This week’s Trailblazer is John Shute, founder, and CEO of PufCreativ, a creative marijuana marketing firm that creates strategies and advertising solutions for cannabis and CBD brands.

John Shute Headshot

Questions with a Cannabis Marketing Trailblazer

When did you first become involved in the cannabis industry and why?

So my first involvement was towards the end of 2015. I was working at a nightclub, just got my master’s degree in project management and I wasn’t really feeling as though I was fulfilling myself or utilizing my skillset properly.

I also simultaneously had a bunch of friends struggling with opiates at the time, being from the Northeast of the United States, there was a pretty bad opiate problem there. I had some who passed away, some go to rehab, and some who are thankfully recovering now. On top of already being a huge advocate since I was younger and getting judged from it being from an illegal state, I did a bunch of research and found that cannabis can help with addiction and people wean off opiates and so that was a really big kind of sparking point.

I kind of realized the value of marketing and how much power it had then, and also just how much it’s going to continue to have in the future. What better way to communicate educational aspects, how cannabis and hemp can help with opiates and pain and be alternative medicine than through marketing.

I just Google searched for cannabis marketing and the first thing that popped up was this marketing director role at this cannabis contract manufacturing facility in San Francisco and it was a remote job.

I was doing the remote thing for this manufacturing company and that’s how it all started and kind of how Pufcreativ started was really. I had an intern at the time and we were executing all these different marketing campaigns and the rules were all a little bit different on social media and even MailChimp was different then. So we implemented all these kinds of creative marketing tactics on social and email and set different sales and marketing alignment tactics and made a ton of money for these guys. They had a ton of different leads for their contract manufacturing.

They had some in house brands as well that were getting into a bunch of dispensaries through some of the strategies we were implementing and then it got to a point where I wasn’t getting paid basically anything and my intern was getting paid. They promised both of us a full-time salary and benefits and all this jazz and then the date that we were supposed to sign these contracts and be in this longterm role, they were kind of just like, “screw you guys, it’s not happening,” even though we had done so many great things. So that was shitty because that was a month before I got married.

It was a pretty interesting situation to be in, having no money and no job. I got married and then that’s kind of how Pufcreativ started. We realized our value, my intern became my business partner, and then my other friend I grew up with was kind of our missing link for the web, photography, and videography stuff. So yeah, that’s how it all started and we’re on year four now, so it’s pretty interesting.

What has been the biggest marketing challenge you have faced when working with cannabis companies/brands?

They’ve changed throughout the years just because of how Google and Facebook especially have changed their algorithms, how they flag, and their whole internal process.

I think that everyone in marketing faces this challenge, but with cannabis especially, is just the advertising. Typically a brand or something that’s in regular retail, if you’re a retail store or a brand in the retail store, it’s a lot easier to do targeted advertising through social media, through Google and other advertising platforms.

Whereas with your cannabis brand, you can’t do that. So that’s a huge factor for us and I think a lot of other people who are doing marketing, are running these companies because there just isn’t as readily available data to analyze. It’s harder to make informed longterm strategic marketing decisions, especially when you’re talking about ad spend and stuff as the industry is unfolding. It used to be even a couple of years ago, but, five, 10 years ago, it was a little bit easier, I think to market because there wasn’t as large and diverse of a demographic.

Whereas now, through marketing and through education and policy, things have changed so much to the point where every demographic consumes cannabis and there’s a story for everyone. So having that type of data readily available would be super valuable at a time like now and especially into the future.

Do I think those rules are changing? Yes. Have they changed since we’ve started? Yes. One of those challenges when we first started, we were actually figuring out how to get ads to go through for the manufacturing company of cannabis products. They had a CBD product and they had a THC product, and yeah, we were getting ads to go through social media, no problem. And then there was the day that it stopped working and all of our personal accounts got flagged. There were Instagram accounts that were deleted. It was a massacre. It was like a social media pandemic and it was horrible. So just learning, knowing what works and what doesn’t has been really crazy.

John Pufcreativ Cannabis Field

If you could change one of the current American marketing restrictions on cannabis, which would it be?

Yeah, I think it would be to even out the playing field a bit more so everyone had access to the same playing field as they do for non-cannabis retail products or companies. One note to add too is now I look at cannabis and hemp marketing different, and it’s because of these restrictions. A lot of these restrictions have been lifted and there are easier workarounds for hemp. Not CBD terminology, but hemp terminology, so I look at those as two completely different things now.

