Cirona Labs' Cam MacNeil on Why Product Quality Is Key in Cannabis

Plus, his work with Guardian Athletic and innovation in the beverage space

Cam MacNeil is a seasoned marketing and sales professional, with experience working on global consumer brands such as Coors Light, Cheerios and Jose Cuervo.

In 2018, Cam joined the cannabis industry, leading the development of Canada's first THC-infused cannabis drink at Canopy Growth Corporation. He became director of global product development for Canopy's Beverages & Edibles division, overseeing 30-plus product launches from brands such as Houseplant, Quatreau and Martha Stewart CBD. He currently serves as chief commercial officer of Cirona Labs, a U.S.-based biotech company that uses scientific research to create more effective cannabinoid ingredients.

Cam brings a balance of consumer passion, CPG business acumen, and entrepreneurial spirit to the cannabis industry. He lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter, and is an avid music, travel and sports fan.

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

Cam, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I was born and raised in Toronto and still live here now. I'm working for a company based in the U.S., but I continue to live north of the border. Remote work has unlocked some amazing new opportunities while allowing me to still be close to family.

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

I am the chief commercial officer at Cirona Labs, a U.S.-based biotechnology company. We create water-soluble cannabinoid ingredients backed by solid science. I got my start in the industry in 2018 when I joined Canopy Growth, where I led their beverage team and launched the first THC-infused drink in Canada. At Cirona Labs, we have learned a ton about infusing cannabinoids into different product types and we saw the need for improved quality—and better products start with better ingredients. I love working on the forefront of innovation in this space, and in my first six months in role, I've been fascinated at the advances that technology can offer this rapidly evolving industry.

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

My mother-in-law suffers from insomnia and has tried several pharmaceutical treatments over the years. More recently, she's explored medical cannabis and found some balanced CBD:THC capsules that offer a better experience than prescription sleeping pills. It might not be a miracle cure, but the pandemic has allowed us all to explore new routines that may not have fit into our former lifestyles—and I think cannabis is going to benefit hugely from this experimentation. It's exciting working in the industry, then watching family and friends discover the benefits of cannabis through their own path and at their own pace.

A favorite flower, edible, product or brand.

I really admire the Kolab brand for several different reasons. First, the creative design is awesome. I especially love the photography of concentrates and vapes—it's visually stunning. They're also pushing the boundaries of product design with live terp sticks, concentrate pens, diamonds and resin gummies. These are unique iterations or twists to familiar formats, which is real innovation from my perspective. A lot of cannabis marketing is incredibly cringe-worthy, but in my opinion, Kolab is sleek, purposeful and worth checking out.

The biggest challenge cannabis marketers face today.

The lack of scientific evidence to support product claims is still a big challenge. Marketers are keen to find claims that demonstrate efficacy—like "fast-acting" or "promotes better sleep," but in many cases, brands either don't have the proof or don't care to find it. For some, anecdotal evidence or a panel of their peers is good enough. For others, they purposely loosen the claims, tiptoeing around the connection, like "designed for fast onset" or "part of a bedtime routine." We're now finally starting to see media coverage to call out the lack of science, which is a step in the right direction. Marketers that promote these claims without scientific evidence are creating a confusing—if not misleading—world for cannabis consumers.

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

The most successful marketing hook has now become consistent delivery of quality. No level of celebrity branding or deep price discounts can offset the feeling that comes from opening a sticky gummy or a dusty bag of popcorn buds. It's a massive letdown and with the number of other options available, cannabis brands simply can't afford to let mediocre experiences happen. I'm happy to see this renewed focus on the basics of product quality, it's the first promise that the brand has to keep.

A cannabis trade/social justice organization that you support.

I'm inspired by the work that Cannabis Amnesty is doing to reverse criminal convictions in Canada. I was exposed to the DOJA x Pardon collaboration originally back in 2019, and it opened my eyes to the enduring personal consequences of prohibition. Still, it's obvious that Canada's Cannabis Act has made social justice an afterthought of legalization. It's important to see many American jurisdictions build and mandate social impact programs into infrastructure and policy—it's essential that it's addressed at the onset of legislation. At Cirona Labs, we're starting a social impact program this summer that's focused on empowering minority-owned businesses with access to science and research & development.

A recent project you're proud of.

We recently worked with a CBD sports performance brand called Guardian Athletic, formulating a high-quality emulsion ingredient for their beverages. The formulation is complex, with real fruit juices, a blend of vitamins, and 25mg CBD. It's also one of the best-tasting CBD beverages we've ever tried, so we knew how important it was to control any unpleasant taste notes from the CBD. We did a number of iterations, collaborating with an amazing team at Guardian and their network of production partners. We're all very excited by the final result and look forward to watching Guardian grow!

Someone else's project you admired recently.

The Cookies retail store opening in Toronto was really cool to watch. Cookies opened a store in an area of downtown that's already packed and oversaturated with cannabis retail shops. The store opened with at least a dozen other competitive locations within a few blocks' radius, in the middle of Toronto winter, and still had a lineup around the block outside in freezing temperatures. The team at Cookies is building an amazing community and it's fun to watch that play out close to home.

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

Beverage entrepreneurs are a different breed of crazy—and I say that as a compliment. They're operating in a small segment of the market against big players and usually still finding ways to outpace, outsmart and outperform. Building a drinks business is a huge challenge, even with money and resources—I can say that from experience. Watching what entrepreneurs can endure and overcome with these additional headwinds is truly inspiring.

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

Making other products that put smiles on faces. I've sold beer, tequila, breakfast cereal and weed—the smiles are the common thread. :)

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.

Jessica MacAulay
Jessica MacAulay is a contributor for Muse by Clio. She's also a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder's College of Media, Communication, and Information.

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