From Cheerios to Weed: TREC Plans Pot’s CPG (consumer packaged goods) Future
We may never see that big splashy Super Bowl ad for a pot product. Still, the mind reels at the creative possibilities of goofing on chill Clydesdales or casting a celebrity cameo-tableau. “Snoop, Miley and Woody – on set, please.” And yet many of the marketing principles of classic CPG marketing still apply here. Kayla Rochkin, VP of marketing at Canadian cannabis brand house TREC, understands this better than most. She spent six years managing the marketing of Cheerios and Lucky Charms at General Mills before moving to building weed brands. From package-appeal to product quality, from developing product for specific consumer identities to in-store display – branding breakfast is not that far removed from marketing a better buzz.  
TREC is itself a branding group, so the company does not directly touch or sell cannabis. It has crafted several brands, however, that are distributed and sold by its partners in Canada’s heavily-regulated supply chain. But TREC’s work may foreshadow a future federally legalized U.S. cannabis marketplace – where brand differentiation, quality control, and evolving consumer identification help drive consumers to their next choice of primo bud. You can listen to the entire podcast here.
MediaPost: TREC created a range of brands that target several different cannabis consumer profiles. Can you give us a quick thumbnail on each of them?
Rochkin: The first brand I’ll talk about is Blissed. And it is all about wellness. It’s focused on high CBD, not necessarily consumers who are looking to get really high, but those who are looking to relax at the end of the day. CBD products under the Blissed brand give people, what we believe, is a healthier way to relax. We really focus on products that are edible, things like tinctures, oils. We’re coming out with topicals and edibles that can just help you relax at the end of the day.
MP: And is this more female skewed?
Rochkin: It’s absolutely female skewed. A lot of the research that we did [showed] that women especially are feeling intense burnout right now. Even prior to COVID, they’re looking for healthy ways to practice self-care and take a moment for themselves, and the Blissed brand really tries to deliver on that.
MP: There is at least one smokable there, though?
Rochkin: We do have a high CBD joint called Beach. It’s been quite popular, and this is one of the lessons we’ve learned. This idea of constant change and constantly measuring and reevaluating everything from product to brand positioning as this new market grows. So, while we still believe that staying away from smokable as the core of the brand is important, we want to have an option for those that are looking for an easy to smoke joint.
MP: So let’s cover the other brands, because those are interesting in their own right. You’ve got a sort of a party brand, right?
Rochkin: As any company should, we want to be a house of brands; we have to diversify. WINK is our brand that I would say is more of a social experience, but it’s also for that consumer that places a lot of value in being the one in the know. They want to recommend it to their friends, and it’s because of that, under that brand we have a lot of unique cultivars and a lot of limited edition drops; so products that you won’t see again. 
We partnered with a huge nightlife, restaurant and club organization in Toronto. They helped us launch this brand in a huge way because we can only target a legal age audience, which in Canada is either 18 or 19 depending on the province that you’re in. And all of their venues are age-gated. So being able to know that you’re getting into a club, and you can talk freely with anyone in this massive venue about your product was a huge boom to us. It helped us grow the WINK brand in a massive way among those people who are looking for kind of the next cool thing [and] really helped us grow brand awareness and affinity for our target.
MP: And packaging is really important for this brand? Sort of the presentation of it is part of the prestige too, right?
Rochkin: Right now [in Canada] all packaging for any cannabis touching product has to be childproof, cannot have any kind of metallics on it, cannot have any neon colors. The logo has to be a very specific size and that’s the only brand mark allowed on it. All the labels have to be a solid color, so it is actually really hard to differentiate packaging, especially, to your point, in a brand like this where packaging and the unboxing experience matters.
We’ve done two things. First we launched a line of cannabis accessories that are beautifully packaged, everything you would imagine from un-packaging a beautiful piece of jewelry or technology, and we helped to communicate our brand positioning in that way.
And then one of the biggest places to market in Canada, and everywhere probably, is in store. So what we’ve done is created glorified packaging for our in-store displays and visual merchandising that really communicate how we want our packaging to look, what would happen in the ideal world.
So that’s something that’s very different in the cannabis world versus CBD that we’ve had to navigate through.
MP: I want to move into the field marketing piece in a second but let’s make sure we cover that fourth brand.
