Party Like a Marketer Podcast

Episode 30: Growth Marketing Strategies for Cannabis Entrepreneurs and Marketers

Episode Description

Lisa Buffo, Founder, and CEO of the Cannabis Marketing Association sat down with Catherine Merritt, CEO at Spool Marketing & Communications, to discuss Growth Marketing Strategies for Cannabis Entrepreneurs and Marketers.

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Lisa Buffo  00:00

Hey, Everyone welcome to today’s episode of Party like a marketer, the podcast dedicated to cannabis marketing, public relations and authentic storytelling. I’m your host Lisa Buffa the founder and CEO of the cannabis Marketing Association. And you can connect with me on Instagram at Libuff or Twitter at Libuff 21. And don’t forget to join us at this year’s annual cannabis marketing Summit. June 7 through ninth in Denver for two and a half days of cannabis marketing speakers Best Practices networking, over three stages in the heart of Civic Center Park. We’re also going to have an outdoor lounge with yard games, picnic tables, blankets and food trucks and an expo floor so you’re definitely not going to want to miss out on that. Today’s conversation features Catherine Merritt, the founder and CEO at school marketing. Catherine founded school with the belief that the world most definitely didn’t need another agency. In fact, it could do with a few less, but it could use a new type of agency, which is what she set out to do with school. Catherine remains involved in all clients at school investing her time and yes, that’s right, the only CEO whose bill rate is $0. So she’s able to remain actively engaged in all clients strategies. While running the agency and its growing investment arm. Catherine brings a fearlessness and empathetic lens to everything she is part of and expects as much from her team and schools clients alike. Katherine’s career runs the gamut from Event Management for antiques roadshow to constituent services for local government offices, to being shampoo girl at Mary Sue’s hair designed from time to time when she was in eighth grade through high school. She has a BA in creative writing from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Hello, everybody. Welcome to today’s episode of Party like a marketer, the podcast focused on cannabis marketing, public relations and authentic storytelling. Today’s guest is Catherine Merritt, the founder and CEO of spool marketing. Catherine, thank you so much for being with us today.

Catherine Merritt  02:17

Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

Lisa Buffo  02:20

Yes. Well, let’s get started. Why don’t you start by telling the audience a little bit about yourself, your background, you know, what brought you to the cannabis industry, and then school marketing, what is full? You’re the founder. So we’d love to hear a little bit about your founding story and what it is that you all do?

Catherine Merritt  02:39

Yeah, absolutely. So thank you again for having me on. I throughout my career worked in sort of the bigger global agency worlds, I worked on a lot of you know, consumer product goods, I worked on brands like asker Meyer, and you know, Chef Boyardee. And ultimately, I sort of pursued the startup worlds, there’s a whole story that are told over drinks, but at some point, well, we’ll probably hash it out. But, but essentially, I made the decision to kind of pursue working with early stage companies and startups, just because I love that energy. And my very first client, when I sort of jumped ship from that big global agency world, was a cannabis brand that is now called dosis. And space in California, and I had the opportunity and the privilege to lead and to be part of the brands launch. And in fact, it was a pretty exciting moment back in 2016, when I was working with them, and we were able to get them named as one of Time magazine’s inventions of the year. And that was a really just exciting, and, you know, sort of eye opening moment, and I was really drawn to working with that brand specifically because of how they were approaching just the overall cannabis landscape. They’re based in California. And of course, there were so many cannabis brands and companies that just, you know, you know, flower out in the market. But what dosis really did that was so I think cheap pioneering in the industry really it was they kind of self imposed a lot of the similar type of kind of, you know, self regulation and sort of oversight similar to a lot of brands that I’ve worked with, including like ask for Meyer and, you know, shuffle your D brands that really kind of upheld, their own, you know, their own and their, and the regulated within their industry, sort of, you know, laws and kind of ethics and how to kind of approach that and so, in working with dosis and working with a company that was so committed to making sure they were providing, you know, the best sort of safest, regulated products out there. And again, self regulated say, it was really exciting because I realized that there was a ton of application of my life as a traditional kind of CPG market. or that could translate within the cannabis space. And so that was sort of the foray into it and have since gone on to work with other cannabis brands I, my agency school worked with flourish, which is the Michigan, Michigan based brand. We have worked with others kind of throughout the country, but it continues to be something that I find to be just exciting, I think I’m a curious creature, and that we all know that there is no end to what you can learn. And the second that you feel like you have a good grasp on it, expect everything to change, because that’s sort of how it goes. But that was sort of how I got into it. And it’s funny, too, I will just say that my husband jokes that I’m like the only, you know, Grateful Dead fan that he knows that actually doesn’t like being stoned. And it’s true. I actually do don’t enjoy cannabis from a recreational standpoint, although I do use it almost every night to help me with sleep. So I am one of the kind of more wellness focused users who really sees the upside from a sort of alternative to try to you know, traditional pharma and kind of medication options to help with some of my own kind of restlessness.

Lisa Buffo  06:17

That makes sense, and okay, so you jumped from the corporate CPG marketing world into cannabis in 2016.

