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Cannabis Experts Talk Celeb Cause-Marketing

By Emily Clapp and Drew Penner | Last updated: September 1, 2021
Key Takeaways

From harnessing the Tosh legacy for social empowerment, to helping fans mourn Kobe Bryant, to a new era of legalization, industry pros sound off on using celeb power for the greater good.

You have to admit, celebrities, sports stars, and industry legends all occupy an admittedly enviable position in our culture. For cannabis companies, it can seem not only desirable, but almost necessary, to create alliances with one of their rank. That can be even more true when it comes to creating a positive impact. So, we’ve reached out to a few key insiders for you, to get the scoop on working with celebs on giving back.

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Enter: cause-marketing. That’s the whole win-win idea where a business teams up with another company, government group, or non-profit on a particular issue for mutual benefit while creating a helpful shift in society. Marc Ross, Head of Impact & Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance at Vicente Sederberg, a cannabis law firm, says it can be a powerful tool, but only if you really do care about the cause in question. “The brand can attract conscious consumers who are more likely to repeatedly purchase the product and market it to their networks of friends or family,” Ross says. “While there’s no responsibility to give back, the brands that do so in an authentic way that ties the brand to a cause will be more successful long-term.”

For cannabis companies that opt to focus on sustainability, for example, it’s important to start by making sure their own operations (from extraction techniques to packaging) are on point before involving the influencer, Ross says, “Lest both the brand and the celebrity risk a public relations nightmare.”

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The trend of celebrities seeking an avenue into the cannabis world isn’t going away any time soon, says Greg Okun, the founder of GEO Network, a cannabis-focused management and advisory firm. He works with the family of the late Peter Tosh, through PT Capital, LLC, on strategic planning for their cannabis and wellness brand SEEN. The company dedicates 10 percent of profits to the Peter Tosh Foundation, which promotes youth education opportunities, marijuana legalization, and civil rights initiatives around the globe.

“Many cannabis businesses are working with slim margins and do not give back to their communities,” he says. “However, everyone, especially celebrities with means that choose to be in the cannabis business, should be giving back in some capacity.”

When it comes to globally recognized marijuana branding, what could be bigger than the classic “Legalize It” anthem? And while ex-Wailer and prominent unicyclist Tosh has been resting in peace since 1987, his legacy lives on with the cause-related efforts of the foundation, including the Justice for Jawara initiative, expungement clinics, equity partnerships, and cannabis wellness education.

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A Cautionary Californian Tale and a Kobe Celebration of Life

There’s much more to successful cause-marketing than just paying a celeb to blast out info on a topic close to your heart. And according to Green Holdings CEO Fred Sayegh, California’s legalization journey provides plenty of lessons about what not to do when it comes to encouraging cannabis companies to contribute to the greater good. That’s because the red tape that came with legalization made medical-marijuana donations a nightmare — if companies had anything left over at all.

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“It’s extremely difficult to become profitable,” Sayegh says, lamenting the lack of social-impact work by weed brands in the state. “That almost sucks out the wind from all cannabis companies — whether celebrity-based or just a regular company — from being able to have anything left to help with (being) charitable.” Low-income patients, who had been getting free weed from compassion clubs, were suddenly on the hook for a 15 percent tax. Growers and sellers had to cough up even more. It all amounted to a series of giant roadblocks. “You’d give a piece of your profits to a charitable foundation, and that charitable foundation barely distributes 10 percent of the profit back out, if that, because of all those costs,” Sayegh recalls. “They kind of put in place a chokehold.”

The law was finally amended last year to eliminate taxes for medical-related charity giveaways. But this only applies to retailers who’ve successfully navigated a local-licensing process that’s been criticized for, too often, shutting out applicants from disadvantaged communities. However, one unique aspect of the amendment is that nonprofits (working with one of those retailers) can donate cannabis (and related products) to valid patients.

Some brands seek other ways to help out that don’t actually involve the plant. “We’ll bring a mobile media truck — it’s like a big LED screen,” Sayegh says. “We’ll give away food or clothing.”

As L.A. reeled from the tragic helicopter crash that killed basketball star Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others, the company teamed up with Hollywood’s Smartweed dispensary to help the city mourn. They brought in a DJ to serenade players on a basketball court and offered a 44 percent discount at the shop. “It was fantastic,” he says. “That’s our way of being able to do something back for the community, where it’s too difficult to just give them cannabis.”

