Commercial Marijuana Growers Learning How to Brand Themselves | Westword

Commercial Marijuana Growers Learning How to Brand Themselves

After years of flying under the radar, commercial marijuana growers are now growing their own brands and profiles.
Veritas is one of several wholesale cannabis producers with a growing profile.
Veritas is one of several wholesale cannabis producers with a growing profile. Scott Lentz
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After years of operating under the radar, Colorado's commercial marijuana growers are now growing their own brands and profiles. Although dispensaries are no longer required to grow the majority of weed that they sell, customers continue to seek out homegrown products, and many owners are happy to oblige. Veritas Fine Cannabis, one of Colorado's first early wholesale growers to successfully brand itself for quality buds, is a prime example of this shift.

Already respected for its acumen in the grow, Veritas extended its dank footprint by agreeing to a deal with Cookies, which calls for the Veritas growing staff to cultivate the Bay Area breeder's famous genetics for Colorado dispensaries. Quick popularity can also bring backlash, however, and Cookies caught it for high prices.

To learn more about the business behind buds, we caught up with Veritas co-founder Mike Leibowitz.

Westword: Wholesale growers didn't demand as much attention three years ago. Now we have Veritas, 710, 14er, Snaxland and more garnering real followings, waiting for strain drops. When and how do you think that changed?

Mike Leibowitz: Consumer tastes have grown more refined as Colorado’s cannabis market matured, which establishes the demand for premium brands like Veritas and Cookies. Selling pre-packaged flower, branded and on display just like well-known edibles, has allowed us and other brands to establish brand loyalty for carefully cultivated flower products, and that is something that was unheard of early on in this industry.

Years ago, flower was just looked at as a generic commodity, and wholesale growers were primarily utilized as a white-label flower source for dispensaries. But it’s not like we’re growing corn or wheat here. It took years for dispensaries to educate consumers on why they should be seeking quality over quantity. Thanks to the success and popularity of brands like Cookies, the market has grown for luxury flower, and dispensaries can no longer get away with selling mediocre white-label products.

I believe that the demand for these luxury products is also rooted in the growing social media influence brands have on Instagram, and being able to turn that hype into word-of-mouth advertising. People tell their friends about this amazing, exotic strain they saw on an influencer’s feed. Now that friend is following the brand and looking for a dispensary that is getting the next product drop. There has always been a segment of cannabis consumers looking for unique products, and now that segment has grown so much that dispensaries are catering specifically to that crowd.

So many strains come and go over the years, and few actually stick around. Why is that?

Strains come and go based on a combination of consumer demand and growers’ interest. To stay relevant as a brand, you have to always have something different and unique to offer. When a cultivator can introduce an exotic strain in limited supply, that’s an ideal situation to build hype and demand for new strains.

From a cultivator’s standpoint, cannabis provides so much terpene-loaded territory to explore. At Veritas, we have a vast library of genetics and we really do thrive off experimenting with different phenotypes and developing new cultivars. There will always be classic consumer favorites, which we have mastered, but we believe we are at our best as cultivators when we are taking strains in new directions.

How much have commercially desirable cannabis flavors developed over the years? I don't remember doughy, cakey or even garlic flavors being so popular in 2015.

The number of consumers looking for desirable cannabis flavors is growing every year, and the fact that people are lining up for craft cannabis is proof. At Veritas, we were excited to bring in luxury flower brand Cookies to the Colorado market, and it’s a testament to the brand’s reputation that we’re consistently selling out our product drops for these coveted, uniquely flavored strains. There’s only so much Cookies to go around.
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Inside the Veritas cultivation.
Scott Lentz

We look at the driving force of this consumer behavior as a result of the generational changes in cannabis purchasing decisions. It’s often easy to forget, but we are coming up on a generation of adults in Colorado that have only purchased cannabis from dispensaries. With that comes a different level of product knowledge and more educated consumer preferences. Older consumers were used to buying cannabis under the table and having very limited options, so they are not going to have the same motivations, like making terpene-driven purchasing decisions. Younger generations are also more brand-conscious and looking for unique experiences.

Cannabis prices are increasing again at the dispensary. Do you think cannabis will ever reach a point of consistent price points, like a $10 six-pack?

As the cannabis business becomes more normalized over time, I think yes, we will have consistent price points. However, the current market is still so reactive that it will be some time before we get to that. The coronavirus really affected the forecasts for this year's market. It wasn’t particularly bad for business, but it played a big role in supply and demand. Currently, our market in Colorado is kind of dry; however, six weeks ago it wasn’t. That is the instability the pandemic caused to the supply chain. Purchases are being driven by outside factors like stay-at-home orders or Denver momentarily deciding to close dispensaries. Some dispensaries may keep prices consistent to establish their store’s reputation, but you won’t see harmonious pricing across the board any time soon.

Speaking of prices, I saw an eighth of Cookies Pancake for sale for $70 yesterday. What are your thoughts on that? Would you ever pay that much for an eighth of weed?

If you are hunting for boutique cannabis, the price is 100 percent worth it. For a special occasion, you might splurge on $100 champagne instead of $20 sparkling wine. You are paying for a higher-quality product, and you will, in fact, get what you pay for. If you want to experience Cookies, it’s understood that you’re not buying a mass-produced, low-tier eighth with a high price tag. You’re paying for a unique, painstakingly cultivated cannabis strain. The demand for Cookies is through the roof right now.

The pricing backlash comes from the old-school mindset of buying the most you can for the least amount of cash. With Cookies or the Veritas suite of flower, less is more, and our quality is bar none. It’s time to start thinking about cannabis like any other consumer good. The more cannabis can be accepted as something normal and not vilified, the more the market will be normalized. Thinking about cannabis in the same light as other mainstream retail products will lead us to appropriately valuing quality.

What are some of your favorite strains right now? Any new cultivars we should be looking for this summer or fall?

I am in love with all of the Cookies strains, but I think, so far, Cake Mix and Project 4510 are at the top of my list. All Cookies strains are a hot commodity right now and hard to get, but they are unique and well worth it. From Veritas, our Granola Funk and Scooby Snax are my go-to strains. Also, at Higher Grade dispensaries (I'm a co-owner), we have some in-house crosses that have been really interesting, like Birthday Dawg (Birthday Cake x Stardawg) and our new Koko Puffs (Kimbo Kush x Triple OG) strain, which is coated with crystals. Fruit strains always pick up in popularity during the summer, so be on the lookout for those. At the end of the day, there are so many great strains to choose from right now, my advice would be to try something new.
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