Catherine Merritt  06:26

I did yeah. I left the agency that I was at, which was when I think the fifth largest global agency and I went out on my own to consult and I started working with dosis. I started also working with other startups, I worked with some VCs. And then, in September of 20 2018, I guess I sort of parlayed my consultancy into what is now school. And so school is a Marketing and Communications Agency. We’re based in Chicago, Illinois. We are the fastest growing communications agency globally, which is still kind of bonkers. But I think it’s because we work. Thank you, thank you. I know it’s I, I, I know it I know. It’s true, because I’m so busy. And because it’s like me, you know, keep adding people and it’s It’s wild. And it’s exciting, but I’m still kind of hard to believe. And yeah, and we work with you know, in addition to cannabis brands, we work with emerging kind of food and beverage brands and, you know, wellness and supplements and things like that. So very much I think in kind of the space in which cannabis exists of just trying to make, you know, life a little bit better, happier, healthier and more enjoyable for consumers. And so we love being able to work with a lot of companies and brands that kind of also exists in that space.

Lisa Buffo  07:45

That makes sense. Yeah, I was gonna ask, and so are you’re based in Chicago, as well?

Catherine Merritt  07:49

Yes, yes, Yeah, we’re downtown Chicago. Yeah.

Lisa Buffo  07:53

Awesome, okay, well, great. So thank you for telling us a little bit about yourself and a little bit about school. Um, so first, I would like to kind of just talk about the lessons you’ve learned in the cannabis marketing space. When When I founded CMA, a lot of it was based on the fact that marketers in this arena were learning by, you know, trial by fire or trial by error, so to speak, and there weren’t really an established set of best practices. And I do want to kind of come back to what you said about working with, I think you said Chef Boyardee and Oscar Mayer, and how some of these brands were self regulating, which is something that cannabis, I mean, we’re regulated by the government, but to some degree in marketing and advertising is something we’re figuring it out as well. So what are some of the lessons you learned about maybe what was different? Or what was similar from working in these in your previous industries? Versus cannabis? And how has that sort of shaped your approach to how you run school? Or maybe perhaps some of the services you offer?

Catherine Merritt  08:53

Yeah, absolutely. So and let me just clarify too quickly. So when I started working with doses in 2016, there was not a lot of outside kind of regulatory oversight, there was some few principles in terms of how cannabis was legal and accessible, kind of in the marketplace within California. But there were not many companies or brands within the cannabis space that were sort of self imposing, or self kind of, you know, kind of creating their own rules with the same level of rigor that you see maybe in the alcohol or the spirits space, or you see in like traditional food space, which are obviously very highly regulated from a governmental standpoint. So it was, you know, when I think back to 2016, and obviously, that has changed a lot between, you know, 2016 and where we are today. But what was really fascinating then, was how dosis took that kind of approach, and they recognize that if we’re putting the consumers and we’re putting patients first we have to make sure we’re providing as good of a product as reliable of a product. You know, the best way to administer the product as possible, because there’s just so many other things out there. And there was a lot of confusion. And so if we’re looking to approach and to sort of, you know, create a mass marketplace for, you know, cannabis and for new users how like how to bring in people who maybe take Tylenol PM and how to kind of educate and get them to understand that cannabis can be a much better, healthier option versus traditional medications and kind of pharmaceutical options, there was, you know, real importance of making sure that you put the patient or the consumer first and that you really provide that level of information, that level of kind of transparency, and, you know, builds that trust. And so that was, I think what was so exciting back in 2016, was that dosis was, I think, one of the first really in the marketplace to kind of have that insight and to be able to kind of, you know, provide that. And I think now we see that across the board, you know, any dispensary you go into, or any product that you see, you know, there’s so much information, and there’s a lot more transparency, and I and I applaud every brand that is sort of followed suit, because you know, I think that only continues to move and to kind of broaden the overall category in the marketplace and bring more consumers in. So, you know, so it is interesting, but what I would say is, you know, the tenants and how we market cannabis, and obviously, there’s still, you know, now there’s an even then to there’s a lot of like regulations in terms of what you can you can’t say, and just, you know, it’s not that dissimilar to how you market alcohol or other, you know, highly regulated products. But what I would say is the work that we do at school with, you know, public relations with influencers is we work with kind of credible third party, you know, outlets, you know, media, outlets, journalists, influencers, and, you know, we’re able to work with them, and to kind of give them the resources, the education, so that they are the ones that are able to kind of go out there and to kind of share this with their audience with their readers. And so what that does is that also helps kind of build the credibility, that it’s not just coming from a specific brand, where obviously, when you see an advertisement, you know, the intention and you know, that it’s not unbiased and it’s coming from, you know, a company that’s trying to prompt purchase or whatever they’re looking to kind of incent and but when you’re reading about it in, you know, a magazine, or when you see Time Magazine, and they have amidst, you know, I think that year they had Casper mattress, they had, you know, quip toothbrushes, they had, you know, incredible other, you know, consumer products as part of their, you know, cohort of best inventions of 2016. And so to have a cannabis product and a cannabis brand included amongst those normal, you know, products and innovations that we use on a daily basis. It was huge, it was really exciting. And so, as we, you know, continue to work in the cannabis space, you know, it is continuing to bring forward, you know, the same way that we market other brands to consumers and understanding what are the consumer mindsets? Who are we talking to? How are we, you know, providing the right information? How are we, you know, you know, just making sure that everything we’re doing has an impact the same way we would market to consumers for, you know, for lunch beats, or for, you know, soda or for, you know, what have you so it’s just making sure that we’re putting the consumer first and that was something that I saw, you know, in the frontline when dosis was going into market in 2016.

