This week’s Trailblazer is Sung Kang, SVP Marketing at Thrive Cannabis, a licensed producer dedicated to one mission: cultivating premium quality, small-batch craft cannabis.
Questions with a Cannabis Industry Trailblazer
When did you first become involved in the cannabis industry and why?
I first got involved in 2018 after spending about 18 yrs in marketing in primarily the CPG, pharma, and alcohol industries, most notably at General Mills, Novartis, Mark Anthony Brands, and Labatt.
I had been watching the cannabis industry slowly but surely gain momentum, and after working for many multi-national, publicly listed companies with head offices outside of Canada, I wanted to be part of a home-grown Canadian success story in a brand new industry.
What I always tell people is, imagine being able to be part of the genesis of a brand like Jack Daniels right after prohibition was lifted 100 yrs ago, what would that be like? I wanted to find out.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced when working with cannabis companies/brands?
I’d classify the challenges as coming from both the outside and the inside.
From an outside perspective, the challenges are more obvious. Heavy regulation of the product, the packaging, the promotions, and distribution have been very difficult for all of us to navigate, though we understand why they exist. Also, cannabis may have a reputation for being for “stoners” but it’s actually a very complicated product that’s not easy to differentiate, sell or convey, especially to an audience that is relatively new to the category, or coming back to it after decades of being away from it.
”From an inside perspective, the challenges are still very real but less talked about.
Pressure from investors to generate strong returns, colleagues from many different industries who have never had to work outside of theirs, people learning about cannabis culture and cannabis itself for the first time in many cases, and finally, an entire industry of start-ups like ours creates an opportunistic environment overrun by people who all want a piece of your budget and time to pitch you their products and services.
The bottom line is that all of us marketers had to go down the rabbit hole of cannabis education and come out with some form of product offering, brand positioning, and communication strategy that is both legal and effective, all the while trying to convince a relatively uneducated population about a complicated product, with one proverbial hand tied behind our backs in the form of tough regulations.
If you could change one of the current Canadian or American marketing restrictions on cannabis, which would it be?
I would encourage them to allow for much greater freedom with packaging design (similar to alcohol), OR more freedom when it comes to advertising and promotions (again, similar to alcohol).
”To insist on heavily regulated packaging that makes everything look the same AND such hard prohibitions on communications is a recipe for keeping the illicit market alive and well for some years to come.
Give me one or the other, please.
In your observation, what marketing techniques or channels have been most effective for cannabis companies looking to connect with consumers?
I think most of the magic happens in the retail store. To date, brands with solid products that can telegraph to the consumer what they will get in plain language or visual language, plus offer strong in-stock continuity have been the early winners with budtenders and retail staff, so, therefore, they have been the winners with consumers as well, generally speaking. These basics are table stakes in CPG and Alcohol, for example, but they have been strong difference makers in the early days of cannabis because of all the companies who could not stay in stock, who could not manufacture quickly and efficiently enough, and who could not manage to tell the consumer what it was promising, or could not manage to put out a consistently high-quality product. I know, those things are not commonly seen as ‘marketing techniques’ but if you consider that marketing is not just promotions, but manages product, price, distribution as well as promotions, it makes sense.
”For our brands, and Greybeard in particular, we just want to sell exceptional concentrates and flower that we, the leaders of the company, would actually want to buy and use (and we do).
But in terms of marketing technique, the challenge ahead of us is to recruit a whole new set of users to grow the concentrates category beyond distillate-based vapes and gummies to include dabs, hash, diamonds and sauce, and new-to-the-world products like our Live Resin Terp Slush, that doesn’t have a clear analog in the legacy market.
When it comes to dab concentrates, as an example, the first wave of consumers will need no help at all to use the product – they’ve done it before, they have the equipment and the know-how – we love that consumer and champion him/her all day long. But the challenge comes with the less experienced consumer. I believe that there is a large untapped population of people who would enjoy something like our Live Resin Terp Slush dabs but simply need a little help getting started.
That’s why we have developed in-store and social media-based communications that we think will help the entire industry educate this new wave of legal market consumers get introduced to dabs and other concentrates that require a little bit of knowledge of the equipment, tools and techniques necessary. With regard to that mission, we have developed educational tools for retailers, the first of which we call “Dab Curious?” which is both an instructional video that we have distributed to all retailers intended for their budtender staff, as well as through product cards that consumers can pick up and use to educate themselves on how to dab – and in particular, how to do it without a dab rig or blow torch, which is intimidating to many. With our creative and media agency, Puff Digital, who has done a great job bringing the Greybeard brand to life, we are working on our second video called “Concentrate Curious?” which goes through the process of how we make Live Resin at Thrive and why people might want to pay a bit more to get a bit more when it comes to terpene retention and product purity. We like to tout that Greybeard is all about No Distillates. No Additives. No BS. I guess you could say that being able to speak plainly to people in engaging ways is what we have been seeking to do with these pieces of marketing collateral.
Are there any other Trailblazers in the cannabis industry that you follow?
I admire many players in the industry. I like the passion and consistency that Broken Coast brings to the party, and kudos to Aphria for (seemingly, at least from the outside looking in) keeping Broken Coast at arm’s length and not insisting on monkeying around with their craft practices or brand.
I think Organigram is interesting. They seem to have a great company culture compared to the other large cannabis corporations and while I’m not the biggest fan of their branding and design, their products are solid, prices are generally fair, they cover the gamut of product classes and price points, and they are usually in stock. Well done.
I also admire John Fowler who created a great company in Supreme and a great brand in 7Acres. It’s a pity what’s happened over there since 2019 but I still have hope that they can pick up where he left off.
What is one tip or piece of advice you would give to marketers looking to enter the cannabis industry?
Strap on your helmet, check your ego and past accomplishments at the door, kiss your car allowance and large staff goodbye, and get ready to take a gamble on yourself and a group of relative strangers. Welcome to cannabis, my friends.
A big thank you to Sung 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 September 17, 2020 by ADCANN