When it comes to unique, engaging branding in cannabis, all hope is not gone. While a product-first approach is the norm for many (think creating a great product, developing relevant branding, and hoping it speaks for itself on the shelves), it’s not the only way. Take Engager, for example.
“That’s really kind of backward,” said Kieve Huffman, the CEO and founder of Engager Brands. “In any other industry, you start with the audience first. What products make sense for them, and how does the brand need to be created for an authentic connection with that audience?”
Engager Brands builds, owns, and operates a portfolio of cannabis brands that target underserved demographics. They create, market, and license brands in California, with plans to go worldwide. Their first project was Heavy Grass, a cannabis brand rooted in hard rock and heavy metal with big-name collaborations like Clown Cannabis, a line created by Slipknot’s Shawn “Clown” Crahan.
No one is going after the hard rock audience, explained Huffman. He added that most music-focused collaborations center around rap or reggae, making hard rockers an underserved demographic. “It’s a hugely loyal audience. If you can build an authentic connection with them, you’ve created a customer for life.”
Engager is a coming together of Huffman’s experience and expertise. He’s no stranger to the music industry, having worked with Universal, Warner, MTV, and many other big names in the past. Before developing Engager Brands, he was one of the founders of PRØHBTD Media, a multi-platform video network, known now as Social Club TV, which worked on over 60 products and hatched Engager’s first brand Heavy Grass.
Engager relaunched Heavy Grass in April of 2021, after sorting out complications from the pandemic. They quickly got their products in 62 California dispensaries and made a name for themselves. Before the end of 2021, they announced their newest brand, Neon Roots, focused on the EDM and rave scene.
Huffman sees Engager as a global opportunity. Their licensing model makes it easy for them to adapt to emerging markets. Engager has access to over 10,000 concerts, festivals, and events every year. This allows the company to market its brands where the fans are already spending time. Even if their cannabis products aren’t legal in the particular municipality, they can sell merch, accessories, and apparel to grow their brands and engage their audiences long before legal weed enters their orbit. “We’re creating these lifestyle brands, and these lifestyles exist throughout the world,” Huffman said.
The collaborations serve as a great brand extension for the bands as well, but Huffman emphasizes that the collaboration has to be authentic. Slapping a band’s name on a product is not enough to make meaningful connections. They need to truly engage with their target audience.
The logistics for building authentic connections vary from event to event. Sometimes they use Axl Roads (their aptly named travel van), to sit outside venues and connect with others. Last year, Axl Roads went to Aftershock Festival, where it engaged Metallica and Misfits fans with its tricked-out attractions, including a Nintendo machine and photo opportunities.
Leveraging relationships with artists and influencers and the ability to market directly at events is crucial for Engager, and a smart move in an industry short on traditional marketing avenues. Huffman’s music industry experience often focused on running campaigns on social media, but that’s not an option in cannabis.
He’s seen accomplished CMO types from other industries enter the cannabis space and end up unable to pivot their strategy to fit the needs of this complicated industry. “You can’t just take your toolkit that you have for any other industry in the world and apply it to cannabis,” he said, noting that many of these entrepreneurs “left screaming” because it is a whole different world.
Engager’s meaningful connections are what make their brands strong. While many companies that raise a lot of money tend to try to accomplish everything themselves, Huffman believes that partnerships and collaborations are the way to go. “We know how to build brands and we know how to build demand for those brands and we do that very well. We need others to partner with that can help us bring our products to life.”
They’re currently in talks for potential partnerships in other states, and are always on the lookout for others to work with. As Huffman put it, “These collaborations are only going to help the overall industry and help all of us collectively.”