Lisa Buffo  13:31

Yes, and a few things I want to add to that. So what you know, from my recollection, dosis was one of the first companies to do effect space marketing, and be very sort of clear about, you know, this product is going to equal this affected and it had sort of that clear communication, design, color branding, that, that I think was very different at the time. And 2016 was very nascent in California as well. So they, I mean, things were new for the industry as a whole. And I also wanted to mention, like, so jumping around a little bit here. So not only that, as far as the clear effects based marketing, but what you had said about alcohol and other similarly regulated industries, cannabis marketing’s regulations are based off of the alcohol industry and what they do. And I think that that was a really great basis, as far as you know, here’s how to approach a controlled substance or regulated sort of adult product, but it isn’t the full picture and it makes a lot of sense for Well, I guess we could say that rec side or that adult use side, but cannabis obviously has more uses than alcohol and there is that sort of wellness and medicinal side that alcohol doesn’t as well, so that can limit the avenues and the channels that are available to cannabis marketers. But what I love about public relations and communications is that it’s protected by the First Amendment. So you can say whatever you want to a journalist, you’re allowed to educate, you’re allowed to speak to them And that falls within freedom of speech. So it does allow the industry and you know, folks who are knowledgeable about the plant to get that education and that consumer focused information out there into the press and into the public in a way that isn’t necessarily restricted based on the marketing and advertising regulations, or any type of standard that a company would put in, necessarily. So I think communications is just a really NPR specifically great way, like you said, that third party credibility and way to just connect with consumers and patients where they are about these products.

Catherine Merritt  15:38

Totally. And also, it allows us to reach multiple markets and multiple states, because that’s the other thing is that you know, what, in how you’re able to market and to talk about cannabis from a controlled messaging and advertising standpoint, in one market in one state is very different than, you know, in Michigan versus Colorado versus, you know, Nevada, or Illinois, or California. So that is the other thing is that then, you know, it makes it really challenging as marketers to be able to scale not just from a local kind of state level media market. But if we’re talking to broader national outlets, it allows us to also reach multiple, you know, states and populations and consumers without having to kind of custom curtail every single kind of message point and making sure everything checks all the boxes in what you are allowed to say in Michigan versus Colorado versus Illinois, etc.

Lisa Buffo  16:32

Yes, definitely. So that ties into what I would like to talk about next. So you mentioned that you want to, or you started off working with startups, and you would like that early stage. So a lot of startups can, you know, afford PR agencies or marketing or communications agencies. So what are some of the things you do when you first work with a company to approach their PR and their marketing? And what are some tips that you might have for those who might be growing and getting to the phase of being able to engage with an agency? But what’s what’s kind of that first step when you start working with them? And what do you think is sort of the most important, I’ll call it tool in the toolbox that cannabis entrepreneurs and marketers can use at that early stage to help them, you know, achieve the growth that they’re looking for?

