Bills in favor of legalizing recreational cannabis use were passed in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota in early November, bringing the total number of states to do so to fifteen, plus Washington DC. 36 states have legalized medical cannabis over the last few years. Curaleaf, the largest cannabis brand in the world, sells its products through its own retail outlets and in dispensaries. CMO Jason White spoke with WARC’s Cathy Taylor for the Marketer’s Toolkit 2021 about Curaleaf’s trajectory.

Curaleaf is a complicated business. Can you briefly explain all of the areas it operates in, and also all of the different product categories?

To understand the breadth of the Curaleaf company, you need to know a little bit about our history. It started with East Coast medicinal cannabis – it was meant to be a device company to help people with late-stage cancer who could consume cannabis in their hospital rooms. That's important because it's really instilled a mission of health and wellness in us and, a mission of helping to improve lives.

As we've moved from a medical business to a more broader health and wellness business, and as the industry has moved forward from different types of legislation, we've expanded our portfolio. Last year, we made a really, really big acquisition of the company Select, and that was a West Coast lifestyle brand. Just this past August, we completed the transaction of Grass Roots, which is a Midwestern craft business. So when you take a step back, here we are 10 years later and we've got Curaleaf – which is our retail brand – at currently 89 stores. We are licensed to be up to 140.

Outside of those stores, we also wholesale the Select brand to over 1400 dispensaries across the US. We are active in 23 states, we access over two thirds of the country's population, and as I like to say, we're the largest provider of consumer products in cannabis. That's really what our company is focused on: making sure we provide great consumer products to consumers in the cannabis industry.

How does what you sell differ based on the current state of the law in different states?

Key insights:

  • As cannabis becomes legal for either recreational or medicinal use in more and more states in the US, companies such as Curaleaf are bringing branding to this new, complicated category.
  • Curaleaf, which has brands in both areas, sells to dispensaries, and also manages its own retail outlets, saw itself at the nexus of many key themes of 2020, from being classified as an essential service for medicinal use, to pivoting to e-commerce, to creating a safe in-store environment, to being part of the cultural connection between people of color and cannabis.
  • The pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement has shown that now more than ever, brands need to discern who they are and what they stand for, and do it in a way that they have enough flexibility to navigate a constantly changing environment.

What we sell varies greatly [due to] legislation, it also varies greatly state by state… We have cultivation and processing in almost all of these states… we have opportunity [to grow and sell] flower, and we have processes into oil which allows us to make products like vape, gummies, chocolates and edibles.

There are some states, for example, which are highly medicinal. There are states that don't allow edibles, there are states that didn't allow vape. You're seeing this change over time, but it's really a process of opening up these markets. We make products based on how that market is being opened, and we've helped write legislation so people can understand what is safe dosing or they can understand why edibles concentrates are perfectly fine for the consumer… We try to be at the table to help legislators understand that we're not just trying to change the rules to make more money like this. These are consumer products and people need different alternatives based on the conditions they have.

For example, after the vape crisis, we were very involved in working with legislators to help them understand, what should you be worried about? What should you not be worried about in the vape crisis? That was about a black market using products that were not approved for that use versus the legal market, which, was not using any of those products.

Jason White, CMO, Curaleaf

What's the branding challenge with Curaleaf? Every time you cross a state border, you’ve got another potential problem in communicating what the brand is.

We have taken on the very difficult – and I would say very admirable – task of trying to create national brands. We are committed to providing brands that cross state lines with an experience and a level of trust and a level of consumer awareness that patients and customers can count on and that is very important. That is why brands exist.

For us, that means we've taken on the task of the issues of variability, the issues of different laws… When you look across 23 states and you try to build one consistent brand, these are the types of obstacles you face. Even more so is the ingredients – we can't cross state lines with cannabis. We can't cross the lines with many of the elements of the plant, so, you have to have folks that can make sure that formula is consistent from state to state to state and make sure that taste is consistent from state to state to state and that effect is consistent from state to state to state, so you can call yourself a brand that consumers can rely on.

What we've done though, is we've started with understanding the values of the brand, understanding what the brand is committed to and then understanding how products deliver on brand promise and then really building from there so we will not make a product in a state that, even if it's a great market opportunity, doesn't align to that brand’s portfolio, values and vision. We spend a lot of time thinking through the assortment in the portfolio that applies two or three different brands.

It seems like your brand intersected with all of 2020: Health and wellness, Black Lives Matter, and other tactical things, like the rise of e-commerce. What are your perspectives on this year?

