Big name brands can bring attention, but require special setups in a state-by-state business
For as long as there have been celebrities, companies have been using them to sell things. From sneakers and sodas to clothing and cars, the endorsement of a movie star, athlete or musician shines a bright light on a product, bringing attention and hopefully new consumers, all of whom want to bask in the glow of the celebrity and hope some of their cool will rub off.
Think Michael Jordan and Lebron James with Nike, Beyoncé for Pepsi or Matthew McConaughey for Lincoln.
Many celebrities even look to capitalize on their fame by starting their own companies and selling their own products instead of shilling for others. Martha Stewart created her own line of kitchenware and home products following her success as a television personality. On opposite ends of the spectrum, actor Paul Newman and businessman-turned-politician Donald Trump have created their own branded items, bypassing the middle man. Newman co-founded the food company, Newman’s Own, which donates 100% of its after-tax profits to charitable organizations, with more than $500 million contributed over the past 35 years. The current U.S. president, on the other hand, has slapped his name on everything from real estate and golf courses to failed universities, magazines and steaks, all for personal gain.
The cannabis world is no different. As the industry continues to develop, many celebrities who have long been associated with marijuana have put their imprint on packages of cannabis, providing instant brand recognition among potential customers.
But with marijuana being federally illegal, even the biggest name celebrities have to take a state-by-state approach to their products, particularly when it comes to sourcing cannabis. Each company has taken its own approach to finding answers to the question of structure.
The Stoner Icon
In the pot world, there are few bigger names than Tommy Chong, one half of the weed-inspired comedy duo Cheech and Chong. Although Chong famously did some prison time for selling bongs, he has jumped feet first into the legal cannabis world, lending his name to a line of marijuana products called “Chong’s Choice.”
According to a Chongson spokesman, the brand name is more than just a catchy phrase: Chong really decides the products on which to put his name. Chongson is a holding company that, through its nationwide network, licenses the Tommy Chong name to farmers.
Currently, Chong’s Choice products are available through regional licensees in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
The company looks for farmers who want to be associated with Tommy Chong. The farmers must use organic farming practices, employ renewable practices as to resources and meet or exceed all state and local regulatory requirements, but aside from that, what they grow is up to them. The farmers choose which of their strains they hope to have Chong’s name on and submit samples. The hope is that only their best will be sent up the chain.
The samples are tested by a lab to ensure there are no pesticides or heavy metals present, there is a farm visit and then, when Chong is in the farmer’s state — usually as part of his continuing tours and live performance schedule — the comedian himself, uh, tests each sample.
He picks his favorites and those strains get the license. That means that each season there may be different strains that carry the Chong’s Choice brand, though the company prefers to work with the same farmers, who become “part of Tommy’s family.”
“These are Chong’s choices, the ones Tommy has chosen,” the Chongson spokesman says. “For us it’s the integrity of the brand and the experience the end user has, and the importance to us (that) it’s a brand you can trust.”
Use of the Tommy Chong name on the packing is a straight-forward licensing deal, with the farmers and growers in each individual state determining how best to bring the product to market and which stores to offer their product to, while adhering to the Chong’s Choice style guide to give the brand the same look and feel in each state.
The Red-Headed Stranger
When it comes to farmers, few celebrities can match the 40 years of support that country music legend Willie Nelson has offered. Nelson is one of the founders of the annual Farm Aid concert, which raises money to help struggling small farmers.
But he is also a well-known cannabis user who has never shied away from being associated with the herb.
With the Willie’s Reserve brand, Nelson is able to combine both of those passions, according to Cass Stewart, director of sourcing and business development for Willie’s Reserve in Washington.
“It fits well with his narrative and it’s true to who Willie is,” Stewart says.
The company, of course, sources its products from each state in which it does business. According to vice president Elizabeth Hogan, many of the sources are from farmers Willie has known for years, several of whom used to show up to concerts “with pockets full of treats for Willie and the band.” The company also has a form on its website for producers who wish to be associated with the brand and has people in each state with knowledge of the industry, such as Stewart in Washington, who are empowered to find producers as well.
“What we are looking for is the very best the local market has to offer,” Hogan says.
Like Chong’s Choice, Willie’s Reserve uses a licensing company in each of the states in which it operates, but unlike its competitor, Willie’s takes a more active role in getting the product to market.
“We handle all the distribution,” says Hogan, though the exact process is based on each state’s regulations. In Washington, for example, the company buys the cannabis from the farmer and then processes and packages it at its facility in Seattle.
But the goal, Hogan says, is to support farmers by handling the non-farming parts of the business, such as sales and marketing.
“There’s a lot of jobs to be done in cannabis and our focus is on building brands,” she says.
The Legacy Brand
The other Big Name in celebrity pot is an inescapable marijuana icon whose name has become synonymous with cannabis for decades: Bob Marley.
Though Marley has been gone for more than 35 years, his music and trademark dreadlocks have never stopped being a mainstay of college life, especially among the more cannabis-friendly on campus, making him seemingly a perfect fit for the newly-legal marketplace.
Launched by Seattle-based Privateer Holdings, the Marley Natural line is available in California, Oregon and Washington. Like the others, the company works with local partners in each state to ensure all products are compliant with local laws, as well as meet the company’s standards, which include that the cannabis must be sustainably-grown.
According to Marley Natural spokeswoman Berrin Noorata, sourcing teams visit each potential site to ensure quality in cultivation and product, and the company is “committed to testing every product we offer” to ensure that no harmful contaminants are present and the THC and CBD content meet standards.
Like Willie’s though, all retailer agreements are made by Marley Natural, not the farmer. Noorata says there are no marketing requirements placed on any of the farmers. The company works to build brand awareness, not only through the branding and curation of the product line, but also through a national body care and smoking accessories collection that do not contain cannabis and are available even in states that do not have adult-use markets.
The Feminine Side
Though not necessarily a cannabis “icon,” another celebrity that has loaned her name to a cannabis brand is Whoopi Goldberg, who teamed with Maya Elisabeth in 2016 to create the Whoopi & Maya brand of topicals and edibles.
Unlike other celebrity brands in the cannabis space, however, Whoopi & Maya focuses on the medical market and does not offer any flower for sale through its company. The products are aimed specifically at women and are “formulated for personal wellness and menstrual relief.”
Founded in California, Whoopi & Maya expanded into Colorado late last year, working with RMZ Colorado in Denver.
“What they’ve got going on is a real mission,” RMZ CEO Don Novak says. “It’s been a great partnership.”
Like the others, RMZ has a straight licensing deal with Whoopi & Maya that results in royalties for his company. Whoopi & Maya requires RMZ to meet strict standards on both the cannabis and the other oils and products used in manufacturing, as well as tight dosage standards, but RMZ handles the compliance and packaging.
In return, RMZ gets another product to sell, one that has a celebrity name and face associated with it, giving it immediate recognition and making for an easier launch and an easier sell to retail outlets than the company’s non-Whoopi & Maya products.
“It’s win-win-win,” Novak says.
More on the Horizon
In the increasingly crowded cannabis marketplace, the celebrity brand and endorsement certainly can give a product a leg up in brand recognition, especially in a new product launch. And with money to be made, more celebrities are getting into the business every day, from Snoop Dogg to Melissa Etheridge to the widow of Hunter S. Thompson, all looking to translate their fame into buyers.
But in the end, it will come down to not only the quality of the products themselves, but the people with whom they are doing business in each individual state giving them a reason to license the rights to a celebrity’s name, at least until federal prohibition ends.
“What we build needs to support farmers,” Hogan says.