Catherine Merritt  17:20

Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, a big reason why I started spool was because I wanted to find a way to work with early stage companies. And absolutely, to your point, Lisa, you know, it’s the, it’s harder, if they haven’t had a chance to go through a round of investment, or maybe they’re in the midst of trying to, you know, fundraise it, you know, they are limited in terms of what they can spend. And, and, and that really prices out a lot of bigger agencies. And so, you know, for school, what we have done, even as we’ve continued to grow, we have an entire sort of arm of our business that is designated, and created to work with very early stage companies in which we are working with them at a, you know, very modified sort of, you know, rates and making it accessible, so that we can help them. And we also partner with different, you know, incubators and organizations, even, you know, donate some of our services to early stage companies, because, you know, I’ve had my own startups kind of, you know, on the side and totally empathize that, you know, it is hard, and I think the first year or so of a company trying to get off the ground can be really grueling. And if we can play any role in, you know, just helping them and kind of giving them a boost, or giving them sort of a surge of, you know, outreach or awareness, you know, that can help the business, but can also just help the mindset of founders, and we are very founder forward agency, when we start working with a client, whether it’s a very small, you know, startup or a larger company, we apply that same kind of entrepreneurial mindset to every client that we work with. And by that, I mean, we really immerse ourselves and understand what are the challenges that you know, that they’re going through? Who are they trying to talk to? What are the kind of next steps that they need to get from a business standpoint, to be able to, you know, kind of keep pushing their, their company and their brand and their kind of entity forward? In fact, we even, you know, through through school will kick off internal meetings with a question of what’s keeping, you know, so and so whichever client up at three in the morning, and that’s not a marketing or communications question, but it’s like, you know, are they facing legislation that might be, you know, depleting their, you know, consumer base? are they dealing with supply chain, you know, issues like everyone else, or what are like bigger factor issues, and then also we push ourselves to ask him to kind of optimize, are we providing what they need right now to kind of address some of those challenges and if we’re not, how do we make sure that we can be nimble and agile partners to them and kind of, you know, modifying along the way and so, you know, that is kind of what we ground all of our work in our store. big ad. And I’d say for early stage companies, a lot of times it’s helping to just prove validation and prove viability and making sure that they’re, you know, that we’re able to reach who their key audiences, if that’s consumers, or if they’re b2b, and they’re looking for more trade engagement. And then we also push ourselves to think through how do we maximize the results that we can get? And how do we really kind of push, you know, great media articles or, you know, TV segments? And how can we make sure that we’re leveraging that for their sales team or through some of their other owned channels, you know, and just making sure that we’re pushing it forward? Or if a company is looking to raise investment? How do we, you know, getting written up in the New York Times is a really awesome validating, you know, sort of accolade for a company and a brand. So, we sure as hell want to make sure we put that into their pitch deck and make sure that we’re letting every you know, investor out there know about them, or we might just be pitching, you know, the VC space and trying to build a little momentum, and awareness for a company or brand with that specific audience in mind. So we, you know, it really does kind of vary brand to brand and client to client, but it all starts with really strong foundational understanding kind of what the business is, what do they need to, you know, kind of either go to market or to scale or to, to grow? And how do we work with them. And I think because of that entrepreneur, entrepreneurial mindset, we don’t ever review something is just like, let’s check the box and be done with it. But we are, you know, constantly pushing ourselves to make sure that the value we’re bringing is really getting them to where they need to be.

Lisa Buffo  21:40

I love that. And I like that you ask them what keeps them up at 3am. Because I think that as a founder changes a lot. And that can often be it just all consuming as far as your time and your mental energy, whether or not that’s related to marketing and communications. And if there’s a way that that can be solved, or you feel like you’re working with partners, who are helping you solve those problems, it is it is really helpful to get past that sort of launch hump of that first year, or however many years in cannabis, because sometimes it does take longer. And I also wanted to ask you, what is the story behind the name spool marketing? How did you get that.

Catherine Merritt  22:18

Oh, gosh, well, I should have a much better answer for this. But honestly, So when I was consulting, I kind of got to a tipping point where it was like, I think my clients are gonna catch on that they need like an agency, you know, and I was sort of assembling teams behind the scenes, but it was me as a consultant. And so I kind of went back and forth. And I spoke with a couple of smaller agencies in Chicago, about like, acquiring me, and, you know, I was using the term like, acquire me, and I was like, I don’t even know what that means exactly, but we’re gonna figure it out. And I had lunch with, like, you know, a few of them. And they were very nice. But I was like, you know, I left that world, really, you know, with the intention that I was never going back. And just to be clear, I left it with no idea that I was going to serve my own agency. And so when I kind of came to the conclusion of like, should I think I’m just going to have to, like, start my own thing, because I really don’t want to go back to that world. And my husband and I were joking. And he’s like, Well, what are you going to call it? You know, and he’s like, merit, you know, Merit marketing? And it’s like, Absolutely not, you know, and I feel like, you know, the, one of the reasons that spool exists is because I felt like, you know, we needed a challenger and, you know, in the agency’s phase, so we don’t need another agency with a bunch of like, men’s names associated with it with no offense to all the men listening on this. But you know, I’m just being honest here. And so it’s like, I don’t, it doesn’t need to have my name on the door, I don’t want to have my name on the door. And so I was then kind of like debating between, like, what would it be, and ultimately, spool felt like a really good sort of analogy and how we want to work with our clients. And it’s sort of the anchor by which we as a team are kind of, you know, connected and wrapped around. But then I also love the notion of, you know, the thread is sort of what connects us with our clients. And it’s sort of what keeps it all together. But if I’m being totally honest, I was also considering Leland and Estes, which are streets that I lived on. So he, we advise our clients to be a lot more intentional than I was with the starting of this company. But anyone who knows me can also attest that, like, I’ve moved fast, you know, and it’s like, once I’ve like locked in, I’m just like, Okay, let’s just go well, we’ll just like build it and break and figure it all out. And never will anyone accuse me of being perfect at all. So I think this is sort of a you know, a perfect example at you know, ironically, if you will, of how just kind of moving fast and like, once I kind of had it in my head, I was like, Okay, let’s just get this started and we’ll figure it out. So that’s, that’s the long winded over caffeinated answer.

Lisa Buffo  24:49

Nice. No, I like that. But um, a lot of founders have this story. I mean, we do too. I actually picked the name cannabis Marketing Association because I was like, This sounds professional and like a member subtype group like I didn’t really know or have a clear intention behind it, but it came up and that was it. So I get that. And did you grow up in Chicago? Are you from the area?

