Airfield's Chris Lane on Breaking Through the Noise to Build Great Cannabis Brands

Plus, addressing ecological and social issues in the industry

Chris Lane is chief marketing officer of Airfield Supply Co., a full-service cannabis dispensary in San Jose, California, located near the San Jose Airport. Chris leads brand strategy, activation and growth to turn one of America's highest-volume cannabis retail businesses into an industry thought leader and creative force.

He's responsible for scaling brand and product strategy for Airfield and in-house brand Jetfuel Cannabis and marketing methodology as the company looks to modernize the cannabis industry. Before becoming CMO in 2019, Chris was a brand and marketing adviser to Airfield, leading its rebrand from its former name and identity as South Bay Healing Center.

Before Airfield, Chris most recently was global head of branding for Fivver. He began his career at Edelman.

We spoke with Chris for our Higher Calling series, where we chat with leaders in the cannabis space.


Chris, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, a town in the St. Louis metropolitan area, where I was caught between a charming family suburb that was enamored with the joy of moving slow and a city learning how to catch up. It was a great place to grow up, but I always had eyes on California and moved out here to attend college at Santa Clara University.

I now live in San Anselmo, which is also a fascinating little place in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, where I lived in the Nob Hill area for the previous decade. San Anselmo is a sweet place situated between the posh homes of the somewhat conservative town of Ross and the famously liberal town of Fairfax, which has a pretty mythical legacy as the home of hippies, rock stars, counterculture personalities, and all the fun and chaos that comes with that world. Van Morrison's parents owned the local record store; everyone knows which houses the Grateful Dead used to throw parties at; and Gary Fisher invented mountain biking just down the street from my house. I like to straddle these cultures—it's a hell of an ethnographic study. 

Your current role in the cannabis industry, and where you're based.

I am the chief marketing officer of Airfield Supply Company, the largest and highest performing single-site dispensary business in California. We're located in San Jose, which always surprises people to learn is actually the third largest city in the state—much larger than San Francisco or Oakland! For a variety of reasons, including our location near the airport, we see about 1,300-1,500 customers in our store each day.

A story about the positive impact cannabis has had on your life.

Other than cannabis offering me a thriving and constantly evolving profession, it is cannabis' amazing social and welcoming power that strikes me most powerfully.

I've been lucky enough to travel to a lot of unique places in the world, and it is always so remarkable to me how cannabis is the constant connection point among strangers. From Paris to Hong Kong to Tel Aviv to South Africa, sharing cannabis has been a consistent way for me to connect and find a place to belong. One of the best nights of my life was spent on the Dead Sea smoking cannabis with colleagues I'd met just the day before and who are now close friends. I've had so many nights enhanced by a little cannabis helping me get to know friendly people. It is such a communal thing that breaks down barriers, and every culture has it in their history. It's pretty incredible to not speak a word of the same language, yet still be able to connect.

A favorite flower, edible, product or brand.

Airfield grows a special strain of the famed Jack Herer for our house brand, Jetfuel Cannabis, and it is my favorite thing ever. I'm definitely more of an "up and energetic" kind of person, and this Jack is such a perfect creative and energy boost, it doesn't cloud you at all. Our brilliant chief cultivation officer Noah Sweeters has been perfecting this specific strain for about a decade, and it really has reached epic levels.

The other flower I constantly recommend is Flow Kana's Pink Boost Goddess. Similar to our Jack, it's a very punchy and fun kind of strain that features a high level of THCV, a unique cannabinoid offshoot of THC that induces focus, and gets you going without taking you off the rails. That's exactly where I love cannabis playing a role—especially in the creative process. 

The biggest challenge cannabis marketers face today.

Other than the Schedule 1 discriminations that we come up against with advertising and social media restrictions, I would say that it's simply cutting through the noise. This is a young, loud industry packed with a lot of amazing professionals who are scrambling to stay abreast of its constant changes. We're in a slightly different position as a vertical dispensary brand, because California is such a massive market and has so few legal retail outlets. That leadership position gives Airfield the luxury to really explore our branding, which we have conceived of as an homage to the glory days of airplane travel, when passengers would dress up and look forward to having an experience in the sky. From our Jetfuel Cannabis in-house brand to the tarmac look of our retail floor to the airport feel of our lobby to our slogan that "High Is a Place," we can spin our brand narrative out like a skein.

