How to Cultivate Brand Disciples

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When people hear the word “brand,” they often think of just a name and a logo. But your brand is the soul of your company, and a great one can be the seed from which a huge business and loyal customers grow.

Consider Apple, which according to one of its business development and training executives, is “among the world’s greatest brands because it puts design above all else.” He goes on to say, “Design doesn’t mean just attractiveness. It means the creation of each product to meet customer needs like problem solving and ease of use. Apple also makes it obvious to those users that their lives are being enriched. It’s a brand that has consistent values and develops new products based on customer need.”

This statement is especially striking because it illustrates that every employee at Apple is a true believer in the brand. The company’s staff is continuously trained to speak with knowledge and conviction about Apple products and to represent the brand with conviction. This philosophy has direct application to the cannabis industry—where one’s familiarity with brands and products as well as understanding consumer needs—can result in sales, loyalty, and referrals.


“Our industry is currently fragmented, and is growing on a state-by-state basis and even region-by-region,” says Joe Hodas, Chief Marketing Officer of Dixie Brands, Inc. “So brands need to establish themselves to create a ‘contract of confidence’ with the consumer.”

In addition to advertising and other forms of brand awareness, word-of-mouth has long been a way to create brand devotion. One person experiences a product or service and tells his friends, family, and colleagues. Now, with the proliferation of social media, such comments—both positive and negative—can go viral. According to Nielson, 84 percent of consumers now trust recommendations from family and friends, and close to half of social media users (43 percent) report having bought a product based on a recommendation from Facebook or Twitter.

Be Distinct, Authentic & Consistent
Consultant Karen Post, aka the Branding Diva, has worked with companies such as Staples, Intuit, and Pepsi. According to her, “Powerful brands earn a space in the minds of the market, like a brain tattoo. Brands are built by distinction, authentic stories, consistency, and keeping promises. Strong brands make the buying decision easy.”

MasterCard is just one consumer-facing company that invested in building its brand image with dazzling results. In the late 1990s, the company used consumer feedback and research to create a new “brand footprint” distinguishing its payment products from its competitors’ offerings. Nike, Google, Disney, and many others treat their brands with similar rigor. It pays off. Mention any of these names to a consumer, and he or she will play back to you what the brand stands for in his head, heart, and mind.

Technology companies lead the list of the most valued brands today. Similar to the cannabis business, the technology industry was filled with brands that few people had heard of. With strategic thinking and smart marketing, a handful have emerged as market darlings.

Medical Marijuana Inc. is applying some of the time-tested principles of consumer product branding to its growth. Its website cites quality and scientific research as hallmarks of its brand, and its logo is simple yet easily recognizable and consistent. President and CEO Stuart W. Titus cites trade shows, online advertising, ad word search engines, speaking engagements, and contributions to industry events as just some of the ways the company has cultivated brand devotees. Titus asserts, “If you look at what has been successful over the years, the fundamentals really haven’t changed much. Obviously, our clients put a lot of stake in trade shows because that is where some of the best networking and brand promotion can happen. Simple packaging and transparency with customers has always gotten brands far—something we stress to our clients.”

Creating brand partisans is not just for large companies with significant marketing budgets. Denver’s GroundSwell Cannabis Boutique has built a devoted following in the few short years since it opened its door. Its patient- and consumer-centric approach to doing business is the subject of a YouTube video series starring actual employees, and according to director of operations Noah Sodano, “Every internal and external communication follows our clean, professional approach to language and visual brand identity.” Commitment to the community is also an attribute of GroundSwell’s brand positioning. The boutique has sponsored several neighborhood events, including a restaurant crawl and music festival, and is an active member in the Bluebird Business Improvement District.

Dawn Roberts, global marketing director for O.penVAPE, reinforces the role of sponsorships and community events as a means of making the company’s brand memorable. “We not only sponsor events—Telluride Blues and Brews Festival and Red Rocks shows—we advertise our products digitally and in regional and national publications,” she notes. “We also stay current in our relationships with journalists, documentary film makers, and others in the media.” She continues, “Our multi-pronged approach ensures we touch the widest cross-sector of consumers and potential consumers.” The brand’s robust social media presence—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Mass Roots, Pinterest, SnapChat, YouTube, and even LinkedIn—results in millions of monthly media impressions, and the company’s e-commerce business is growing by about 20 percent a month.

Showcasing the Brand at the Retail Level
Just as consumer product companies ensure their brand image is top-of-mind in retail stores, cannabis brands are investing in educating and incentivizing the people who deal directly with buyers.

Retail food consultant David Grotenstein of Food & Image draws a parallel between consumer-friendly food brands and cannabis brands and how they build relationships at a retail level. “From national icons like the beverage giants and Nabisco to specialty producers like Stonewall Kitchen and Applegate Farms to regional players such as local bread bakers and ice cream makers, stores are amply supplied by brands with everything from shelf talkers and baseball caps to full-blown, producer-maintained display fixtures,” he explains. “This support not only delivers brand reinforcement via logo and design, but can also provide manufacturers’ pertinent information about their products directly to the customer.” By supplying marketing programs to retailers, brands ensure consistency and support.

The same type of brand-building strategy has been carried into the cannabis retail worldO.penVAPE hosts quarterly parties that only budtenders can attend. The company also has a team of brand ambassadors who work in tandem with sales teams calling on dispensaries. Budtenders get credit for every sale they make, a program that will soon be supported by a loyalty app launching in the fourth quarter of 2015. “It’s a win-win for everyone,” asserts Roberts.

Remember the End User
Whether you are marketing a product or service directly to consumers, or your target market is retailers, the investment community, or the media, knowing how to “touch” and leave a lasting impression with your audience is ultimately what great brands do exceptionally well. As the industry grows, distinguishing your brand among product and media clutter and confusion will become increasingly important.

Olivia Mannix, co-founder and CMO of Cannabrand, counsels start-up businesses to “create long-term brand goals.” She believes “marketing agencies are wonderful partners to have when creating and executing these goals.” Agencies that specialize in integrated communications can ensure a brand remains consistent across all media and bring experience and perspective to a branding effort.

To be sure, brand quality is ultimately equated with product quality. What your customers say about you lives on in the real world and online, so always remember to respect and invest in your brand.

Attributes of a Defined Brand

  • Be unique. After you’ve developed your brand statement, insert the name of another company or product. If it still holds true, fine-tune it. A brand should be something that only your company can own.
  • Be meaningful to consumers and stakeholders. Do research to find out your target market’s needs and wants. As cited in the article, the community, retailers, and the media are all part of the communication and brand-building process.
  • Be genuine and believable. Express your brand in clear, simple, and honest language.
  • Be consistent across all forms of communication—conventional and digital.
  • Be broad enough to evolve as your product line changes. If your name is too narrow, you will not be able to expand over time.
  • Be recognizable and functional. Although a   name and logo are not the most important parts of branding, they are still critical. Make sure your brand name is easy to say, that your logo is visible and distinguishable on shelves, and that your logo design has meaning to both you and your customers.

By Nancy A. Shenker

Nancy A. Shenker is a former consumer brand executive (Citibank, MasterCard, Reed Exhibitions) who contributes to a variety of consumer and business media, including Huffington Post, Nightclub & Bar and her own blog, She speaks professionally and teaches workshops on branding and digital media. She is also CEO of theONswitch marketing, a brand consultancy that integrates conventional and digital media. She recently launched to provide business and marketing consulting services and communications strategies to the cannabis industry. A graduate of the University of Michigan and New York University, she lives in New York.