Catherine Merritt  25:11

Yeah, I grew up in the city of Chicago and went away to school. I went to college in upstate New York and came back and was pretty, you know, hell bent on staying in the city. We actually moved. We’re in Evanston, which is the town just north of Chicago. And actually, Evanston is a pretty progressive and, you know, we have reparations. We’re the first city in America to use cannabis sales for reparations for VIP OC residents to account for, you know, the kind of racist systemic structure of larger society. So I’m very proud to be in Evanston where I think we have allocated and put cannabis profit to serve our community.

Lisa Buffo  25:56

That’s awesome. And isn’t correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that where Northwestern is? Isn’t their university there? Okay. That’s my thought. Yeah. I’m from Cleveland. So I used to visit all the time. And yeah, and I used to go to Northwestern play lacrosse. So I remember that.

Catherine Merritt  26:13

Yeah. Yeah. It’s great. We love it. You know, Evanston is a great complex, you know, city outside the city of Chicago, but, but we love it. And yes, Northwestern, I also have two kids. So it’s been a nice source of childcare and babysitter.

Lisa Buffo  26:28

Yes, yeah. Particularly the last few years.

Catherine Merritt  26:32

Yeah, exactly. Yeah, exactly.

Lisa Buffo  26:36

okay. So what are some of the lessons from any adversity you have faced in this industry that might be helpful to share with entrepreneurs or marketers getting started? Do you have any, like, specific stories of lessons learned? That, you know, I know, as a founder, I feel like I do this 25 times a day. It’s like, oh, I, you know, you things happen, you learn you pivot, and you grow, but what is some advice you would have imparted on your, maybe your 2016 self?

Catherine Merritt  27:07

You know, it is so hard. I mean, honestly, it, you know, the journey of bringing an idea forward is, I think one of the hardest things, and I’ve given birth to two children. So I feel like I’ve, you know, gone through the process in different iterations and painful iterations. But, you know, I remember when I had my very first startup, which was sort of side projects back in 2013, and that was sort of what sparked my want to continue to work with startups, you know, I found that, that, you know, there would be times where it just felt like, you know, nothing was kind of moving in the right direction, and then bam, you know, I’d get, like, a response from an investor or I’d get, you know, a response from somebody that I’ve been trying to reach out to, and that, you know, just one of those little moments within, like, push me for another, like three weeks, you know, it’s like, okay, fine, you know, and it was sort of like that moment of like, validation at that moment of just encouragement, and they didn’t even realize that by responding to an email, or, you know, taking my call, or looking at a deck or presentation, how much of that was, you know, pushing me forward. And so, I would say, for people that are building this, you know, treasure and really honor, you know, when you have those moments that kind of keep you moving forward, because it can sometimes feel like, you know, few and far between, you know, and you have to really kind of keep that motivation up, but, but when you do kind of find those moments, really push it as hard and as much as you can. And then I would also implore and ask that, you know, when you are kind of, you know, on the other side, and things are going successful, make time to pay that forward, you know, I, to this day will share my calendar and, you know, make time to talk to entrepreneurs, and startups. And that’s why, you know, school has an entire arm dedicated to working with, you know, emerging companies, and a lot of those are funded by women, or otherwise underrepresented founders, that, you know, have a much harder time in terms of raising investment or access to capital and resources. And, you know, I feel as though any success that I’m able to grow or to realize, is only because of what people kind of, provided to me. And again, that can be as simple as even just like having a really important significant conversation at the right time. And that could be worth so much. And, and so I really believe in just being able to pay that forward and making the time and space to help. Because, you know, we want to have innovation, we want to have emerging companies. And if that is all just coming through from big, you know, you know, r&d within like larger behemoth companies, I don’t think that’s actually going to really kind of push us all forward. We need to have founders we need to have startups. And I think especially in the cannabis space, we need to continue to push the thinking I think cannabis is really unique and interesting in that you know, you have sort of the pie yours you have people who have been sort of invested in advocating and working within the space for decades. But you know, and you have to sort of honor and respect them. But you also have to just we have to bring and infuse new ideas and new ways of working. And, you know, if we want to see, you know, from a federal standpoint, you know, legalization and more access, not from a state by state basis, you know, it means we all have to work together to so I think if you think about it as sort of a larger goal and kind of objective, how can we play a role in that? And how do we, you know, work to support the people that are busting their butts and doing the work and you know, sacrificing because they have an idea they want to see realized?

Lisa Buffo  30:39

Yeah, and no, that’s very true. And I think, too, for founders that are bootstrapped or not funded, when you don’t have that financial r&d budget, the room for error is really small. Because if you use up that budget, that’s it. So being able to help or get that advice is so critical. And I share a similar story where I actually have a gratitude label on my inbox, and a gratitude folder on my screenshots on my iPhone. And anytime I get one of those emails, I screenshot it or label it and save it. And when the hard days, I go back, because they really matter, even if it’s just a simple email from someone who said something nice, but it ended up making my day. So I do think that really helps, you know, get you through the day to day as a founder.

