Cashinbis has talked about marketing, branding and advertising in the cannabis space before, but Alexa Divett, Co-Founder and Marketing Director for Maya Media Collective, is approaching the subject of cannabis business development in a new and refreshing light. A seasoned veteran of the cannabis industry, as well as a long-time cannabis advocate, Alexa brought her impressive business savvy into the industry years ago, when she first got involved with the medical side of the community. Fast forward years later and Maya Media Collective is quickly becoming an authority in cannabis related marketing and branding strategies. In fact, WeedBlogcalled Alexa’s eBook Marijuana Millions: The Foundation For Success, the best cannabis industry branding literature on the market today. Alexa has worked hard to establish herself as an expert and a thought leader in the cannabis space, a space that Alexa loves and couldn’t be happier to be a part of, as she explains in our recent conversation.
Tell us a bit about your background before you co-founded Maya Media Collective?
I’ve been a long-term cannabis advocate and a medical grower for the last 8 years. I went to college in Ashland, Oregon at Southern Oregon University where I graduated with a degree in public relations in 2001. In my first 10 years out of college, I did a lot of public relations and marketing strategies in the non-profit world. In 2009, I started an online coaching program teaching college graduates how to create successful business practices using online marketing principles and the power of the internet. As a certified business coach with a background in public relations, my main focus has been using public relations and smart marketing techniques to help non-profits and young entrepreneurs build successful businesses.
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Can you tell us how and why cannabis industry come into play?
We have a very strong medical cannabis program in Oregon, and I’ve been a cannabis advocate since my teenage years. Around 2008, I was approached by a friend of a friend who had multiple sclerosis (MS). She asked if I would be interested in becoming a caregiver for her. It seemed like a good fit and when I jumped into the medical community, I found such a passionate group of people as well as many patients benefiting from using medical cannabis.
There’s no other industry right now that allows you to get in on the ground floor, work closely with the movers and shakers, and create something that works for everyone.
I didn’t realize that I would be able to create a new career for myself by merging my experience in public relations and marketing with my passion for medical cannabis. I get to use my experience to help cannabis entrepreneurs serve the medical and now recreational communities. It’s really exciting to be able to blend my passions. Finally I get to live that quote, “If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life”. I used to think only crazy people said that but now I realize how much I love what I do. I couldn’t be more passionate and grateful I am about my new career.
Is this an industry you planned to get into? Or did joining the cannabis industry catch you off guard?
I think it was a blend of both. I’ve always been passionate about cannabis and I always saw the medicinal value behind it. The power of cannabis is so vast, helping patients with cancer, epilepsy, MS, arthritis, and many other diseases. However, if you were to tell me that I would be working in the cannabis industry 10 years from now, I would have laughed and said ‘I hope so’. None of us thought that this industry was going to unfold this quickly and with such amazing results. We’ve all been in the dark, but now that it is here, it is a perfect fit for me. I’m involved in the community and I’ve been involved in this family for a long time. I have these skills that I can use to help people in the cannabis industry, and it feels great to be a part of it.
What was your household like growing up, was it strict or more free-spirited?
I had a strict upbringing, growing up on the east coast, right outside of New York City. My parents were both entrepreneurs in advertising and finance. They definitely would not have been on board with my business, at least not until the Wall Street Journal started writing articles about the industry. Now they send me articles and tell me how proud they are of me because the see that we are all pioneers in this industry. East coasters are all about the mighty dollar. They see this as an amazing opportunity, especially now that I have been able to educate my parents about how medical cannabis can help them with their own ailments. They are seeing the science and economics catch up to what seemed like a counter-culture to them for a long time.
I’ve always been a free-spirit. As kids raised by entrepreneurs, we were trained to understand risk, work hard, and have good manners, all while learning as much as possible along the way.
Now you’re the author of the Marijuana Millionaires eBook series, which WeedBlog said was the best cannabis branding book to date. Can you talk about what the eBook is and who should be reading it?