I stay awake at night thinking about how we can deliver a more compelling and immersive experience building a complete world for our customers. Whether it is on the product side or on the retail side, we have so much opportunity to go beyond just selling cannabis, and we as marketers in this industry have the obligation to push those boundaries. We've really only scratched the surface.   

One thing you're excited about right now in cannabis branding, partnerships or marketing.

The opportunity to have impact beyond just cannabis is so important to us. We're devoted to a variety of ecological and social issues and are expanding our bandwidth to address them. As an example, we've just launched a first-of-its-kind collaboration with the manufacturer CannaCraft and the recycler Resynergi to capture plastic waste. In an effort to be compliant with child-proof regulations, cannabis packaging typically creates a lot of excess plastic trash, and Resynergi has the technology to turn that waste into fuel. We're partnering with CannaCraft to pilot a program that offers recycling receptacles for our customers to upcycle that material into usable fuel. Based in Silicon Valley with its culture of innovation, we're certain our consumers are going to respond really positively to this initiative. We're always striving to be more than just a store. 

A cannabis trade/social justice organization that you support.

The Veterans Cannabis Project is dear to us. Airfield began as a medicinal dispensary some 10 years ago in order to serve those who need cannabis' healing properties the most. We offer a 20 percent discount to veterans every week and continue to give a discrete amount of cannabis away for free each month to veterans and other patients who can't afford to purchase it. CEO Marc Matulich's family has a proud history of service to our country, and supporting our veterans is a value we're honored to uphold.

A project you worked on recently that you're proud of.

I have a million projects in the works that were upended and extended due to the 2020 pandemic, most of which have yet to reach fruition due to its disruption. The one project that I didn't expect and wasn't prepared for is, however, the one of which I am most proud—and that's the pivot we had to make to scale our delivery business once the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders were enforced last March. Our county was California's ground zero for the pandemic, with the state's first recorded infection occurring here, and our health officer took it very seriously. Even though cannabis was declared "essential," our ability to meet customers inside our dispensary was grossly impacted. Upping our delivery services became instantly paramount, so we quickly purchased and upgraded six Tesla sedans to expand our fleet, updated our POS system to implement a touchless prepayment system, and essentially launched ourselves headlong into an Amazon Prime moment in which our customers can access a one-click delivery system when ordering their cannabis. We had been eyeing these changes for the future but had to take them on the fly at a thousand miles an hour—and I'm glad to say it's been a smashing success.

Someone else's project you admired recently.

Inside the cannabis world, I love Pure Beauty. It has all of the makings of a world-class brand—which is to say it has a reason to exist, an aesthetic that reflects the brand, and it gives zero fucks about people's opinions of them. That is the kind of tone that changes the world. 

Someone you admire in cannabis who's doing great things.

Groundbreaking Israeli scientist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam continues to drive and impact our space tremendously. Dr. Mechoulam is the researcher who discovered the human cannabinoid system and was the first to successfully isolate both THC and CBD. Now 90, he continues to uncover more discoveries about the amazing properties contained within cannabis. This past summer he announced the creation of synthesized cannabinoid acids that will evidently change the pharmaceutical application of CBD. It's all very much over my head, but it really emphasizes to me that creativity and discovery are available to us at any age—and that cannabis really is as remarkable as it seems. 

What you'd be doing if you weren't in the cannabis industry.

I trained in college to be a painter, so perhaps I'd be in a Florentine loft filled with canvases and oils and weirdly molding fruit ... But I'd probably be in consumer brand strategy. Once you get a taste for the kind of creative work that allows you to actually impact people's lives, it's hard to imagine being happy doing anything else. It sounds silly, but I love building brands. Creating authentic, interesting amorphous things for people to engage with is just so fun. It's like painting, but with a bigger canvas to work with, honestly. That may be the ultimate creative cliché, but then perhaps so am I.

Higher Calling is a weekly series, publishing on Thursdays, where we chat with folks in the cannabis industry about their personal history and taste in cannabis and the future of cannabis marketing. For more about Higher Calling, and our Clio Cannabis program, please get in touch.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards, editor of Muse by Clio, and host of the podcast Tagline. Previously, he was creative editor at Adweek.

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