Catherine Merritt  31:26

Yeah. And I would just say to when I was in the big agency world, and I was so kind of burnt out. And so over it, I, you know, the idea of sort of leaving and taking a leap of faith to you know, to walk away from that kind of, you know, those golden handcuffs or whatever. I was listening to the podcast how I built this, which I love, just, yeah, yeah, absolutely. And he had Jim, Jim cook from Sam Adams from Boston brewing. And Jim cook talked about the notion of how just because something is scary, doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. And in his experience, he was working at Boston Consulting, and he was sort of on this corporate trajectory that he was going to be very successful, but he hated it. And he wanted to be a Brewmaster. And it was at a time where there wasn’t a lot in that space. And he kind of likened it to rock climbing, you know that rock climbing can be really scary, err on the side of a mountain, but ultimately, your harness to something that can withhold the weight of a pickup truck, you know, so it’s not really dangerous. And I’m not kidding, Lisa, when I heard that I was on the train to work. And I think I gave my notice, like four days later. And I emailed Jim cook after that, too. And I was just like, you, you know, I said, I sent an email to like, every variation of like J Koch, you know what I mean, like, and then one of them happened to be right, so which one, but I wrote him, and I just said, Thank you, because he said, The words that I needed to hear, and I would recommend, and I tell this story all the time, because for me, and others, I think that was such a articulation. And it can feel really scary. When you’re doing something big, when you’re taking sort of a risk, you’re making the sacrifice, it can feel really scary. But look at at the end of the day, anyone who has their act together, and by the way, I’m not swearing, I normally swear like a sailor. So I was just about to say that anyone who has their act together enough to you know, to move forward with an idea. You know, even if that idea doesn’t become what you want it to become, you learned so much, and it’s not dangerous, and you can go and you can find another job, if that’s what you need to do. Or if you are kind of in the situation that you need to go back to some stability, but like, but it’s not dangerous, you know what I mean? And if you can kind of think and operate through that way. You know, it’s sort of freeing and I would say, in my own experience, I’ve had, you know, three other startups until I launched school, and I consider school a startup and we’re investing in companies, we’re really operating way beyond just a traditional agency. But it all builds, you know what I mean? And I don’t, I don’t for a second think that I would be where I am if I hadn’t gone through just those experiences. And I joke, it’s like, I got the MBA and everyone knew I needed but you know, if you can kind of harness it and really think about it, it gets you to where you need to be but But ultimately, you’re not in harm’s way and I think it’s important to remind us of that as well.

Lisa Buffo  34:24

No, I that is really good perspective because it can feel like that it can feel that line between danger and fear can be thin sometimes. So that is that is a really good reminder. Do you mind me asking what those three startups were?

Catherine Merritt  34:40

Sure. Um, so one was a was like a crowdfunding platform for moms called mum Z. And then another one was a direct to consumer product called sin bin. And so that was sending like, Baby boxes and kits to families and to new parents. And you know, I That’s it actually, because then then I just started to consult. And those were like the two actual standalone companies and then my consulting business, but that ultimately turned into school. Sorry. It’s getting caught up in the dramatics. So just to see mumsy and Finn, Ben were the two companies that I started and, and it was a lot, and it was exhausting. But again, I think that it all paved the way to where I am. And you even mentioned this earlier to Lisa of like, you know, when you started out, and I think that this is truthful, it’s like, you know, kind of start out with like, what is that vision, but like, there’s no way I could have constructed, you know, I feel like trust the process, trust the journey a little bit. And I feel like it’s become so cliche, but it really is true that like, if you can kind of be open. And if I had tried to over constructor over architects, you know, like, here’s what we’re doing, and here’s how we’re going to do it. You know, I feel like I would have totally shut out so many other perspectives or opportunities that just came in, by me being like, okay, let’s just get this out. Let’s see how it goes. Let’s move but you have to be open to like, where and when it makes sense to kind of, okay, let’s, let’s go down this, like kind of, you know, detour let’s see where this takes us. And, you know, and I think that’s how our journey has been, it has by no means been lateral. It’s been sort of, you know, detour after detour. But, but strategically to, you know.

Lisa Buffo  36:28

yeah, that’s, that is the key, it is an iterative process with yourself, your vision, your team, your customers, and you do have to find that balance of seeing the forest from the trees, but keeping that vision and that strategy, and ensuring you’re making progress, even though sometimes it does, it can often feel like just one foot in front of the other one step at a time. But if you have that North Star, if you will, and are moving towards it, you can absolutely get there.

Catherine Merritt  36:55

Yeah, absolutely.

Lisa Buffo  36:56

Yeah, So, I want to ask, what are some marketing and communication strategies that you see as effective for cannabis brands or companies or any stories you want to share about pitching the media and, you know, something working, I want to kind of get into the meat a little bit of of those strategies that that really helped cannabis brands, particularly startups and those who are growing and expanding? And if and if you have anything to impart as well, as far as the difference, maybe a follow up to that, for a company that would be state specific, and maybe either looking to go national, or kind of what is that difference between? Okay, here’s how I would approach this in Michigan versus California.