Marijuana Millions: The Foundation for Success is an eBook that helps cannabis business owners use smart branding and marketing techniques to create success in their business. Going above and beyond standard marketing advice, it gives background on the industry as well as information on the pioneers of the cannabis world. The eBook also talks about using community service as a public relations tool and how helping your community is a very smart marketing and branding technique.
A lot of what the WeedBlog was saying really resonated with me. There are all these people, really amazing marketers and branding consultants, who don’t know much about the cannabis industry, seeing this movement as a “green rush”. While many of them are smart and amazing people, they don’t really know about the background of the cannabis industry and all the effort spent to get the industry to where it is now. They bring their outside “cookie-cutter” business mentality and that doesn’t necessarily translate to this space.
The difference between more mainstream techniques and the Marijuana Millions eBook is that it really understands the history of the cannabis industry. It shows that we do need these time-tested marketing principles and branding techniques, but we also need to balance that with gratitude and an understanding of what it has taken to get the industry this far. It didn’t happen overnight.Marijuana Millions really resonates with industry insiders because it was written by someone who has been in this industry for a long time and who understands the power of medical cannabis, as well as the economic benefits from adult use. I think that it is an incredible opportunity to reach the masses who are interested and have worked hard for this industry.
I want to help the trailblazers of this industry be successful because they deserve a piece of the pie. They have risked their lives for this and they work so hard to serve the medical community. I am on a mission to help them be super successful while the opportunities are here.
Join the ranks: Are you a CEO, entrepreneur or someone in the cannabis industry who's making an impact? We'd like to hear your story!
Is it too late for people to enter the cannabis industry and get in on the ground floor? Where do you think we are in that process?
This industry is in its infancy. Even though it feels like it’s a runaway train and people are nervous they are going to miss their opportunity, they aren’t. We are not even close to what we are going to do. There are only a handful of states right now that are fully legal right now, plus DC. California is revamping their medical cannabis program while looking to vote on a recreational program in 2016. It’s not nationwide yet so everyone still has a chance to jump on the train!
Since the train is still at the station, we have the opportunity to build an industry the way the insiders, growers, processors, and medical patients want to see this industry work. That’s unique to the cannabis industry. There’s no other industry right now that allows you to get in on the ground floor, work closely with the movers and shakers, and create something that works for everyone.
People do business with people they know they can trust, and you build that trust by building credibility and positioning yourself as an authority.
Right now, the industry is wary of outsiders and of people who are just coming in for the dollar or don’t understand what these patients are really going through. The industry is also cautious about the big guns who are waiting to enter the space, those waiting for federal legality that will jump in with their multinational corporations.
The family (as I like to call it) has an opportunity to create something amazing that we can all be really proud of. That’s why I really want us to all remember how we got here. I was only a little kid when these pioneers were working really hard on the industry. It’s easy to forget people like Jack Herer, who went to jail for this industry. Without these people, you and I wouldn’t even be having this conversation. I think that is something to remember when we move forward. Yes, there is money to be made. Yes, we want to earn our marijuana millions. But we don’t want to do that by stepping on each other. We want to create an amazing industry that levels the playing field for people that might not have an MBA but might be a master gardeners. There’s a huge amount of opportunity here, and I just want people to know that they can absolutely create a successful cannabis business and compete with the big guns.
Why is it so important, in your mind, to get a good business strategy together well before you launch your business?
It comes down to competition. The old mindset that cannabis will sell itself just does not work anymore. This industry in incredibly competitive. The Multnomah County of Portland, Oregon, has almost 200 dispensaries open within the city limits. How are we going to attract the customer who is driving down the street, seeing a different dispensary every 1000 feet? That comes from having a strong foundation and knowledge of what sets your cannabis business apart from the dispensary down the street.
If you don’t have that strong foundation, then you won’t create a branding strategy that is unique to you.
If you don’t have that strong foundation, then you won’t create a branding strategy that is unique to you. You won’t make that target audience stop the car and enter the store. Of course, a long-term success strategy has to piggyback on that. It’s not good enough to just have a beautiful logo and an amazing website. You have to have a strategy to drive traffic to that website and then turn that traffic into dollars in your store. That comes with a long-term strategy that looks at your foundation and creates a roadmap for where you want your business to go.