Rochkin: THUMBS UP is the brand we created for those who are 18% of the of consumers but actually 90% of the market. They have huge purchasing power because they’re smoking every day. This product is, honestly, just about super high quality, which to our consumer means high THC. And the plant is treated with love and care for a fair price. They’re buying in bulk, so we have to make sure that our product doesn’t break the bank. And that’s the key value proposition. 
I want to add, because I think it’ll play a big role, is our key differentiator is how important it is to give back. For our brands, 10% of the profits from every single thing we sell goes back to the community. And being able to talk to those charitable organizations, get involved with them, has really helped differentiate us in this market.
MP: I wanted to spend a second on that idea of differentiation. Since you’ve got all of these challenges around packaging and around advertising, where and how does the differentiation takes place?
Rochkin: First, it takes place at the store level. The people working in the store level, your retail staff, they’re your number one sales driver. They are the key opinion leader in this industry, and they drive the majority of the volume. So one of the things that’s super important to us from a marketing perspective is building relationships with them, having an engagement plan, and making sure we are constantly communicating those key differentiators. So when someone walks into their store asking what they recommend or what helps with sleep, or what they want for the weekends, our products are always top of mind.
The other place that we do work hard to differentiate is on our own media platforms. So, while we can buy programmatic, and we do as long as it’s targeted to 19+, there’s a group of people who’s actually doing research before they leave the house to figure out what to buy because the market is so confusing right now. So making sure we leverage our own media platforms and keep them active. So our websites and all of our social media platforms, our newsletter, go a long way to be able to communicate our differentiation.
MP: In field marketing what are the things that you can do at that “budtender” level?
Rochkin: In Canada right now we cannot sample. Which I would say is the number one thing I would want to do. I believe there’s some US markets where you can. But if you learn anything from CPG, it’s to get them to try the product. Trial then repeat. And that’s one thing that we can’t do. 
So what we do instead is work hard to, firstly, offer as many points of education as possible. There are thousands of skews and it is hard to differentiate different strains from one another. It’s hard for a budtender to even remember all the strains. So education is number one. And we do that through in-store product knowledge sessions. Traditional content marketing; we’ve developed deep email lists by offering interesting content to our budtenders and consistently sending out and engaging with those email lists. 
Many of them also want to do more with their lives than be dispensary managers or store-level staff. So we’ve offered them this opportunity to share their side hustle or given them platforms through our social media or events that we host. Giving them platforms to elevate themselves and appreciate them and show them that we know that they are the experts in the field, and that’s actually gone a long way to differentiating. 
The other piece that we pulled them in on is 10% for good. So we asked them to come volunteer with us. We asked them what causes they care about, and it really helps us stay top of mind.
MP: That sort of segues into my next question. I wanted to ask you about how your six years of marketing at General Mills and what principles still hold true here. 
Rochkin: I actually think a lot of the same principles apply. As I think about influencer marketing, for sure the focus, at least, that we had at General Mills on trade marketing and your in store engagement, that’s still hugely powerful in an industry where most people walk into a store and…are not going in asking for a specific strain or brand. They’re just saying, so I’d like to smoke something today, how can you help me? All of those in-store engagements and everything that you learn or that’s leveraged at a big CPG would remain here. Everyone wants, as you do in CPG, the biggest market share, the biggest revenue, and remembering that you’re not for everyone and that’s okay, but if you do really well in your niche you can still win. 
I would say the biggest difference is that your consumer changes all the time. And honestly the Cheerios consumer, while there may be small changes is pretty consistent over the past decades. It’s not the same for this industry. There’s new people entering every day. So you have to constantly be learning and constantly be iterating, and that was a big change for me.
MP: Is there anything that you think CPGs could learn from cannabis marketers?
Rochkin: I think there’s two key ideas. Firstly, this idea of being super agile. I think you see it in a lot of direct-to-consumer companies. When I was in CPG, there was this idea of holding tightly to your consumer truth like a thread of steel that will keep your brand consistent over time. And in cannabis I’ve learned that we need to grow up with our consumers. If you want to retain them, know who you’re for. If they change, look at yourself and say how should I change, too?
The other thing is the power of one-to-one marketing. When you have a product that you need to educate on, that you need to spend a lot of time comforting people’s fears or learning about their needs; the power of one-to-one marketing, of events, it just goes such a long way. I think [specifically] in cannabis; when learning is how you develop that truly loyal consumer who will come back every single day to purchase your products, defend you online, defend you on Reddit, and just really be that super loyal consumer.