Specifically, in cannabis in the States, I think that if Google and Facebook allow for this equal playing field of advertising to take place, there’d be different trends in the market.

I think that there’s obviously a corporate side of the cannabis industry and the McDonaldization of it, but also there’s a side of it, of people who have been in the industry for so long and are kind of like the OGs and are really passionate about what they’re doing and might not have as large of budgets.

As some of these corporate entities are just taking over where they know their products might not be that great, but they have the money to get them in front of people. They get into all of these stores, where the best products are kind of hard to find because, these people have been around forever and are getting screwed by not only the walls of just having a brand or a grow but, just marketing.

These corporate companies have these crazy budgets to work with and I just wish that the advertising laws would change here. I think that’d be huge.

In your observation, what marketing techniques or channels have been most effective for cannabis companies looking to connect with consumers?

I think for a lot of the cannabis brands and any of the bigger accounts we see out there, social media has been a key tool. You see a lot of these bigger brands and organizations using an influencer strategy, whether they’re a smaller or larger entity.

So I think that’s probably one of the main tools that we use and how you really get noticed on there and distinguish yourself through those types of channels, like your social media, your website, and even SEO because that’s another playing field. Organic SEO is something that isn’t restricted, so you can rank for these key cannabis terms. So why not just play that game. If you’re in a tourism state or if you rely on local, you might as well be the one that’s popping up first on search engines. I think what really brings all of this together, the site, the SEO, the social media, is the content that goes into it, and what type of content you’re using.

High-resolution photography and videography is always the best decision to make in the short and long term and consistency between the branding, but also what’s the messaging behind it too.

High-resolution photography and videography is always the best decision to make in the short and long term and consistency between the branding, but also what’s the messaging behind it too.

We run a program called Cannabis Doing Good and that kind of brings together cannabis with the community. We just announced that we raised $10,000 for our CDG gives campaign effort, benefiting three local organizations that surround hunger, homelessness, and frontline workers. We’ve raised about $70,000 for nonprofits all over the country through cannabis efforts.

When you’re producing high-quality, high-resolution content with those types of intentions and that type of marketing and really showing how you differentiate yourself in the market, that’s what I think truly works. Are there other tricks of the trade and paid partnerships that you can do with people such as yourself or Leafly or Weedmaps or whoever? Totally, but at the end of the day, that long term perspective and quality and alignment and messaging is really what pays off. It’s just marketing 101 at its finest. That’s why we work with non-cannabis people as well because we’re so good at the foundational aspects because of cannabis marketing that we’re making things so much cooler and more quality than a lot of other agencies out there.

John Pufcreativ Skateboarding

Are there any other Trailblazers in the cannabis industry that you follow?

I’m definitely inspired by other people who truly are passionate about it and one company, in particular, is the Last Prisoner Project. We recently did all of their video campaigns for 420 week. We edited and customized these videos for them pro bono and what they do is help get prisoners who are incarcerated for marijuana crimes out of the prison. They’re doing a whole COVID relief effort right now because prisons are just swarmed with COVID and a lot of these prisoners are in there for petty marijuana crimes, which is ridiculous. So it’s people like that, that truly inspire me. 

I would say that another company marketing-wise I would love to shout out is Kind TymeWhen I first got involved and started our own agency, we really looked up to them and were inspired by the work that they did and the quality of it.

What is one tip or piece of advice you would give to marketers looking to enter the cannabis industry?

My advice would be to, even before they could consider anything, is just realize what they’re walking into. They’re walking into a marketing situation, yes, but one that’s a bit more difficult to solve and execute than any other type of marketing experience in their entire life. So I recommend if you’re going to do something in the industry in general, to do it strictly from passion, because it’s really difficult to just get involved in cannabis. 

Another piece of advice is to find someone who’s going to be a longterm company or someone you could rub off on in a positive way. I think that there’s a lot of the companies out there that have a bit of success and have great budgets, but still have so much more room for improvement.

I would just advise to really understand what you’re getting yourself into and be ready to hustle and to learn a lot because there’s a lot going on in regards to what’s around and what’s not and how to properly educate people. That’s my biggest thing is just realize what you’re getting yourself into.

Trailblazers

A big thank you to John 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.

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