Update below: What initially seemed like a huge publicity score has turned into a challenge for Olivia Mannix and Jennifer DeFalco, founders of the marijuana PR firm Cannabrand. A quote attributed to Mannix that reads in part, "We're weeding out the stoners" caused a backlash that led to a client very publicly dropping the firm, and Cannabrand's attempts to manage the mess haven't been especially tidy.
To get a sense of the situation, a timeline is in order. On October 3, the New York Times, which hasn't always been the friendliest publication in regard to marijuana legalization -- recall the firestorm over columnist Maureen Dowd's bad reaction to a cannabis edible -- published "In Colorado, a Rebranding of Pot Inc." The piece profiles Mannix and DeFalco, who were said to represent "a new breed of entrepreneur in Colorado -- young, ambitious and often female -- that is trying to reach a more sophisticated clientele in everything from language to packaging to social events."
Still, the grabbiest paragraph in the piece is this one:
"We're weeding out the stoners," said Olivia Mannix, the 25-year-old co-founder of a start-up called Cannabrand, an advertising agency devoted exclusively to marketing marijuana. "We want to show the world that normal, professional, successful people consume cannabis."
After reading the piece, I reached out to Mannix on Monday morning. When she returned my call, she was initially trepidatious, asking in guarded terms about the tone of the post I intended to write. I told her my interest was simply to ask about her reaction to the Times article and get background on Cannabrand. Seemingly reassured, she called back a few minutes later and I chatted with her and DeFalco -- an interview from which the quotes below were culled. At the end of the conversation, Mannix and DeFalco promised to send photos for us to use in our item.
At the 7:07 a.m. original publication time of this post, the photos hadn't arrived -- although (update) Mannix sent this one....
...just shy of two hours later. She also included a "fact check" to the published piece, noting that Cannabrand is "a full service marketing agency specializing in branding and advertising."
As for the delay in getting back to us, there was a pretty good reason why.
Later on Monday, the Cannabist, the Denver Post's marijuana blog, published a piece headlined "''We're weeding out the stoners': How an ad agency lost a client, and respect." In it, reporter Ricardo Baca noted that Mindful, formerly Gaia Plant-Based Medicine, had left Cannabrand over the "stoner" quote.
Rather than responding to the Cannabist's request for an interview, Mannix and DeFalco sent a statement that features a similar spin to the comments made to yours truly the previous day. It reads: "In the recent NYT article there were several quotes that did not clearly convey our stance," the statement reads. "Please let us clarify; We support everyone in the marijuana industry, and it's unfortunate that those statements do not accurately portray Cannabrand or our community. Cannabrand's mission is to broaden the cannabis consumer demographic and to welcome more people into this vibrant industry, which veteran cannabis leaders have readily established. We aim to further public acceptance of marijuana, in hopes that this will advance the ongoing support and legalization of cannabis."
On Tuesday, the Cannabist also published an essay by DeFalco and Mannix about putting the marijuana industry "in the best light."
After both of these pieces were in print, Mannix belatedly responded to a second Westword e-mail asking about the photos by once again inquiring about the "beat" of the item I would be writing. In my response, I noted that we'd already had that conversation but asked for reactions to Mindful pulling out and the dueling Cannabist salvos. In her post-publication e-mail noted above, she didn't include any comments on those topics -- so I asked again and will update if she gets back to us again.
As for our Monday interview, here's what Mannix and DeFalco said before the firestorm went public.
Mannix, who's originally from Connecticut, and DeFalco, a native of the New Jersey-greater New York City area, told me they met after coming to Colorado in 2007 to attend CU Boulder; DeFalco majored in creative advertising, while Mannix focused on the mass communication curriculum.
A few years later, DeFalco said, they launched an marketing company that "mostly focused on start-ups -- local Colorado businesses, helping them to develop their brands and represent themselves in the best way."
Then they changed course.
Cannabrand "started in January of 2014, when recreational became legal -- so it was socially acceptable to begin openly promoting marijuana," Mannix said. "It was at the inception point of the industry booming. So we formed a full-service agency specializing in branding, digital marketing and public relations, as well as advertising. We've worked with an array of clients ranging from dispensaries to extract companies to edible companies. It's very exciting, because it changes in new and exciting ways every single day."