Catherine Merritt  37:41

Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, having a really crystal clear sense of sort of where and what does the market opportunity look like? And then what, and who are you looking to market to? And then how are you looking to set your brand, your company, your products, apart from others? I think right now, what we’re seeing is there is just such saturation in the space. And I think from a consumer standpoint, there is, you know, I think there’s a lot of confusion, there’s a lot of parodying, you know, depending on kind of what a consumer might go in looking for, you know, the, you know, the bud tenders have such a huge role in that process, from an education piece to of how to kind of direct at that really crucial moment of kind of point of sale. So I think, the more that a brand can be crystal clear in terms of, you know, what their, what and how they’re looking to set themselves apart. And then I’d say, as they build their, you know, their customer base, and as they, as they’ve kind of build that following, how to keep those folks highly engaged, because I think that, you know, what I’ve seen is that, you know, brands will invest in middle market to bring people in, into the space to kind of, you know, to get folks to put down the Tylenol PM and to opt for, you know, CBN and THC, you know, sleep alternatives and things like that, but, but if they’re, if they don’t kind of quickly establish that loyalty, consumers are going to kind of go all over the place, you know, so I think that, you know, if I were speaking with a cannabis brand right now, I would say, you know, the more that you can kind of invest in and just building that loyalty and building that kind of, you know, direct, you know, one to one kind of marketing strategy, I think that is really powerful and impactful, in addition to then, you know, upper funnel, you know, ways to kind of bring people in, and to kind of build that credibility, you know, so if you focus from a PR standpoint, that you know, public relations and communications can be really effective in terms of helping the overall category helping with brand visibility and credibility as well. But then you really also have to get really granular when you’re kind of at that tippy bottom point of the funnel of how do you then keep those consumers and those, you know, purchasers engaged with your brand so that they’re not just you know, coming into the category and then going and kind of different brands every time they come in to make a purchase?

Lisa Buffo  40:04

And do you work with your clients on that bottom of funnel, conversion, loyalty? You know, sticking to the brand aspect? And if so, what are what are some of the strategies that you suggest or recommend?

Catherine Merritt  40:18

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think it’s an opportunity for brands to take to actually build community in the real world and to create sort of opportunities to host events, especially if you’re, you know, if a brand is in a specific market, and isn’t quite ready to kind of move into other states or to do licensing. For instance, in Michigan, we worked with a cannabis brand and we partnered with yoga studios. And so we actually use outside partners and, you know, entities that really fit within certain products and within certain need state sort of, you know, universes to, to help kind of further build that community and to also create association. So it wasn’t just kind of through the lens of cannabis, but it was through the lens of wellness. And it was through the lens of how this is sort of playing a role in overall, well being, you know, in the same way that Yoga does in the same way that, you know, eating more plant based diet does. And so, I think brands also have an opportunity to kind of get a little like, guerilla if you will, of just, you know, finding other ways to kind of help build and cultivate those communities. Because the other thing is that there’s tremendous power in harnessing word of mouth. And so you know, and again, I think with cannabis, there can be a lot more challenges, if you try to just pursue it head on from a traditional marketing standpoint, so you have to get a little bit creative. And so if you are able to cultivate it, if you kind of let’s go through the journey, if somebody reads an article in The New York Times about a Michigan based cannabis brand, and and then that person goes into a provisioning center in Michigan, and makes a purchase for the brand, you know, how does the brand then make sure to kind of get their data, get their information, and that might be a package to say, you know, sign up here for, you know, whatever it may be, if there’s sort of a discount, or whatever that call to action is, and then as that brand is able to cultivate, it builds more of a database of, you know, its community of its consumers, how, how does that brand, then sort of parcel and look at, okay, where do these folks live in different proximity throughout the state? And how do we make sure we can kind of create different sort of gatherings or meetups or, you know, fireside conversations, or do a tour and take, you know, the CEO and founder and go to, you know, 10 key counties, and, you know, do sort of meet and greets and q&a. So, I think that there is a real opportunity and, and then I’d say using those opportunities to like, get photography and to create, you know, content, and then you can kind of funnel that through social ads for other channels too. But,you know, it’s, I think more cannabis brands focus on the community aspect and getting a little bit more kind of down and dirty. You know, I think that that will pay back tremendously. And I think that that will also yields just more loyalty, and that word of mouth piece, which I think again, can be really effective, and kind of keeping people committed to a brand, not just sort of, kind of floundering within the category and kind of switching, you know, depending on what day and time they’re going into the dispensary or provisioning center.

Lisa Buffo  43:22

So yeah, so what I’m hearing you say, is building community, transparency with the company and their leadership, and creating content throughout all of that, so that they the customer feels like they’re a part of the brand, the company and they’re effectively involved in I don’t want to say in the process, necessarily, but they’re an active member in the community, around the company and what it serves.

Catherine Merritt  43:47

Yeah, absolutely. And going to where people are, you know, and bringing the branded branding products to where, you know, other places that you know, that these consumers and these buyers are, you know, leveraging to make their lives better. And I think that is sort of, you know, my assumption is a cannabis brand is looking to just help people feel better and to sleep better or to just enjoy things better. So how to kind of partner with other like minded or, you know, similar types of, you know, places in which, you know, they can, you know, bring cannabis and even through that infusion and makes it, you know, all that much all that much more better, too.

