This week’s Trailblazer is Zac Cohen, Co-Founder of Nomad, a creative agency geared specifically for the cannabis industry.
Questions with a Cannabis Marketing Trailblazer
When did you first become involved in the cannabis industry and why?
Long ago, I made a promise to myself that if cannabis was ever legalized, I would drop whatever I was doing and get involved.
So in 2014, I moved from New York City to Denver, Colorado where cannabis had just been legalized. As an artist, I appreciated the challenge of a blank canvas. As an entrepreneur, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to make my mark for something I believed in.
I have been a strong advocate for plant medicines for over 20 years and believe to my core that cannabis should not only be legal but embedding it holistically into our society will elevate the health, mind, body, and soul of all communities.
What has been the biggest marketing challenge you have faced when working with cannabis companies/brands?
I would break this into several categories: cultural, economic, and creative.
From a cultural perspective, what I first found out about the industry was that those who sustained the movement through the brutal decades of prohibition were often ambivalent—and even suspicious—about what legalization would bring, and how to capitalize on it, without compromising their values.
My first clients were small mom and pop brands who had poured their hearts and souls into their businesses, often putting their lives on the line, and were navigating the transition from a medical paradigm to a recreational one.
Overnight, their potential customer base expanded from a relatively small pool of patients to the general public, and that meant undertaking a near-total reimagining of their brands, their messaging, their packaging, and even their products.
The economic challenges were just as great. For service businesses such as Nomad, it’s been an exercise in patience with regards to budgets. As brands have scaled into multiple states, and the rise of multinational MSO’s and vertically integrated operators, marketing budgets have risen, but until the industry has access to public markets, banking and Section 280E is removed, there’s an artificially low ceiling.
”There’s also a significant chasm between institutional capital and legacy brands and businesses.
I’ve always positioned myself as an ambassador of the two. Perhaps because of my East Coast heritage and experience in the financial services sector, I’ve been able to speak the language of capital and understand the culture and motivations of high net worth individuals, family offices and funds who are wise enough to see the once in a generation financial opportunity that cannabis represents.
While at the same time, I have long embraced the values of, broadly speaking, the counter culture. I believe in cannabis—and other revolutionary medicines–to my core, in their ability to better the lives of individuals, communities, and the larger society. I recognize the drug war of the past decades as one of our country’s most tragic failures too. I may not be an OG with 30 years of experience in the soil, but I’ve found that simply being transparent and honest in this business will get you a long way.
With Nomad, we have learned to be ambassadors to the plant on behalf of those writing the checks while serving an important role as translators of corporate sensibilities, ways of doing business, and deliverables to those who need capital to manifest their dreams.
We have seen significant evolution and merging between these two poles, but much work remains.
If you could change one of the current Canadian or American marketing restrictions on cannabis, which would it be?
Federal legalization would be one place to start. In advance of that, removing section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code, which forbids businesses from deducting otherwise ordinary business expenses, most especially marketing would represent a sea change for cannabis.
The industry is fighting a battle with both hands tied behind its back. Those bindings are loosening for sure, but I can’t wait to see what this industry is capable of once we’re on even ground. We’re going to change the world.
”One other thing we are passionate about is in normalizing so called “on-site consumption.”
The pace of development in this area is painfully slow, and though there are signs of improvement, especially in more recently legalized states such as Michigan and Illinois, the on-site consumption of cannabis represents an entirely new and culture-shifting opportunity. In light of the COVID19 pandemic, that has, and continues to annihilate the hospitality industry, localities need to experiment with new businesses and business models to employ people and provide much-needed tax revenue. Nomad is currently developing a pilot concept here in Boulder, Colorado, and one in Ann Arbor, Michigan that combines food and beverage, design, and cannabis into an entirely new hospitality concept that will redefine the space.
Public consumption of alcohol is legal, and cannabis consumers absolutely need, and deserve, a place to consume safely and responsibly, in public. This is a taboo that needs desperately to be broken. We have some ideas that will foster this along.
In your observation, what marketing techniques or channels have been most effective for cannabis companies looking to connect with consumers?
Zig where others zag. Question the trend. Think ahead, but be mindful of the past.
Great design is a must. Word of mouth remains the ultimate form of marketing. Delivering a brand experience focused on quality product, impactful design, great customer service and purpose will always lead to success. When a trusted friend tells you that a certain dispensary has great flower, you’re going to check it out.
”Social media of course plays an outsize role because it is so personal, yet at the same time, its more corruptible and inauthentic. It’s really difficult to stand out. There’s a lot of trend following.
Nomad focuses on the dispensary and delivery service experience. The waiting rooms, shelves, in-store displays all represent tremendous opportunities to inspire and delight patients and customers, educate them, and invite them to become loyalists. We’ve found co-marketing relationships with billboards work well too.
We’ve found leveraging Weed Maps relationships between brands and retailers when done right, drives sales.
Are there any other Trailblazers in the cannabis industry that you follow?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work alongside visionaries such as James Kennedy of Apothecanna, Roger Volodarsky of Puffco, PR mavens like Jim Walsh, and Ric Baca, Jenn Glickman from CannaCraft and Tom McGlade of Legion of Bloom. I admire Brad Melshanker of 710 Labs very much as well.
I’m biased, but my partner Josh Jacobs is one of the best art directors in cannabis who has revolutionized cannabis packaging in myriad ways. He and our design team inspire me every day.
They’ve all taught me crucial lessons and imparted invaluable wisdom over the years.
What is one tip or piece of advice you would give to marketers looking to enter the cannabis industry?
Hurry Up. And Wait.
A big thank you to Zac 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.