Cannabis users know that their recreational product of choice is not a commodity. A commodity implies fungibility; for instance, a barrel of crude oil from Calgary may be interchangeable with a barrel of crude from Texas—wherever you get it from the product is the same. Cannabis, however, a flower that’s tenderly grown with human hands, has wild divergence in quality, taste and smell. This, importantly, is one of the missteps of the early licensed producers who came from outside the industry: they underestimated the market’s appetite for really good weed.
“There’s never enough of the good stuff, and there’s always too much of the bad,” says Vinay Tolia, CEO of Flowr, a premium cannabis grower based in Kelowna, BC, the epicentre of domestic cannabis cultivation. “If you assume all cannabis is the same and can drive customer preference based on the lowest possible price, you’re ignoring the 80% of the legal cannabis market that are informed users like I am, appreciate the product, and know what they like.”
Quality in cannabis, much like in spirits and wine, ranges metaphorically from bathtub gin to Dom Pérignon. Two years into the end of cannabis prohibition has produced more educated consumers; while many cannabis shoppers still have trouble differentiating between brands, they do recognize the wide range of class in their legal options.
Premium, consistent cannabis is difficult to grow, says Corey Gillon, CEO of Choom, a Vancouver-based chain of 15 licensed cannabis retailers, adding that his customers are increasingly shopping for a really good edible or preroll they consistently trust. Initially, consumers might have bought cannabis based on the highest THC range or lowest price—certainly, some still do—but Gillon believes a result of the legal market is customers developing preference and taste. At one point, goes another analogy, it was wild that we had automobiles. Today, luxury vehicles take up 40% of the road.
“The brands that resonate well with consumers are consistently growing excellent products that almost follow the trend of small-batch craft beer,” says Gillon, adding that he sees demand for locally produced cannabis from companies like Broken Coast and Whistler and that in his biweekly call with Miguel Martin, CEO of Aurora, he often hears about their plans to further develop their premium lines. There is such a thing as discerning weed smokers. Apparently, they’re the demographic to covet in 2021.
“As we evolve as an industry and remove stigma and do our job as retailers informing consumers, I think you’ll see a critical component for success in cannabis being reliable, premium brands,” continues Gillon, whose Choom executive team comes from places like Aritzia, Walmart and Ikea. “Consumers are learning to trust in brand reliability and quality and in their retailers' ability to deliver—that’s the space where the industry can grow.”
Consumers are learning to trust in brand reliability and quality and in their retailers' ability to deliver—that’s the space where the industry can grow.
For Vinay Tolia at Flowr, quality is the only place he wants to be. He says he’d never show up to his twin brother’s annual holiday party with a plastic jug of rotgut vodka and that he believes underestimating the cannabis consumer is not only insulting, it’s a bad business plan.
“You open up a jar of the good stuff and, if you’re a weed smoker, it draws you in like a magnet and if it’s not good, you run out the door,” Tolia says. “Our brand is built upon the whole idea of quality and that’s hard to do well but we think, for a premium product, there will always be a demographic that understands.”
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