This week’s Trailblazer is Alisa Kuzmina, Creative Manager at Spiritleaf, Canada’s largest single-brand network of recreational cannabis stores located in Calgary AB; with retail locations in Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, and Ontario.
Questions with a Cannabis Industry Trailblazer
When did you first become involved in the cannabis industry and why?
I became involved in the cannabis industry in May 2017. It was a natural transition as I had been working with the same team at Inner Spirit Holdings Ltd. since 2015 so when my CEO, Darren Bondar’s, entrepreneurial instincts kicked in – I followed and haven’t looked back since. Right off the hop, I loved how quickly the industry was moving – no two days are the same, and that’s what keeps it so interesting. Having worked with multi-disciplinary artists in the past, cannabis and creativity seemed to go hand-in-hand.
Why did I decide to stick around post-legalization? I love being able to participate in an industry that has the potential to make a positive difference in our lives. It’s the Wild West, and we’re building a new industry from scratch as the only G7 country to legalize cannabis. We have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not only change the publics’ perspective on cannabis but be recognized as global leaders for equality and freedom, as well as create countless new jobs and companies that are better for society.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced when working with cannabis companies/brands?
We have our work cut out for us when it comes to navigating restrictive regulations on cannabis marketing in Canada. We’re in an industry that tallied over CA$2.6 billion in cannabis sales in 2020, and we’re still seeing retailers and licensed producers unable to promote legal products. That’s right – recreational cannabis is legal in Canada but traditional advertising of recreational cannabis consumption is strictly prohibited *shakes head*.
Aside from government restrictions, I think the greatest challenge we face in the industry is stigma. For decades, Canadians’ perception of the plant has been greatly impacted by centuries of prohibition propaganda.
”So, when you take that coupled with the ban of mass advertising and make it illegal to do things like promote products through testimonials or endorsements, or present products in a way that associates them with a way of life "that includes glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring" - your hands are tied.
What surprised me with how deep the stigma goes is the challenge we face when working with third-party agencies. Despite the amount of money to be made in this industry, many agencies are reluctant to do business with us whether it’s because they’re unfamiliar with the legal language tied to promotional prohibitions, or they want to avoid “negative perception” of their company portfolio for future clients.
If you could change one of the current Canadian or American marketing restrictions on cannabis, which would it be?
I could list so many: influencer marketing, sponsored events, social media advertising – the list goes on and on, but we try not to get too hung up on the platforms that are governed by the laws south of the border.
An area that requires further discussion in my opinion is our local government’s requirements for storefront coverings. The Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission (AGLC), which is the regulatory for cannabis in Alberta, where our headquarters are based, states that it is prohibited to have cannabis products, accessories, or any other cannabis-related item or material visible from the exterior of the premises. We have designed beautiful window displays; however, nothing is more important than the safety of our employees. Window coverings have created unsafe conditions in cannabis stores because people outside cannot see if anything is happening inside. Removing or modifying this rule would make cannabis stores much safer for everyone. Providing a safe environment for our employees and customers is a commitment shared by all of our staff, it’s a shame this hasn’t been addressed yet and we are already 3 years in business.
In your observation, what marketing techniques or channels have been most effective for cannabis companies looking to connect with consumers?
The most effective marketing techniques for us have come from our relationships with our customers. Our concierges do an incredible job with our in-store experiences that we’ve been able to leverage the customer experience as part of our campaigns. We’ve also worked hard to have an authentic brand voice which translates in the customer experience. People feel that we are all part of the cannabis community when they come to a Spiritleaf store.
Being a part of a community has been really important to our staff, franchise partners, and customers. We’ve seen a huge increase in customer engagement and in-store visits when we promote nationwide campaigns. Whether it’s educational or a summer-long tour, there’s the power behind national campaigns that allow our customers to get to know Spiritleaf’s identity, personality, and emotion.
”Brands are not people, but they should act and feel like people. They help us make a choice and connecting with them says something about us.
Our marketing team spends a great amount of time co-creating with customers. We connect with them through customized interactions and elicit feedback through customer surveys. We have a customer benefits program called The Collective which launched last year and we now have more than 250,000 members.
We leveraged The Collective in our national campaigns, one of which was called The Spirit Bus Tour – a virtual festival where we ‘toured’ Spiritleaf stores across the country and made our customers ‘Feel the Love’ with exclusive in-store promotions. It was a huge hit and led to even more sign-ups in The Collective, and I believe it helped us make loyal fans in our customers.
I think a lot has changed over the last year – we’ve learned new ways to connect, to do business, to collaborate, to learn, and to adapt. We’ve seen firsthand how different rules and restrictions across many provinces can affect how you do business, but one thing has stayed consistent: the feeling of belonging/community.
Are there any other Trailblazers in the cannabis industry that you follow?
First and foremost, our leadership at Spiritleaf are true cannabis trailblazers: our President and CEO, Darren Bondar, and our VP Business and Ethics, Cecil Horwitz – Ethos. Darren and Cecil are both notable entrepreneurs in their own right, who have extensive retail experience of over 20 years. But it’s because of their leadership and vision of Spiritleaf that we have been able to keep an authentic brand as we’ve grown to a network of 85 stores and counting. Darren and Cecil are passionate cannabis champions who have made sure that we recognize the history and the community in everything that we do.
I also feel really fortunate to be a woman in the cannabis space working with some of the most impressive women I have ever had the opportunity to meet. They are all warriors and each one is making a huge impact on this new industry and helping define what is possible when women lead.
I am inspired every day by my manager Christine Smith who is a total firecracker! I have no idea how she does it – she gets more done in a day than most do in a week!
The ladies at OPP (Other People’s Pot) are coming in hot and someone to watch out for: Jess McCann, Allison Gordon & Amy Weinstein.
What is one tip or piece of advice you would give to people looking to enter the cannabis industry?
My advice is: Come on, what are you waiting for? I didn’t come into this industry as a cannabis expert, and you don’t have to either. It’s time for you to own your current experience and skill set because we need professionals that have HR, marketing, finance, operations, and sales immediately. Cannabis companies are looking for “best athletes,” so if you have a certain skill, really play into that and translate how that skill can help a growing cannabis company.
Also, be prepared to be overwhelmed, confused, and frustrated – and get ready to have fun, learn, and meet amazing people. The industry is riddled with challenges: stock share prices, cannabis wholesale and retail prices, zoning restrictions, advertising regulations, compliance requirements and tax laws—they can all change in the blink of an eye. But a quote that we often hear at the Spiritleaf Support Center is that “a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor”.
A big thank you to Alisa 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.
Last Updated on April 15, 2021 by ADCANN