Is the lack of a long-term strategy one of the biggest avoidable mistakes you see people make?
Of course, the long-term strategy is incredibly important because a cannabis business, though unique, is still a business. The same principles and foundations that have worked for successful businesses across the world are going to work here. What I’ve seen, besides the long-term strategy, is that people love to put the proverbial cart before the horse. For example, I’ve seen dispensary owners get excited about having iPads hooked into their POS systems and digital screens of all their products, all before they have figured out their unique selling proposition or who their target audience is. They don’t know their mission statement or their value statement. It is really easy to get caught up in decorating your dispensary before you even have a logo or develop a website before you have your target audience established. You can have the most gorgeous dispensary in town, but if no one knows about it then you have just wasted a lot of money.
Smart branding strategy includes: knowing who you are, how you are different from everyone else, and most importantly, who you want to serve. If you don’t know these things, then the inside of your retail space really does not matter. These mistakes have appeared over and over with dispensary owners in Oregon. They are excited, and they should be, but you still have to take the time to put the foundations in place. I guarantee you all that Willie Nelson has a branding and marketing strategy.
Let’s talk location. Can you compare adult use states, like Oregon, to one that may not be legal or have as much competition? Is there a difference to how entrepreneurs should approach the two areas?
The foundation is always the same, regardless of whether there is a ton of competition or not.
You always want to know who you are, why you’re unique, why you’re awesome, who you’re serving, and how you want to convey that in your branding. You literally have 7 seconds to sell your brand to a potential customer. That is not a lot of time. We are constantly bombarded with marketing and advertising messages, whether it’s text, phone, email, TV, or radio. We are constantly blasted with sales messages in this world. 7 seconds is all you have to tell your potential customers, through branding and marketing messages, why you’re awesome and why they should do business with you. That foundation is the same across the board, whether you’re entering a saturated market (like Portland) or entering a brand new market.
Being an Oregonian, I try to get outside as much as possible. I love hiking, going to the beach, swimming in the beautiful Oregon rivers, and hanging out with friends.
However, if you’re going to drop into Denver, Colorado and open an adult use store expecting to compete with the pioneers, you’re going to have to go above and beyond that foundation. What really helps in a place so saturated, and this is universal throughout all business, is going into the industry thinking, ‘How can I improve on what is already being done.’. You need to figure out what part of the population is underserved and how you can target them. Perhaps there is a demographic that is not being served in a certain part of town, or there is a product that somebody needs and they don’t know they need it. Figure out the pain point, whether it’s physical or emotional pain, so you can focus on how to serve their needs better than the competition. How can you fill those gaps through your branding and marketing to your potential customers?
If you weren’t doing this line of work, what would you be doing instead?
Well, I would do this exact same thing, just for a different audience.
You can’t say that, pick something else?
I only say that because I have a marketing background for all sorts of different audiences. I think that if I wasn’t doing this then I would probably be managing some eco-yoga resort in some tropical island somewhere. For me, it’s about living a life of balance, working hard and helping people while also maintaining health and happiness. I would follow that path, and that is why I am super lucky and really grateful to be in the cannabis industry. I get balance every day.
What do I need, as a business owner, to maintain or even grow in this market space? If you’re not growing are you standing still, or possible going in reverse?
I think that it’s important to have your brand identity sealed and that you love it. Once you have that, then you have a few years before you have to revisit it unless it’s not working with you. However, if you work with a good freelancer or a really good creative firm, everything should be in line for success. You should be able to run full speed ahead with your branding for many years. The key is to build brand recognition. If Nike all of the sudden did away with the swoosh, they would have an uphill battle to rebrand. Of course, you don’t want to do that. Once you have your branding set, you want to run with it.
With the digital platforms changing so rapidly, you can’t really set a 10-year plan or marketing strategy.
