Allison Disney On How To Grow Cannabis Drinks Category
Alison has spent almost two decades leading global teams to produce award-winning advertising and marketing campaigns for some of the world’s most beloved brands.
Alison has spent almost two decades leading global teams to produce award-winning advertising and marketing campaigns for some of the world’s most beloved brands, including M&Ms, Ziploc, Bacardi, YouTube, Special K, Cheez-It, and Johnson & Johnson. As a Partner at Receptor Brands, she transforms relationships between cannabis brands and their customers. As Business Strategist, she defines the field of opportunity for her clients’ businesses in an industry poised to disrupt every aisle at the store. Alison combines her mainstream CPG knowledge with a deep understanding of the cannabis space.
Your Place Of Work
Tell us a little about your background and journey into Cannabis
I spent almost two decades at creative agencies working on strategies and campaigns for global brands such as Ziploc, Kellogg’s, Bacardi, and Johnson & Johnson. About four years ago, my husband, a plant biologist, had an opportunity to join a cannabis cultivation start-up, which inspired us to move our family back to Chicago from abroad. Shortly thereafter, I began moonlighting as a marketing executive and product developer for that company. I was lucky to have an employer who was supportive of my “side hustle,” perhaps because the agency network had a global moratorium on the cannabis business. That experience helped me to appreciate the unmet need for brand and marketing expertise in the cannabis industry and I’ve been partnering with founders of cannabis businesses, big and small, ever since.
Explain your current role
Co-Founder of Stupendous Lettuce, marketing consultant, and maker of cannabinoid-infused food and beverage brands.
What trends do you see in cannabis beverages?
The rise in low-no-alcohol drinks has created a wonderful segment of cannabis-infused canned seltzers. The seltzer segment, in and outside of cannabis, is increasingly competitive, and as a result, I expect to see new, smaller, more efficient formats emerge – e.g., shots, syrups, powdered drink enhancers. I’m really excited to see how on-premise consumption and the rise of hospitality in the cannabis industry will shape the beverage segment. What do the cannabis beverage brands of today look like when you can get them on demand, in a social atmosphere away from home, or at an event or favorite activity?
What tips do you have on growing the category when it comes to product development?
Identify the problem you’re solving for people or the need you’re trying to fill. There are a lot of great ideas and cool things we can make, but consumers have a lot of choices when it comes to beverages. Can you clearly articulate why people should replace something they’re already drinking with your product? The best way to identify those problems and opportunities is to talk with people. A regular, in-depth conversation with potential customers can reveal why they might try a cannabis beverage or what they thought about it when they did, what they loved, and what they hated. Can your brand do more of what it loved or solve what it hated?
What are the 3 things that we can educate end consumers more on in growing end-consumer awareness?
1) How will it taste? Set expectations for taste and flavor from the get-go. Are you giving me a syrupy dose of medicine or a refreshing seasonal sip? Taste appeal and flavor cues help consumers understand why and when and where they should use your product. Particularly with the newness of cannabis beverages, consumers need cues to the experience before they buy.
2) How will it make them feel physical? Consumers have generations of learned behavior to draw upon when it comes to ABV and how alcohol will make them feel. While people’s experience with alcohol is different from person to person, they have a general sense and comfort in knowing how a beer might affect them differently than a whisky cocktail. Consumers don’t want to spend money on a bad experience. And, while it’s a challenge for brands to educate consumers on the category, the sooner people get to a shared understanding of dosage and the corollary effects, the easier it will be for them to replace something they’re already drinking.
3) How will it make them feel emotional? In addition to the functional experience, brands should consider how to appeal to consumers on an emotional level. There are a lot of reliable resources for category education, but what’s the cultural and social context for choosing your brand? Does putting your brand in the fridge make them feel like a rebel? When they drink it will it bring them joy or relief? If they’re an enthusiast, does your brand contribute to their sense of status among their peers? As the category normalizes, don’t underestimate how emotional pull can augment rational thinking when it comes time to make a choice.
Which states / markets do you think present good growth opportunities for cannabis beverages in 2023-2024
I’m a fan of my home state of Illinois. There have only been a few beverage choices on dispensary shelves so far, despite Chicago being a food and beverage startup hub. As new licensees open their doors and more consumers join the category, there’s a renewed sense of discovery in this market, despite it having been adult-use for the last few years. I’m excited to see what innovation will emerge in the coming months as new producers join the community.
What do you think are the current challenges in the cannabis beverage category
Retailer readiness – If you’re the first or even the second beverage brand in a newly legalized market, be prepared to educate retailers on how to categorize and merchandise your product in-store. Differentiation – Supplier options for cannabis beverages are still relatively narrow. This can make it challenging to differentiate from a product formulation perspective, placing even more importance on branding and marketing to create distinction. Distribution – It goes without saying, but it’s even more difficult as it pertains to cannabis beverages due to freight and manufacturing challenges unique to beverages vs. other consumables.
If you were to give advice to a first-time cannabis beverage consumer, what tips would you give?
Start low and slow.
Your favourite cannabis beverage brands?
Too many good ones to choose from, but Cann created something that both I and my 70-something-year-old mother can enjoy. That’s saying something! I’ve also been a fan of Surp’s vanilla café for years. I enjoy Otto’s CBD cider when I want a non-alc alternative, Plift has one of the best-tasting hemp-infused offerings in the space, Maison Bloom is what I’d serve to guests, and I finally had a chance to try Artet, and it’s my new favorite aperitif.
What do you look for when you purchase a cannabis beverage brand?
Familiarity – Have I heard of this brand before I got to the shelf? What do I know about it already?
Shelf Appeal – If they took care with their label, I’m more confident they took care with formulating the “juice” inside.
Dosage – Can I drink a little or a lot for the specific occasion when I plan to drink it?
Manufacturer – I’m a nerd. I’m always curious about who’s making what for who in each state. If it’s from a producer that I know, it gives me reassurance in terms of safety and compliance.
Any out-of-the-box ideas you have for bud-tenders in promoting and educating the cannabis beverage category?
How can you help people imagine how and when they should enjoy it? What’s the serve? What’s the occasion when they should drink it? Does it pair well with certain types of food? Find a way to help it feel familiar, even if they’ve never tried it before.
If you were to make a new cannabis beverage today? What sort of product would you make and why
A beverage that meets an unmet consumer need and takes advantage of client strengths.
If you were to market and distribute that cannabis beverage, what would be your top 3 areas you would focus on?
I’d start by making sure the following align:
Business model – How does it make money? Are you positioned for strong growth from the start? Is your offering scalable?
Product development – Are we solving an unmet need for consumers, is our product different and delicious?
Brand positioning – How do we express what makes the product unique in a clear and distinctive way?