Best Cannabis Marketing Practices Heading Into 2021, From Grasslands’ New CMO Jesse Burns
December 8, 2020
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It’s been my No. 1 goal since the day I opened Grasslands back in 2016: To become the best cannabis marketing and PR agency on Earth.
We’re one step closer to that goal with the hiring of veteran cannabis marketer Jesse Burns as Chief Marketing Officer—a new position for the agency.
Mr. Burns joins Grasslands from cannabis retail giant LivWell Enlightened Health and its infused products brand Sweet Grass Kitchen, where he served as marketing director for six years and helped catapult the brand to the best-selling infused baked goods company in Colorado and its eventual acquisition by LivWell.
Now under Mr. Burns’ leadership, Grasslands’ robust marketing program will expand its client-centric service offerings to ensure the agency’s partners remain at the forefront of cannabis markets in the U.S., Canada and across the globe.
My team and I are so thrilled to have him as our new CMO—and there’s no better way to introduce him than an in-house Q&A sesh where he shared his thoughts about cannabis marketing in 2021 and beyond. So without further ado:
Ricardo Baca: Let’s start with three things that quickly describe the challenges facing cannabis brand marketers today.
Jesse Burns: In my eyes, the biggest challenge is the competitive landscape. While cannabis is highly regulated and still federally illegal, barriers to entry, on a market-to-market basis, are constantly falling, which creates a fiercely competitive landscape where companies with large war chests can enter and overwhelm legacy players quickly.
Measurement is another issue. Marketing is often described as a balance between art and science. It’s challenging to show how qualitative observations about consumer behavior are just as important for a brand as more tangible, quantitative benchmarks.
Regulation rounds out my top three. While cannabis marketers often complain about “our hands being tied” by entities like Facebook and Google, regulation forces innovation and lays the groundwork for strong brands in the long run. It’s often challenging for brands to recognize that and adjust accordingly.
RB: Tell us about yourself, your marketing philosophy and your experience with cannabis (the plant and the industry).
JB: I came to Colorado from West Virginia in the mid-2000s, chasing outdoor adventure like many, and finding it on the rivers and in the mountains of the state. I worked in the outdoor industry, in concert and event production, and even had a women’s clothing line with a friend at one point. All of these experiences gave me access to loads of different types of people to interact with and really put me on the track to work in the field of human behavior.
I believe brand is the most powerful tool any business has. I believe that bold and courageous marketing tactics that tell the customer’s story are the key to a successful program. I’m a do-it-all startup marketer with a passion for innovation, design thinking and customer experience.
I started my relationship with cannabis in college and it’s something I truly still enjoy today. It’s always been an enhancement thing for me—think crosshatch marks on a steak—that really elevates the experience. I adore the cannabis industry and am so grateful to have found a place in a nascent, sexy, high-growth industry where I have an opportunity to make a lasting impact.
RB: You’re coming to us from the cannabis brand side, which is such an important POV for an agency like Grasslands. What are the biggest pain points for cannabis brands as we approach 2021, based on your experience?
JB: After years of being a decision-maker for brands, I understand what client-side marketers’ true needs are and how a cannabis-focused agency such as Grasslands can best support them. We all feel overworked, we all have a hard time seeing how our efforts contribute to our company goals, we all get our budgets cut. And the biggest pain point of all: We never have the time to dig into big, bold projects, the projects that can cut through the noise and that we all know are the very best tactics for our brands. My aim at Grasslands is to not only provide world-class marketing services to brands but to help supercharge brand marketers to be the best they can be for their brands.
RB: Your prediction on when we’ll see the first national cannabis brand emerge in the U.S.?
JB: There is an argument that some national cannabis brands already exist—think High Times or Snoop Dogg. I’d like to define a national brand in terms of “cultural intuition,” meaning the brand is universally recognizable, its value proposition is consistently understood, and it weaves itself seamlessly into the very fabric of our national culture. I can’t wait to see a cannabis brand that my mother would mention as casually as Kleenex or Tide. And of course, at Grasslands we aim to empower our clients to achieve that recognition.
RB: And while Grasslands works with some of the most omnipresent consumer-facing brands in cannabis and hemp, we also work extensively with B2B businesses. So I’m curious: What excites you as a veteran cannabis marketer about the B2B marketing opportunities in this space?
JB: Businesses that sell to other businesses have different expectations of their marketing agency than those who sell directly to the public. They need to clearly communicate ROI, marketing efficiency, and why they are the experts their business prospects should choose; the agency must support them with these metrics.
On a tactical level, I think there is so much opportunity for B2B businesses to own and share information and education, which in turn, can provide them with an “officiating stance” as an objective authority within their respective industry.
Lasty, I’m excited to help B2B businesses reframe their marketing strategies in more traditional B2C terms, to recognize that at the end of the day, they are still selling to humans and we should strive to understand those humans’ underlying motivations and buying journeys.
RB: One of your top goals as Grasslands’ new CMO is growing the agency’s market research and consumer insights programs. Why are these kinds of marketing services so important in nascent industries like marijuana and hemp?
JB: Market reseach’s primary purpose is to inform important business decisions like target market and product positioning. While such decisions are vital to all businesses they are even more important to new businesses. The direction a team chooses for their business and brand in those early years will often have a profound impact on the eventual success, or lack thereof, of the business in the future. Understanding the needs of customers, understanding what moves them and how they perceive the world is the only way to create a deep, meaningful relationship with them, and that’s the foundation of a sustainable brand.
RB: Let’s look ahead to 2021. What’s your marketing advice for cannabis brands and B2B businesses as they prep their budgets and mixes for the year ahead?
JB: Often marketing budgets are one of the first line items to get cut when times are uncertain and cash flows tighten. But history shows us that brands should really be doing the opposite and doubling down on marketing as much as they are able; they must show that they are there for their customers and signal to competitors that the brand is committed to growth. Build flexibility and agility into your budgets, be able to take advantage of last-minute opportunities and don’t force tactics that aren’t working, even if they have in the past.
As we learned in 2020, your marketing mix will need to look a little different than previous years. Don’t be afraid to do new things, to experiment with blending the physical and digital worlds. More than ever, build time and money into your plan to explore and understand your customer’s sentiment, check in on how they are feeling, and show them you are there for them.
FOUNDER & CEO
Ricardo Baca is a 20-year veteran journalist and cannabis futurist, widely respected in both modern media and drug-policy circles. He was appointed The Denver Post’s first-ever cannabis editor in 2013 and founded news vertical The Cannabist, where he extensively covered the advent of the U.S. adult-use cannabis market and related issues around the world, as seen in the feature documentary Rolling Papers.
Ricardo launched Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency in 2016 to work directly with business leaders in highly regulated industries, from cannabis and psychedelics to spirits and healthcare. In 2023, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis appointed Ricardo to the state’s first-ever Natural Medicine Advisory Board to contribute to policy development around the state’s eventual psychedelics framework.
Named one of Fortune’s 7 Most Powerful People in America’s Marijuana Industry in 2016 and Marketer of the Year by AdCann in 2019, has received numerous accolades for his trailblazing work. In addition to his previous journalistic coverage of drug policy, cannabis business and culture, Ricardo continues to host panel discussions at events nationwide and contribute columns for a number of top publications including Rolling Stone. He is also a sought-after thought leader in media, cultural events and podcasts, and has spoken on The Colbert Report, NPR’s All Things Considered, TEDxBoulder, TEDxMarin and multiple years at SXSW.