David Paleschuck wrote the book on branding in the cannabis industry. Literally.
Building off decades of knowledge from developing branding campaigns for traditional businesses like Mastercard, Mountain Dew and Microsoft, as well as time spent working for both retail stores and manufacturers in Washington state’s cannabis industry, Paleschuck released “Branding Bud: The Commercialization of Cannabis” in 2021, based off columns he’d written for DOPE Magazine.
A former New York City art gallery owner and professional skater with an MBA from Fordham, Paleschuck today is a cannabis branding consultant and host of the Branding Bud podcast. Following the success of his first book, which spent nine months as a best-seller on two different Amazon lists, Paleschuck is at work on a second book, covering the changes, growth and new developments in the cannabis sector, including how minor cannabinoids, terpenes and hemp-derived cannabinoids are affecting the industry.
Marijuana Venture caught up with Paleschuck to discuss the changing role of branding in the cannabis industry.
Marijuana Venture: Why is it important for cannabis companies to focus on their branding? Why is the brand important?
David Paleschuck: I’m so glad you asked that question. I’ll start off by saying, I have heard this from numerous people, and they tend to be cultivators: “Cannabis sells itself. We don’t need a brand.”
That’s old-school thinking.
In basic business terms, we think about supply and demand. In the old world of cannabis, there was a limited supply and high demand. So when your dealer came to you with whatever he or she had, you took it. Well, we live in a world today, where there is a considerable amount of supply. And more importantly, there’s more choice and there’s more convenience. Now, I’m not waiting for my dealer to show up, I can go out to a number of different stores in my area.
So did weed sell itself? Sure it did, back in the day. Does it sell itself now? Let me be clear: quality comes first, but after there’s a certain level of quality in the market, and a certain level of convenience, that’s when, all of a sudden, brands become more important, backstories become more important, aspirational components of the brands become more important, cause- and charity-related aspects become more important. That’s what starts to make up a brand.
At the end of the day, Coke is water, caramel color and carbonation and sugar. Sure, you could break it down to that, but it’s really more than that. It’s all the things that Coke is and has been. And that’s what we come back to, which is a brand.
And so, back in the day, sure, weed sold itself. I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
MV: What’s the biggest mistake cannabis companies make in their branding?
DP: I think the biggest mistake any company makes is not knowing who their customer is.
If you’re a brand-new company, and you don’t know who your customer is, that’s cool. Build a target customer. Figure out who you want your customer to be. Over time, as you build out your sales and your distribution, you’ll start to figure out what products are being bought and by whom. Once you understand that, then you can talk to your consumers in a certain tone and offer up certain benefits of your product that those consumers want.
So, for me, the biggest mistake is starting a brand that the brand owner thinks is the right brand, but not necessarily thinking about who’s going to purchase it and why.
MV: What makes a cannabis brand successful?
DP: Well, there’s a few things. First, are they speaking to a consumer group that they know, that they understand, that they can speak to in a tone and vocabulary that is meaningful?
The second thing is for a brand to understand, again, who their consumer is, but even more importantly, what their rituals are when they consume.
So if a consumer is — and pardon me for the stereotype — a soccer mom, and the consumer is at home and wants to consume, but has to consume discreetly around her kids or around her family, then she will use certain form factors that are discreet.
If that consumer is a 20-something bro, and they want to smoke or dab or pass a joint around, then they’ll choose their various form factors that they could choose from.
What’s really interesting is once you choose your form factor, then you get into dosing. Is it for the soccer mom that wants to microdose all day? Or is it for the kid that’s gonna go smoke a gram or an eighth or whatever? Based on who you’re talking to and how you can really talk to them, there are, what I call in my book, the 14 cannabis brand archetypes. And the 14 brand archetypes are the shortcuts to speak to the consumers. I won’t go through all of them, but there’s a celebrity brand, there’s a novelty brand, a health-and-wellness brand, a gender brand, and a whole bunch of others.
As a branding and marketing expert, I saw the evolution of the industry. First it was farm-based brands, and then this sort of farm-to-table kind of concept, and then, all of a sudden, it became a little more CPG. It became brands leveraging art and other aspects, like social equity, onto their brands to add more value and to speak to more people about why they should purchase one brand over another.
Leveraging all these things that I’m talking about, that’s what a strong brand does. And those are the strategies and the tactics that strong brands use to build their brands over time.
MV: Can you give me an example of how this all comes together?
DP: The first thing I noticed when I did some basic research here in Washington is that the state is bifurcated between Eastern and Western Washington. There’s a left-leaning side closer to the coast, and that people on the east side of the mountains tend to lean right. So I started to look into the potential communities that we would create a beverage for. One of the things I found was that there was a high number of veterans in Washington state, in particular, in the eastern side of the state. And they were seeking to get off their opiates and deal with their PTSD. So I thought that was interesting and thought that was one of the groups we might be able to appeal to.
So I went out to Spokane and spent time with the VFW. I put together a focus group and I started to ask some of the veterans what they thought about cannabis. Many of them said they didn’t like the smell of it and their families disapproved of it, but they were open to it if it was available in a more discreet means. I said, perhaps a beverage, and they said, sure, perhaps a beverage, that would be great. So they were open to cannabis in a way that some of the Republicans weren’t.
I came back about two months later, and I brought to them what I thought would work. Blaze American Cola was the name of the product. The tagline was “the cola patriots prefer.” Of course, it’s red, white and blue. After we got some taste tests back, which they loved, we launched it on the Fourth of July in Eastern Washington, and it took off and became the No. 1 beverage in Washington state.
It caught on amongst veterans, and they were telling each other about it. And so that was cool, because it was like, wow, we found a community. We had a hypothesis, we tested it, we did some research, we created some flavor profiles and brand names and taglines that made sense to this community, and we launched it on a day that also makes sense. It just played right into what this group wanted to hear. It offered something of value to that community, real or perceived. And that’s key.
If you’re offering something, whether it’s real or not — maybe it’s just a nod and a wink to hey, we appreciate you — that goes really far.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.