Josh Otten, founder and CEO of cannabis-focused marketing shop Ronin, is expanding into the media sphere, launching Social Club TV, a content distribution network dedicated to weed.
This marks Otten's second foray into marijuana-driven programming. Six years ago, he co-founded Prøhbtd, one of the first notable players in the space, streaming shows about cannabis and popular culture. Available on AppleTV, Roku and its own dedicated website, Prøhbtd generates millions of monthly views—while also providing product development and marketing services.
The combination of Ronin (which has handled projects for Easyriders and Tweed Collective since opening last year) and Social Club TV marks an evolution of the Prøhbtd model.
"Prøhbtd is now a lifestyle brand operated by Future State Brands, which is building a portfolio focused around CBD and THC," Otten tells Muse. For the new venture, "I wanted to focus on building an OTT platform with not only owned and operated content, but curated content from like-minded creators—giving them a platform and an audience," he says. "This is something we never did at Prøhbtd."
His current teams offers advertising and brand design plus production through a full-service agency, "with a content distribution backend via Social Club TV—all on a work-for-hire basis," he says.
With legal U.S. marijuana sales projected to nearly triple past $30 billion by 2023, Otten is betting that Ronin and Social Club will provide fertile ground to help nascent brands grow.
"The cannabis industry has been in constant flux over the last six-plus years," he says. "Until there is federal legalization, and banking issues are solved, cannabis brands will continue to operate in a localized manner. Each market—California, Oregon, Michigan, Florida, etc.—has challenges as it relates to branding, marketing, regulations and scaling. The one constant is that cannabis still has to adapt to consumer product discovery and purchase behavior. Helping create consumer sentiment and purchase intent for cannabis will not be much different from how CPG, alcohol and other consumer goods drive brand awareness."
Social Club TV—and yes, Otten knows SCTV also stands for Second City Television, the famed sketch comedy show, and he's a big fan—bows as a free app for iOS and Android, through a content syndication partnership with PlutoTV, and via Apple TV, Android TV and Roku.
"At the end of the day," Otten says, "cannabis, as an ingredient or product, is similar to beer or wine: There are subtle differences in taste, flavor and effect, but those aren't the factors that will determine why one brand is successful versus another." Smart marketing that respects weed consumption as a lifestyle, he says, will play a pivotal role.
In our chat below, which has been edited and condensed, Otten maps out his plan for growth and explains some tactics cannabis marketers can use to help their brands catch fire.
Muse: How do Ronin and SCTV complement each other?
Josh Otten: To help separate the two entities, think of Ronin and Social Club TV as similar to Virtue and Vice. SCTV is our content distribution platform, and the content on the platform is a mix of owned IP and licensed content. Ronin is our creative services agency that has proprietary access to a large consumer demographic via SCTV, and can harness that data and audience to help develop creative strategies for cannabis, hemp and traditional brands who want to reach this massive demo.
How closely will SCTV creative be tied to Ronin's clients?
The content on the platform is going to be 95 percent original lifestyle focused—people won't watch 35 minutes of infomercials. We will utilize our content to facilitate brand discovery and introduce our audience to new emerging brands in a similar way that Tastemade creates branded content. However, our No. 1 focus is that our content is entertaining. We are offering brands access to channels, as right now they do not have a way to distribute their content to get it seen on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc. Even if their channels don't get shut down, there is no real way for them to monetize content or grow their audience. I can't tell you the number of times we've seen brand partners have their pages deleted. So we will allow brands to have channels where they curate and create content that will help educate consumers.
So, it won't be pot-specific all the time; you'll have a mix?
We have a very wide content strategy that includes docuseries, scripted comedies, how-to/education, cooking shows, lifestyle, and travel but also goes beyond just "this + weed." We are acquiring docs on criminal justice, shows about entrepreneurs, even series around conspiracy theories and aliens. And we will have a channel where audiences who are, let's say, in an altered state can watch visually compelling content set to music and beats. We are also expanding on our relationship with PlutoTV, providing them with exclusive releases and content in exchange for consistent programmable blocks on their THC channel.
Can you describe some key SCTV shows?
Dope State is a six-episode docu-comedy about the gold-rush culture of the California weed industry, starring Gabriel Sunday, Dan Harmon, the Lucas Brothers and Adrian Grenier. Gabe is one of the most talented actors and creators I've ever worked with, and we are expanding this universe he's created to include new episodes and formats. It's the Spinal Tap for the weed industry, and it premiered last year on PlutoTV and did very well.