Legendary West Coast rapper Kurupt took a similar approach on a multi-state dispensary tour to promote the Moonrock cannabis line. Christopher “Black Silver” Rodgers, CEO of Sterling World Records & Bookings, remembers. “We did a promo tour for the brand,” he says, recalling frequent side-trips to donate useful items to youth across the country, above and beyond the normal product giveaways at the shows with Hayward rapper Spice 1. “They gave out school supplies, backpacks, so much stuff! They were having it shipped to our hotel the day before.” Having come out of the Crenshaw neighborhood of South Los Angeles — just like Kurupt —Rodgers admired how he incorporated a social mission to the weed venture with Zodiac. “It kind of came full circle that that was part of his branding,” he says.

And now, as he works with 50 Cent on a pending business venture, Rodgers says he’s been happy to see how Curtis James Jackson III is more cause-focused than you might think. “He does a lot more charity work than he speaks about,” he says. “It really actually kind of surprised me.”

Where Do We Go from Here?

Political consultant and weed entrepreneur Sandi Jackson is facing similar regulatory headwinds to what Californians had to deal with. When we first spoke with her, she’d been trying to secure dispensary licenses in Chicago and Washington D.C. And, as a longtime literacy advocate, she stressed the importance of promoting social change, too. But for the moment, she’s still on the starting line with her weed dreams. Too often, for people in her shoes, she says, the stumbling blocks are at the government level.

“Right now, it’s a major problem in Illinois,” says Jackson, who was previously married to Jesse Jackson Jr., thinking about her experiences working with state lawmakers. “A lot of them don’t know anything about the industry.” While there’s plenty of nuts-and-bolts lobbying ahead, she says, influencers could use their platforms to tug on the heartstrings of officials, particularly when trying to create a level playing field for independents. Referencing the recent $100 million injection into Snoop Dogg’s Casa Verde Capital, she suggests celebs in marijuana “have a responsibility” to ensure underserved populations are included “in what can only be described as the largess of the cannabis industry.”

One way celebrities-in-cannabis could have a measurable impact is by creating business vehicles that would allow smaller players to come along for the ride. “I’m not saying you have to share and distribute your wealth,” she says. “But please do share the knowledge and the opportunity to gain that knowledge.”

Unfortunately, the anti-pot forces in Illinois have really dug in their heels, and she’s given up hope on that opportunity for the time being, she says. However, Jackson’s since partnered with a new team that, in addition to the D.C. play, is aiming for licenses in Oklahoma, Maryland, New York, and New Jersey. “Of all the licenses granted (in Illinois), not a single one went to a minority owner,” she said, hinting at a potential public messaging campaign that’s ripe for the picking in Chicago. “The level of dysfunction and corruption is overwhelming. I still believe this is due to a lack of education on the part of the state legislature and a process that was driven by insiders who ended up with the lion's share of the licenses.”

Cannabis and wellness advocate Carrie Hudson can definitely sympathize. Watching Joe Biden’s inauguration with Sammie, her Yorkie, by her side, she couldn’t help but reflect on the local efforts that can be credited for the new era of decriminalization. After all, she was intimately involved in the Missouri legalization drive from 2014-16 that focused on cause-marketing the good ol’ fashioned way — gathering signatures and changing opinions one person at a time. While they didn’t quite make the ballot at that time, their early efforts led to the successful 2018 medical marijuana referendum. Since then, millions of dollars have been directed towards helping veterans. She’s stayed in touch with her fellow activists over the years. They’ve managed to win over a Republican state lawmaker, who’s been selling his colleagues on recreational cannabis. Although, the latest thing she’s heard is some proposals are calling for up to 45 percent in taxes, which would risk repeating California’s mistakes.

Hudson first turned to marijuana as part of her fight with cancer. “Someone — as a last resort — brought me the plant,” she says. “It helped me eat, it helped me sleep, it helped me with anxiety.” The nutritionist and yogi, a former account executive with Mary’s Medicinals in Colorado, believes celebrities can help reduce the stigma that still surrounds cannabis in much of the country. “I love that we’re bringing awareness, and that celebrities are stepping forward with their following, and their messaging, to align with cannabis and helping people,” she says. “They have a platform that many of us — including myself — don’t have.”

But she hopes celebs who take on cannabis cause-marketing will stay true to the spirit of the initial medical-marijuana campaigns. “I would just ask out of respect for the people that have walked the path before us, that we honor them, and we honor that legacy, and we remember what this is about,” she says. “It’s about healing people; it’s about truth; it’s about education; it’s about freeing people from prisons that shoulda never been there; and it’s about knowing what’s in our medicine.”

The way Hudson sees it, the real celebrities — the true cannabis warriors — are the ordinary people who are willing to share their stories about how marijuana and CBD have changed their life for the better. “Because that’s the heart of America,” she says. “And that’s why we’re doing this.”

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