When the opportunity to be featured in the New York Times came along, I asked, were they at all reluctant given the Dowd column and other articles that were widely disliked in the Colorado marijuana community?
"There was no reluctance at all," Mannix said. "We're trying to show the industry in a positive light and show the world that professional people consume cannabis. That was really the main theme. We're also very adamant about cannabis safety in terms of different types of consumption ranging from smoking to edibles. Every approach we've taken has been in terms of education and bringing the best out of the industry."
DeFalco echoed this response. "I wasn't reluctant at all," she said. "I feel we're trying to reach a broader demographic outside the cannabis community -- trying to show that this product can go mainstream. And it's good to be open to a broader range of people. There are so many demographics that consume cannabis that we feel are under-represented. We want to open it up, normalize it, make it socially acceptable."
The Times reporter was on hand during what Mannix called "a writers retreat in Aspen with a cannabis element. It was using cannabis as a segue into creatively helping writers. There were people working on a book, journalists working on their own pieces. It was kind of a retreat where we would go on walking tours and hikes, and there was an executive chef who made THC-infused edibles. It was a great way to showcase how cannabis can be used in a productive manner, with a writing focus."
Regarding their reaction to the finished article, Mannix said, "We were generally pleased, but there were some comments that we feel were misrepresented. We spent so much time with this journalist, and there were things where they might have thought we were joking or they were misrepresented."
The example given by Mannix was "the quote about 'weeding out the stoners.' First of all, it's a pun and kind of a joke in its own right. I didn't want to say we were weeding out the stoners in the industry. It's more showing the world that it's not just people wearing tie-dye and hoodies who are consuming cannabis. There's a broader demographic. There are doctors, lawyers. And I feel that comment was taken very personally by the cannabis community. I'm sorry it came out that way."
DeFalco contextualized the Cannabrand approach like so: "We are trying to sort of move away from that old-school image of cannabis culture in a lot of ways. Not that there's anything wrong with stoner culture -- but we feel it's uninviting to some people. We feel that a lot of people don't identify with it. It makes marijuana seem very uninviting to them. We're hoping to open up that demographic for people who don't identify themselves as stoners or with stoner culture. When it's being portrayed that way, it slows down legislation about cannabis use, because it's being shown in somewhat of a negative way."
"Legislators and lawmakers are seeing on TV more of a stoner image," Mannix adds. "It's not necessarily something we're against, but when it comes to policy and laws, we're trying to show the rest of the world that professional people consume cannabis, too, and they don't have to be stigmatized as a stoner. I'm an example. As someone else would have a glass of wine at night, I consume cannabis. But I wouldn't necessarily consider myself a stoner."
"A lot of people feel that way: professionals, parents of children with epilepsy who get relief from cannabis," DeFalco noted. "And some of these people don't feel comfortable stepping into a dispensary. We've heard this from so many people -- that they don't feel comfortable because they feel like they're doing something wrong. And we want to welcome people who don't identify themselves as stoners into this community as well."
One way of getting this message across, DeFalco believes, is through language. "I do feel we should be using the word 'cannabis' rather than 'pot.' I think 'marijuana' is fine, but I think the slang terms take away the credibility. Words like 'pot' and 'weed' definitely discredit the value of cannabis as a versatile plant with a lot of medicinal and recreational properties. It's a safer alternative to alcohol. So we prefer the word 'cannabis,' but we're not saying the word 'pot' is not okay.
"We really just want cannabis to be taken seriously by legislators and by society as a whole," she went on. "And one way to do that is by using the correct name when you're speaking about it. You wouldn't use a street name for a pharmaceutical drug that would identify it with a subculture or something illegal...."
Mannix concluded like so: "Basically, we just support the industry and want to help mainstream cannabis use. So many people use cannabis but are afraid to talk about it because it's so highly stigmatized. So we want to represent the industry through a new lens."
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The focus on that lens has gotten cloudier over recent days.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.