Lisa Buffo  44:28

Yeah, that makes sense. That makes sense. Okay. Well, before we wrap up, Catherine, is there anything, any last words of advice, something we didn’t talk about that you want to mention or add?

Catherine Merritt  44:41

Yeah, I would just say and I apologize, because I don’t think I addressed this in an earlier question. But you know, as people and as founders are looking to, sort of expand and to leverage public relations and kind of that earned engagement, which is a lot of you know what we do, I would say, you know, with PR It’s not, it’s, you know, it is hard when it’s done, right. But it’s also just time consuming, you know, in terms of just identifying who the, you know, the the journalists are and the producers and who you want to kind of go out to. But really, I would say, the more that folks, and if I were, you know, a early stage cannabis founder, what I would be doing is just reading as much as I can both locally as well as kind of nationally kind of building, you know, similar to your gratitude folder, you know, always have like a folder of like, links and articles and media contacts, because a lot of these writers are on, you know, Instagram or on Twitter. So even if you don’t have their email address, there’s definitely ways you can figure out how to kind of engage with them and just, you know, reach out to them and tell them what you’re doing and tell them not just about sort of, don’t try to just sell them on your product or your brand. But you know, provide your perspective, why why are you looking to get in this space? What is setting you apart? How are you looking at, you know, the role, you’re, you know, you’re playing in offering consumers a better safer, you know, more transparent option, whatever it may be, and, you know, just starting to kind of build, build that sort of, you know, steady drumbeat of just finding people who are writing about the category and the industry in which you’re looking to really grow within, and, you know, just start kind of doing some of that outreach. And it’s about relationships. I mean, honestly, the most effective and, and the best sort of PR campaigns come from just, you know, having those relationships with reporters and journalists. So even if you’re just writing somebody to say, hey, love this article, this is great, thank you so much for, you know, touching on these three key points, like that means a lot to them, and then you’ve kind of been able to, you know, set up that rapport. So I would just say, you know, approach it in again, it’s kind of similar to my last point of like, building community, it’s about, you know, just trying to kind of build some of those connections. And then, you know, if that reporter is working on another story, or you know, needs a source or an expert, you know, you might be the one that they go to, because you’ve kind of started to get that ball rolling.

Lisa Buffo  47:00

Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. One of the things we do is, you can build lists on Twitter. So once you have, you know, you can make a cannabis PR or journalist list. And each time you see a reporter who writes about or covers the industry, put them in that list and just keep up with that feed to see what they’re doing and sort of have that direct line. So social media does offer tools to sort of hack or do the startup, totally Marketing and Communications thing when it comes to reaching out with and connecting with the media. So thank you. That was that was a really good tip. Okay, so would you like to share any contact information? How can our listeners find school? Are you on social media? And any, any way they can get in touch with you?

Catherine Merritt  47:41

Yeah, absolutely. We are, Our website is So hopefully, very straightforward. We’re on LinkedIn, on Instagram On Facebook. I think we might be on Twitter, but honestly, you know, it’s a lot to keep up with, we’re like the shoemakers, barefoot kids, you know, if you if anyone ever goes to school, there’s ways to reach out and to be in touch. And yeah, and just, you know, it is an industry that I feel honored to be part of, and to, to keep learning from. And, you know, I really believe that there is so much more that is going to continue to come to light and just how impactful cannabis is and will continue to be and I think all of us are kind of working towards that. So you know, I love to connect always with other folks that are doing the same work. And you know, I think, you know, rising tide lifts all so you know, working together collaborating, always open for that.

Lisa Buffo  48:42

Awesome. Well, Catherine, thank you so much for taking the time and joining us today. I appreciate you sharing all of your insights.

Catherine Merritt  48:50

Yeah, thank you so much for having me. It’s been great. And, you know, I really enjoyed it and appreciate the opportunity. It’s been nice to chat.

Lisa Buffo  48:58

Yes. Well, thank you so much.

Catherine Merritt  49:02

Awesome. Thank you.

Lisa Buffo  49:03

Thank you for joining us for another episode of Party like a marketer. Follow us on Instagram at party like a marketer and on our website, the cannabis marketing And be sure to join us in person this June 7 through ninth for the annual cannabis marketing summit happening in Denver, Colorado. Check out our website for more details and membership information. We’ll see you next time.

Meet Your Host

LISA BUFFO, Founder and CEO of Cannabis Marketing Association

Lisa Buffo is an award-winning entrepreneur and marketer with a passion for launching companies with experience in both the cannabis and technology industries. Lisa is the Founder & CEO of the Cannabis Marketing Association, a membership based organization focused on education and best practices for industry marketers with the vision of rebranding cannabis at the national level. She was named one of 2019’s 40 Under 40 Rising Stars in Cannabis by Marijuana Venture Magazine in 2019 and named “The Marketing Guru” by Women & Weed magazine and is a featured speaker and media source in publications like Forbes, The Guardian, and VICE. You can find her on Instagram @libuff and Twitter @libuff21.

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