2 Minutes With ... Cannabis Marketing and Comms Leader, Amy Larson
A strategic communications and marketing professional, Amy dedicated her career to the cannabis industry in 2015, during a tenure as vice president at Cohn. Earlier, she spent 15+ years working in the consumer, tourism, retail and real-estate industries.
Amy most recently held the role of senior vice president of marketing and communications at TILT Holdings, a global provider of cannabis business solutions that include inhalation technologies, cultivation, manufacturing, processing, brand development and retail.
She has served as a mentor for Canopy Boulder, and recently completed her term chairing the National Cannabis Industry Association's Marketing & Advertising Committee. Since 2013, Amy has also served on the advisory board and as PR Advisor for the Colorado Freedom Memorial.
Amy is a proud #cannamom to two teenagers, and is working to normalize and de-stigmatize the plant, and to make cannabis more approachable and relatable for moms, both as a medicine and as an acceptable recreational alternative.
We spent two minutes with Amy to learn more about her background, creative inspirations and some recent work she's admired.
Amy, tell us...
Where you grew up, and where you live now.
I was born in Wichita, but we moved to Bakersfield, Calif., when I was about two. From there, we moved to Mesa, Ariz., when I was in fourth grade, and I stayed in the Phoenix area through college. I moved to Denver in the summer of 2000, and met my husband about six weeks later. We will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary later this year, and now live out in the suburbs with our teenage kids.
How you first got interested in cannabis.
I started my PR and marketing career primarily focused in tourism and hospitality. Shortly after Colorado's adult-use market opened, I was approached by a company that led cannabis consumption tours that was also organizing an event called World Cannabis Week. They were looking for someone with connections to travel media, convention and meeting planners, DMOs, etc.
Shortly after that project concluded, around the summer of 2015, I took a position at an integrated marketing agency overseeing business development, the PR department, etc., and was tasked with determining how deep the agency wanted to commit to cannabis. That's when I really began digging in, getting involved, attending conferences and educating myself about the industry and its challenges. It was during a conference in Phoenix that I heard Ricky Williams and Kyle Turley speak about how their coaches and physicians would push almost any alternative—drinking, additional prescription drugs—while cannabis was what really helped and healed them. I refer to that as my "lightbulb moment." After that, I went to my CEO and told him that I thought there was an amazing opportunity to help de-stigmatize and legitimize this industry. And so, over the next several months, I worked to help build and then lead the agency's cannabis-dedicated division.
One of your favorite projects you've ever worked on, and why.
One of the first "built from the bottom up" cannabis brands I worked on was for a Denver-based operator, Seed & Smith, that was just beginning construction on their facility. We worked with their team to develop all of the messaging, creative, naming and even helped direct the interior design of the dispensary. I remember brainstorming names at the time—which is one of the most difficult and subjective parts of branding—and we were trying hard to stay away from anything too "flowery" or medical sounding, but land on a name that really represented the craft and art that goes into quality cannabis cultivation and production. After going through a couple of rounds, the name came to me, and when we presented "Seed & Smith" as an option, we knew it was perfect. During the presentation, one of the founders responded with the comment that the name "just didn't speak to him." Once we reminded him that HE was not his target customer, he reconsidered, and agreed to move forward with it. Now, nearly seven years later, the brand has evolved, but the name hasn't changed, and I still get to say that I helped name them.
A recent project you're proud of, and why.
I'm really proud of TILT's partnership with the Shinnecock Nation near Southampton, N.Y., to build the tribe's dispensary, Little Beach Harvest. The brand work, while not live yet, is unique to the cannabis industry because it's representative of the Shinnecock people and the core values that are important to them. We worked closely with tribal members to create the Little Beach Harvest brand, developing naming conventions that were authentically representative of the Shinnecock people.
The biggest challenge cannabis marketers face today, and how to approach it.
One of the biggest challenges cannabis marketers face remains the limitations on where and how we can reach and engage with consumers and patients on a consistent and meaningful basis. Because cannabis can't cross state lines, brands looking to expand either have to invest millions in licenses and operations in each state, or partner with companies to grow, produce and sell their products for them. In addition to the potential product quality discrepancies from market to market, each state has different regulations around not only advertising, but packaging and labeling. Medical markets are incredibly challenging. In Pennsylvania, flower can be sold but it can't be marketed as being "smokable" (so, no pre-rolls), and edibles are not an approved form factor. In Ohio, any content or collateral that might be patient-facing must be submitted to the state for approval, including social media posts. That approval can take up to two weeks, rendering content out of date before you even get to post it.
The best advice I can give to brands and marketers is to make sure you really know your audience and your market before you decide to invest or expand. Brands with a strong ethos and consumer following will continue to succeed, while those who are just putting out product after product will quickly fade. Brands and marketers also need to have a good handle on what compromises they are willing to make in order to expand. For example, last fall, TILT launched Ricky Williams' Highsman brand in Pennsylvania, but the Dept. of Health determined that the name "Highsman" was too recreational for a medical market, so the brand went live under the name "H." Same branding, same strain exclusivity, slightly different name.
One thing about how the cannabis industry is evolving that you're excited about.
I love the evolution toward microdosing and highlighting some of the more minor cannabinoids beyond just CBD and THC. I love CBN for sleep. As someone with a very low tolerance regardless—a single glass of wine is about all I need—a 2.5mg edible is all I need for a little boost in the afternoon. Any more than that, and it's pretty much time for a nap.
Someone else's work, in cannabis or beyond, that you admired lately.
I've always admired Nancy Whiteman and the work she's done building Wana Brands. Her recent announcement about founding the Wana Brands Foundation followed by making a seven-figure donation to cannabis research is the type of heart and leadership we need more of in this industry.
A book, movie, TV show or podcast you recently found inspiring.
As a full-time working mom, I don't get a ton of time to watch TV, and now that I don't commute anymore, podcasts are out the window. Most of the time I'm watching reruns of shows like Friends or Parks & Rec because they make good background noise while I work at night. However, my 15-year-old daughter and I got hooked on Dead to Me. As we waited for the last season to air last year, I also learned about Christina Applegate's M.S. diagnosis and how hard she fought to make sure that last season got made. I grew up on the Kelly Bundy version of Christina Applegate, so to see her strength and poise and commitment to the project despite what she was battling physically was incredibly inspiring.
Your main strength as a marketer/creative.
My commitment to strategy. Followed closely by my passion as a "builder," whether that's building brands, teams, strategies or relationships.
Your biggest weakness.
It's an interesting combination of being a bit of a cynic, while also being a "people pleaser." I hate saying "no," and never want to let anyone down, nor do I want anyone to think there's something I can't do (other than carry a tune). However—and I think it's from years of managing PR and crisis communications—I will always call out the potential negative impact, reaction or outcome of any campaign, activation or message.
Something people would find surprising about you.
That I'm a soccer mom. Who is married to a police officer. And have the vocabulary of a drunken sailor. And I will unintentionally kill every houseplant you make me responsible for.
One thing that always makes you happy.
Seeing my kids happy and finding things they are passionate about, whether it's my daughter playing soccer, or the hours my son spends playing guitar. Watching them grow into strong, smart, kind human beings is the thing I'm most proud of.
One thing that always makes you sad.
As a Cancer, there's pretty much always a good chance tears are waiting to well up just under the surface. As a parent, thinking about the moments of my kids growing up that I missed and can't get back always makes me sad. The saying "the days are long but the years are short" is the most accurate description of parenthood ever.
What you'd be doing if you weren’t in the cannabis industry.
I'd probably still be living the agency life, driving new-business development. I love connecting and building relationships and helping companies grow to the next level.