This week’s Trailblazer is Sean Samuel, the VP of Sales & Marketing at C15 Solutions, who provide a tailored eQMS platform for cannabis producers/operators, cultivators, processors, manufacturers, and testing & analytical laboratories.
Questions with a Cannabis Industry Trailblazer
When did you first become involved in the cannabis industry and why?
My career in the cannabis industry officially began in 2017, the same year Canada federally legalized adult-use cannabis. But it unofficially started in 2015 when I started investing in medical producers like Aphria and Aurora. My current job is an intersection of three things I love — cannabis, technology, and innovation on a global scale!
When Canada initially mulled over federal legalization, I was working at the Bank of Montreal and had long been speculating on the early medical cannabis companies in small-cap portfolios. Shortly after Canada passed adult-use, C15 Solutions was formed and it was C15’s partnership with Veeva Systems (VEEV:NYSE) that really intrigued me. They have long been an established tech provider to the Life Sciences and CPG industries, working with multinational corporations like Kraft, Nestle, Bayer, Pfizer, Unilever, etc. Cannabis always struck me as an amalgamation of agriculture (cultivation), pharma (medical), and consumer packaged goods (adult-use) so adopting best practices from those established sectors and adding to the quality and safety of cannabis production was a mission I could embrace.
I was already keen on trying to help accelerate the sector’s trajectory when it came to being a leader in the industry, especially as it globalized. The opportunity to work with such an innovative and supportive partner in Veeva as well as being able to build something from scratch (opposite of my situation at BMO) with a fantastic management team at C15, was what ultimately drove me in this direction.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced when working with cannabis companies/brands?
Our marketing challenges are threefold:
We’re a B2B business → B2B sales cycles are significantly longer and involve multiple stakeholders (challenge #3 expands on this further). It also takes longer to earn the trust of a business than a consumer.
We sell a highly technical, ‘serious’ product (effectively a regulatory compliance solution) → This restricts us in terms of our approach to marketing; we can’t be ‘fun’ or ‘cool’, we need to be credible and innovative.
Our target audience is extremely difficult to reach → Our primary target audience is Quality Assurance professionals, notorious for working hard and, unfortunately, often regarded as a ‘cost center’ by some companies. In addition, many other personnel typically get involved in the sales cycle; production, operations, and of course members of the C-suite typically sign off on enterprise technology purchases. Layers of different stakeholders mean we need to reach multiple audiences with unique, relevant messages in order to build that trust. For instance, QA professionals need to know C15 will make their job exponentially easier and more productive, while C-suites need to know how much C15 will reduce their ongoing operational costs.
If you could change one of the current Canadian or American marketing restrictions on cannabis, which would it be?
This is easy! In Canada, it would be to LOOSEN the existing, asinine, marketing regulations. The federal government explicitly stated that displacing the legacy market was an objective of federal legalization and yet the legacy market has no such restrictions – in fact, they’ve had a head start in marketing for decades and have already built substantial brand equity (think ‘BC bud’). Wana Brands has been identified as the leading cannabis edibles brand in North America based on market share and #1 share of the Canadian gummy market. A US brand is #1 in Canada – that right there illustrates the power of marketing.
With respect to the US, STANDARDIZATION has to be the answer here. In the absence of federal legalization, the US is left with a fragmented regulatory landscape where multi-state operators are severely handicapped when it comes to establishing scale; I know of a particular brand that had to completely re-brand their products in one specific state because the brand was deemed to have connotations associated with smoking and driving. Without getting into the moral argument or the brand subject matter, one can see why this would be a challenge for US companies trying to build and scale a brand.
In your observation, what marketing techniques or channels have been most effective for cannabis companies looking to connect with consumers?
Ironically, in an age of digitization, some of the most effective channels for connecting with prospects are via live events. We’ve gone to a lot of conferences (though we purposely do not exhibit as we haven’t seen good ROI there) and our takeaways have been:
All conferences are not equal → Many conferences have become glorified cheerleading sessions while others are very focused and specific, and include discourse around solving real industry problems. We have become much more focused on conference due diligence in the last year or so as a result.
Since we don’t exhibit, what we DO like to do (in the spirit of being unique and innovative, which meshes with our brand) is host private, customer-focused events where we will also invite a handful of highly-qualified prospects. Sometimes this is in conjunction with a conference. For example, we’ve hosted small groups at a Vegas Golden Knights NHL hockey game the last two consecutive years while attending MJBizCon, and we even attended the inaugural Formula 1 Miami Grand Prix last year!
When it comes to our digital marketing, we’ve pivoted from a ‘show & tell’ type of approach to more of an educational ‘thought leader’; more specifically, we talk much more about the problems we’re solving vs the product we’re selling. We have found this builds trust with the stakeholders we’re trying to reach.
Are there any other Trailblazers in the cannabis industry that you follow?
I have a ton of respect for Morgan & Emily Paxhia from Poseidon Investment Management – they are constantly trying to educate, they are incredibly resilient, and on top of that, they’re really great people. They manage an ETF and as such, are very in touch with the market, the players, and the evolving regulatory landscape.
What is one tip or piece of advice you would give to marketers looking to enter the cannabis industry?
The days of ‘free money’ when it was easy to raise capital for cannabis operations are long behind us; capital is now more expensive and scarce and as such, I think it’s crucial for marketers to be very selective about how they allocate their marketing budget. My second piece of advice would be to know the relevant marketing regulations inside and out – we sell technology and not actual cannabis products so, we’re not as beholden to the regs as most companies but I have seen instances of well-established brands lose their entire social media following of 1M+ users overnight because of a certain post. Brands can have their accounts suspended or sometimes removed from the platform altogether.