It’s your marketing and advertising strategy that needs to grow as your business grows. That includes a budget. You need to look forward to a 3-5 year plan, not necessarily a 10-year plan, a concept that I discuss in the eBook. 5 years ago if we knew that Instagram would be everything for the cannabis industry then people would have planned for that.
With the digital platforms changing so rapidly, you can’t really set a 10-year plan or marketing strategy. You have to constantly evaluate where your audience is, how they are connecting with your brand, how they see your products and services, and always deliver value to them.
In my personal business coaching for the cannabis industry, we talk a lot about providing more than just products to you customers. We talk about providing an experience, an environment they can connect to with real lasting relationships so that, when they come into your dispensary, they understand the story behind your products. There’s something that makes them feel connected to you that is above and beyond just how great your products are.
Have you encountered any resistance personally or professionally because of your interest in running a business in the cannabis industry?
It’s funny because earlier we were talking about my parents and my upbringing. 10 years ago I wouldn’t have said, ‘Hey mom, I’m going to grow medical cannabis and serve this population of sick people,’ or ‘I’m a cannabis advocate’. I don’t know that I would have said that over thanksgiving dinner. But now that the industry is becoming more mainstream, we are all coming out of the basement. We are starting to talk to our parents, our college mentors or professors about what we are doing without meeting a lot of resistance. It’s becoming much more mainstream.
You mentioned content marketing in your eBook educational series. Can you talk about the different types of marketing that a business could look to take advantage of in this market?
Content marketing is super important because, unlike other distribution channels, you own your content. We encourage all of our clients to write a blog in order to set yourself apart from the competition. By doing so, you can prove that you’re not just a thought leader, but that you are an expert in you niche. If you’re a dispensary owner writing blog posts about how medical cannabis helps with certain ailments or how recreational tax dollars can benefit your community then you are going to establish credibility in your industry. People do business with people they know they can trust, and you build that trust by building credibility and positioning yourself as an authority.
If you’re not on Instagram you are missing out on a huge chunk of the pie.
If you use a free platform (like WordPress) for blogs then that platform owns that blog. However, if you pay a designer or developer to customize your website, then you own that content. This is really important, especially in social media marketing, which is everything in this industry. Instagram is everything. If you’re not on Instagram you are missing out on a huge chunk of the pie. Although, there is always a risk that social media websites could say they want nothing to do with the industry, and that would change everything. Until that changes, if it ever does, social media continues to be a vital part of business development in this industry.
Email marketing is another great tool as it again goes back to owning your content. This type of marketing is fantastic because you can deliver value right to your prospect’s and customer’s inbox. You can connect with them, provide information that they might be looking for, and show them photos of your product or fun things going on within the business. You have a real opportunity for engagement, which is incredibly important right now because people want to be engaged with where they are spending their money. Email, social, and content marketing are the three main pillars, all working simultaneously together. Moving forward, we don’t know what we are going to do as far as advertising. We might not be allowed to do billboards, print ads, TV, or radio advertising. But right now, social media, email, and content marketing is a strategy that can work for the long term, regardless of how your community limits advertising in the future.
What does Alexa Divett do in her free time?
Alexa tries to sleep when she can. I do a lot of yoga, Pilates, and other exercises because that’s my sanity. I also have a million amazing friends all over the country, but mostly on the west coast. We all love live music, travel, and going to concerts. Being an Oregonian, I try to get outside as much as possible. I love hiking, going to the beach, swimming in the beautiful Oregon rivers, and hanging out with friends. Not a dull life out here in Oregon.
How do you think marketing and branding will impact the cannabis industry moving forward? What are some of the best brands that you have seen around the industry? Join the conversation and comment below!
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Tim is the Head of Media Development at Cashinbis. A UC San Diego graduate and former collegiate baseball player, Tim has spent the last 8 years working with various San Diego media platforms. In addition to his media work you can also catch Tim performing stand-up comedy all over Southern CA. Tim has seen firsthand the societal benefits to medical Cannabis and has made it his goal to spread that word as positively as possible.