First and foremost, I could not be prouder of our management team, and then all the way down to every store associate that has been through the changes, stayed and met and been present for our customers, our IT team that pivoted into e-commerce in a really big way.

Every time we faced adversity, another department had to step up. When George Floyd happened, that was CSR – how do we make sure our values are aligned around this? How do we make sure we're moving forward with social equity? When COVID first hit, it was how do we change our resourcing, change the flighting of how we staff our stores? How do we keep our patients safe? How do we keep our employees safe? How do we move to curbside? How do we move to delivery? How do we make sure our website is able to handle the traffic? And then, our brand team was [thinking] how do you still communicate with consumers?

Many marketers have said how fast they had to move this year. What sorts of things as a company have you had to keep doing at that pace?

The biggest one that comes to mind is [being] an essential service. We were in charge of continuing to innovate and continuing to put the products in our consumers’ hands. We commercialized 62 products this year, in the middle of a pandemic, and that includes some really big innovative platforms like launching our Nano Emulsion platform, which changes the speed of gummie onset from 30-60 minutes to 15 minutes.

We launched our live resin product in over 13 markets, so we had a lot to do. These are still very competitive states and especially on the West Coast, this game waits for no one. So we were still ramping up our product launches, we were still ramping our ability to commercialize way faster now than we were six months ago. We are way more integrated now in terms of how you can [go] from CRM to above the line to influencers and making sure that the story is right. We've had to get better. We've had to deal with more and more changes through the pandemic.

A lot of brands were caught flat footed by all of the protests, they knew they should be doing things, but they just weren’t ready and they don't know where to start. What would be your advice to brands who are a few paces behind?

Put aside the new climate that we all live in, if you want to be a successful business, overall, you have to understand your values. You have to understand: what is your North Star? What is your mission statement?

My advice to anyone that's managing the marketing, especially in an emerging market like this, [is] you’ve got to put it to paper and understand who you are and what you stand for. I would also say you’ve got to do it in a way that gives you some flexibility because these things change every single day. You want to know that you have a broad enough belief in who you are and a broad enough set of values that you can compete, manoeuvre, adjust and pivot. But at the same time, at your core, those fundamentals need to be there.

How have you had to switch things up in terms of messaging and media channels this year?

From a messaging standpoint, this was a year where we were going to come out and launch all these great products in Q1 and Q2. [Cut to] March 13, the world didn't care about a new product you had to offer. The world cared about safety, security, and provisions.

First, we went dark, and we just let our business run. We communicated that we are open, we're here for you, we are safe. That was the core message… I thought the team did a phenomenal job of getting back on social and being relevant. They gave away a couch one day, because it was like, “Since we're all staying at home to be safe, and to help one another out, we're gonna give away a couch.” There were days when they had “love drops”, where it was just showing up and helping wholesale partners, dispensaries that we don't own just showing up and saying, “Thank you” – food, lunch, gifts, merch, masks, everything.

We maintained our audience in our customer conversation through CRM… we did a lot of communication through email, continuing to make sure people understood what value we can provide for them in the middle of this moment. Then once we had product launches, to put out that’s when we went back, and started to come back into using programmatic, we started using print in some bigger ways. We started really working with more mainstream platforms and going above the line. That's really been the story of the evolution of our messaging from, all the way back to March to now.

The recent election aside, the US is a very polarized country. What are your thoughts on the role a marketer needs to play at this time?

This is the time where there are degrees of picking sides, there are degrees of value-based decisions. I think this is a time where the country's very, very divided and there are some brands that sit in categories and spaces where you have to address that divide. There are also brands that sit on the iconic level of culture where they also have to make a decision. If you've represented the underdog, or if you've represented the compromised side of culture for a long, long time, then you need to represent them now.

It's such a unique situation, and one that I would never judge another marketer on how they make that decision of [managing] that process… Now, when you start getting into topics like hatred, abuse and things that are not ‘red’ or ‘blue’, which is inhuman, I think that's where we all need to have a point of view. We all need to speak up and speak out and not make people do it alone. I was very proud of the Select brand, when the George Floyd moment happened. We did say something. We said, “For far too long, this has been the burden of too few.” I don't think that was about picking sides or anything, but just speaking the truth about the moment that happened, and people that, finally were getting help to deal with a problem… if there was ever a time to speak up and stand up for [your] values, this is it. Americans are going to feel what they're going to feel, and we just tried to make sure that – specifically from our business – these are serious issues in terms of health…. We're hoping that wherever these decisions go, it's going to be about providing people access to the plant.