the honor of working with a group of legacy Pre-ICO and Prop D medical dispensaries here in California, which gave me a front row seat to the burgeoning industry that was on the cusp of adult-use regulation but still very much the Wild West days. This afforded me the opportunity to gain a deep understanding of early consumer preferences, needs in the market, and how I could play an influential role directly impacting brands and consumer product categories.
As fate would have it, in 2017 I connected with the founders of Lowell Herb Co. and joined the starting team as Chief of Staff and later became the Director of Brand Expansion. We grew our team from 5 to over 300, rolled over 20 million pre-rolls in a few short years, opened the first legal cannabis cafe in the U.S., and ultimately served more than 26 billion organic press impressions. We grew communities of thousands of budtenders, influencers, celebrities and consumers alike by focusing on quality, consistency and authenticity of our product and service.
As Lowell was acquired, I went on to partner on new projects and continue my work to support legacy cultivators, women, LGBTQIA2S+ and BIPOC folx in the space; focusing on brand development, product innovation, public consumption and experiential marketing.
As a bisexual-stoner-psychonaut, I often feel like a walking stigma — and my deepest passion remains destigmatization, normalization and the dismantling of binary thinking.
What has been the biggest marketing challenge you have faced when working with cannabis companies/brands?
The biggest challenge (or opportunity rather) I consistently face is the need for education across the industry. A brand is not simply creating a logo, or putting its logo on a box or product. Similarly, the cannabis plant is not just “indica” or “sativa,” or the catch-all effects the industry has associated with those labels.
There’s a widespread belief among the cannabis industry that trends are currently driven by consumer preference — when the truth is that the majority of consumers are educated by the media and retail staff, or budtenders, who are oftentimes trained by brands and companies working in the space. At this stage, moving past prohibition, it’s critical for brands to be informed about the plant and how their products work for consumers, and to then share their insight in clear, concise and compelling ways. As consumers become more sophisticated in their understanding of cannabis and how it interacts with their own chemistry, the market will then drive trends. In the meantime, we need brands to dispel misinformation and develop even deeper levels of understanding and trust among consumers and the people on the front lines evangelizing for our industry, including media and retailers.
Throughout the course of normalizing and regulating the cannabis plant, its properties, including psychoactivity, have been oversimplified, and for lack of a better term “dumbed down” in order to achieve widespread adoption, understanding and, ultimately, legalization. Meanwhile the cannabis plant is much more complex and nuanced than these terms suggest. The industry consistently battles misinformation, stigma and other hurdles to reach and best serve the consumer. Unfortunately, profit over people is a very real theme perpetuated by some in the space. In an industry that is fast-moving, growing rapidly and exciting in so many ways — it would only benefit operators and brand builders to slow down, to educate on the complexities of the plant, and to find true brand and product differentiation that connects with consumers and their communities.
My biggest pet peeve in cannabis brand marketing is when I hear or read “our product is for everyone”. Nothing, with the exception of water and oxygen, is for everyone. A high potency product is not for everyone. A low potency product is not for everyone. A combustible product is not for everyone. An edible is not for everyone. What makes your brand or product unique? If everything is for everyone, then we’re awash with products that won’t succeed, and we risk putting our products into the hands of consumers who might not benefit from them.
If you could change one of the current Canadian or American marketing restrictions on cannabis, which would it be?
At a minimum, cannabis should be treated like all other vices, similar to alcohol, tobacco or gaming… That being said, it should probably be afforded more than those industries because of its medicinal and wellness properties. If we look at how Western culture understands pharmaceuticals to be medicine, these drugs can be advertised and promoted across a variety of platforms, despite having side effects that can be potentially harmful, if not life threatening. Meanwhile, cannabis has numerous benefits and very few negative side effects, yet the industry faces restrictions at almost every turn.
In your observation, what marketing techniques or channels have been most effective for cannabis companies looking to connect with consumers?
Authenticity is the key to connecting with consumers. Having strong core values and a consistent, quality product are the foundation to building an active and engaged community.
In the cannabis industry we don’t have the luxury of utilizing most traditional marketing channels, so connecting with consumers requires real boots on the ground. Having a meaningful story that resonates with a segment of consumers, and getting creative with the storytelling channels that we can use, are how brands are breaking through. Brands that aren’t actively working to create community, to engage and educate retail staff and the consumers themselves, or who don’t work to bring their consumers along for the brand journey — often fall behind or fail.
Are there any other Trailblazers in the cannabis industry that you follow?
Absolutely — there are countless, but to name a few:
Canada’s own Michael Elkin aka The CannaBrokr who I see as a pioneer in the legal cannabis industry, having obtained licensing for hundreds of Licensed Producers across Canada and around the world, and who’s been instrumental in forging meaningful business deals and partnerships across the U.S. market too.
Camille Roistacher, Founder and CEO of WYLLOW and Voyage Distribution here in California — Camille and her husband Josh constantly inspire me, both personally and professionally. As a bicultural, woman Founder and mother — Camille’s vision and approach to the future of cannabis brands, retail experiences and supporting the supply chain, is refreshing, humble and necessary. To me, the Roistachers are the ideal representation of the future of family and parenting in the Western world — raising kids of a generation that will not know cannabis prohibition.
I really admire and look up to Max Montrose of The Trichome Institute, who has worked tirelessly to educate and create curriculum around the various facets of the cannabis plant and industry.
Felicia Carbajal, a friend and LA based queer and Latinx organizer, strategist and social entrepreneur with over two decades of movement building experience within intersectional communities. They’re a sought after public speaker and leader on the subjects of equity, economic development and a number of cannabis related initiatives. Felicia is the Executive Director of The Social Impact Center, and sits on the advisory boards of Cage Free Cannabis, Americans for Safe Access, Black and Pink, among others. You can also see some of their work in the new Lady Buds documentary.
What is one tip or piece of advice you would give to people looking to enter the cannabis industry?
Think long and hard before you do so. Consider your intentions as to why you feel compelled to enter the industry and do so with humility, gratitude and self awareness.
There’s a lot of glitz and glamour around the cannabis industry, for good reason, but please don’t underestimate the grit, tenacity and hard work required to operate in the space. This is an industry that still widely lacks structure, systems and consistency. Working in our industry means rolling up your sleeves, constantly seeking to learn or evolve, and having a great deal of resilience.
If your intentions are pure, your passion strong, and new folx strive to meet legacy operators in the middle — they’ll be met with open arms and are more likely to have a positive experience.
We should never forget the countless people who sacrificed their lives in service of the cannabis plant, who risked everything they had for years or decades in order for the industry to get to where it is today… People who were, or are still, imprisoned for their participation before it was ‘legal’ or trendy to do so. We can never repay these debts, but we can actively work to honor their massive contributions.
A big thank you to AJ 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.