Secret bookshelves, motorcycle garages and the latest in grow technology come together in Pimp My Grow. We partnered with DNA Genetics and some of the best agtech brands in the world to help "prosumers" create compliant and legal home grows.
Marijuana Mania star Berner, a Bay Area rap star and Cookies founder, is one of the most well-known cannabis celebrities, who has built a multinational brand, with licenses from L.A. to Detroit to Israel. That gives him access to some of the most amazing grows and cultivation operations in the world. We follow him and his team as he explores the exploding world of cannabis cultivation.
We are also launching a news show with the founders of The Blacklist XYZ, which is the WikiLeaks of the cannabis space. They have over 130,000 followers, and their platform allows consumers and business owners to expose corrupt and bad actors in the space via their website, where people can upload content anonymously.
What kind of results are you looking to generate?
We are looking to average around $20 CPMs, primarily based on the fact that we have broadcast-quality content, a niche and focused audience, and via our linear viewing experience can guarantee ads are being watched. While I don't have a specific advertiser signed up on launch, we are talking to more mainstream brands that aren't in the cannabis/hemp space but are interested in reaching an audience that would be a good fit for their products and services. As a quick example, Google "millennials and cereal" and you will find a variety of articles about how "millennials are killing cereal companies" but meanwhile there are consumers who are using cannabis who are eating Fruity Pebbles.
What's your target audience, and how will you get the word out?
Our audience varies from people who make up the "endemic" cannabis consumer—someone for whom cannabis is a part of their daily routine, either for recreational or medicinal purposes—to the "canna-curious." Because our content is better produced than the average content you are getting on social media, and is created to fit into a broadcast/linear format, we can reach audiences that want to watch premium shows and series across a variety of genres. We are partnering with several well-known content creators and creating new programs to launch the platform who will then help us promote it on their owned and operated media channels. This includes Cookies founder Berner (1.2 million followers), Weed.Vids (320,000 followers) and even Mr. Checkpoint (218,000 followers), who is creating a series with us on criminal justice.
What are your goals for the next year?
Our 2020 goals are to get to over 1,000 hours from original IP, new movie and documentary premieres, TV shows and educational content. With that library, we are aiming for 1 billion minutes watched. We have a ways to go, but I'm confident with our partnerships, content library and offers, we can hit that number.
Which cannabis advertising approaches work, and which don't?
Because it is very tough to run traditional paid ads across Google, Facebook, etc., using content to create brand awareness and build brand loyalty is an effective way to navigate tough marketing restrictions. If you look at a successful brand like Cookies, which has stores around the country, they focus a large portion of their marketing efforts and budgets on creating content and building a brand that goes beyond just strain names and THC percentages.
Cannabis is the only product in the world that can fit into so many different consumption categories. You can have cannabis brands that are focused on recreational consumers and lifestyle marketing, similar to the beer, wine and alcohol industries; you can create products and brands driven around good-for-you and health and wellness, focused on outcomes and activity groups similar to the nutraceutical industry; and create patented pharmaceutical products where cannabinoids are utilized to cure and solve very specific diseases and chronic conditions. Epidiolex is a great example of that. As brands start to emerge and pick their lanes, they will have to create marketing campaigns that will attract and market to the consumer demographic that is interested in that product, but also is a match for the specific market category.
So, how should cannabis marketers proceed?
You have to go beyond iPhone shots of your cannabis and tours of your grow facility. You have to build a consistent narrative and market to the specific consumers you want to reach. At the same time, focusing on a specific strain or a specific outcome can be risky—building your brand around a strain name that you may not actually own or can be easily commoditized will devalue your brand over time. Also promising specific outcomes—sleep, relaxation, alertness, etc.—when people will react differently to cannabis is also challenging. Promising someone that this one product will help you sleep when it may only work on 50-65 percent of the population means you will have a large percentage of consumers that get turned off of your brand.
Is there a non-weed model that cannabis marketers should follow?
If you look at the alcohol business, it is an exceptionally crowded space, and yet new brands emerge every year—there are over 1,350 registered tequila brands that are driving sales not by flavor, alcohol percentage or how drunk it gets you, but by focusing on consumer demographics, purchase behavior and content marketing.
Look at a Red Bull and 5 Hour Energy—both have very similar outcomes even though they come in different forms and are similarly priced. But the way they are marketed, and even how they are sold, is very different. Google "Red Bull" and you see merchandise and a massive content marketing platform. 5 Hour Energy is all price and outcome-driven. Brands that know who their consumer is, know what market their brand operates in, and invest in marketing that will help them sell and build brands will be successful.