Grasslands CMO Jesse Burns on Building Meaningful Cannabis Cultures

And why marketers in the space need to see restrictions as opportunities

Jesse Burns is a cannabis marketing veteran who served as the longtime marketing director for Sweet Grass—Colorado's leading edible in the baked goods category—before joining Grasslands, the cannabis marketing and public relations agency, as CMO in 2020.

Jesse believes product design and a deep understanding of the customer journey are the driving forces for exceptional brands, and that marketers must strive to understand what emotions customers experience in order to craft a meaningful brand narrative and build lasting relationships. 

Selected as a Clio Cannabis Awards juror in 2022, Jesse has received multiple accolades for marketing and product design, including Colorado's THC Classic and a Gold Clio. He also has served as a mentor for the CanopyBoulder cannabis startup incubator.

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


Jesse, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

When you ask someone from West Virginia where they are from, they will often raise their left fist and extend their middle finger and thumb, which makes the shape of the state. They then point to the place on the back of their hand and that is technically "where they are from." I'm from outside the bottom knuckle of the thumb. Nowadays I live in Denver by way of a few other states, countries and Humboldt County.

Your current role in the cannabis industry.

I'm the chief marketing officer for Grasslands, a cannabis marketing and public relations agency based in Denver, Colorado. I work with our team on all of the agency's marketing, as well as the marketing products we offer our clients. We're a journalism-minded agency specializing in complicated business languages, and we work primarily with cannabis businesses. My favorite client work is when we create brand messaging and position brands to achieve their business goals. 

Your earliest cannabis memory.

My earliest cannabis memory is the "This Is Your Brain on Drugs"—egg in the frying pan—commercial that played during Saturday morning cartoons in the early '90s. While it never specifically addressed cannabis, I was taught that "weed" was a drug, and the commercial  haunted me for years, even after I started consuming cannabis. Years later I would find out that while my friends and I were sitting through D.A.R.E. lessons in public school learning how everyone who smoked weed was a dangerous drug dealer, many of my friends' parents were quietly growing cannabis at home.

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

When Coloradans voted on Amendment 64 in 2012, I was living up in the hills of Humboldt County, California. I received my absentee ballot via general delivery at a small rural post office, where I checked the "yes" box and sent it back to Colorado before heading back up the hill. 

I deeply appreciate the medicinal and therapeutic relationship many people have with cannabis. I also deeply appreciate the recreational relationship consumers have with the plant. Yet, for me personally, the impact is different. 

I have always had a deep passion for the culture, or counterculture, that cannabis has influenced and often defined. The ability to vote to legalize an industry that has enabled me to channel my focus and passion into the business world; to be on the forefront of this brand-new industry; and to be a marketer who is shaping the future of the industry—it's truly the cumulative opportunity of a lifetime. My career mission and throughline is to empower people to create their own cannabis cultures, and to make meaningful culture in ways they want to experience it. 

A favorite flower, edible, product, or brand.

For six years I was the director of marketing for Sweet Grass (acquired by LivWell Enlightened Health in 2020), a legacy Colorado edibles brand that specialized in cannabutter baked goods. The cannabutter we made is how cannabis is supposed to be eaten. There's no "nano" or "fast-acting" or "innovative" extraction technology out there that can give you the full-body effect you can get from a full-flower cannabutter product. While I was at Sweet Grass, we designed an actual stick of butter to sell in dispensaries—a product that ended up winning a Gold Clio in the inaugural year of the Clio Cannabis Awards. There is nothing better than a dosed stick of butter sitting on your kitchen counter. 

The biggest challenge cannabis marketers face today.

I honestly believe that the biggest challenges cannabis marketers face today are self-manifested. So often we hear about shutdowns and restrictive regulations, and how they get in the way of marketing. Yet I am a firm believer that by flipping the lens, we can use these regulations, challenges and hardships to spur creativity and create truly groundbreaking work. I encourage all cannabis marketers to color outside the lines and set the textbooks on fire; to go out there and use these perceived handcuffs as a source of inspiration and power. 

A cannabis trade/social justice organization that you support.

Business is the most significant force for change in our current world; it's the power we as entrepreneurs and employees have to create and move towards the world we want to live in.

Cannabis Doing Good helps businesses understand and guide that, and I am a big fan of their work. Here at Grasslands, our Diversity-In-Marketing Internship Program helps diversify our own perspectives on public relations and marketing, and it is one way we are contributing to the world and industry we want to see.

A recent project you're proud of.

Every year Grasslands designs and prints a physical, poster-size annual calendar as a part of a direct mail campaign. We work with local artists, designers and an in-house writing team to make one of the coolest pieces of swag out there. I have a passion for the analog, and breathing new life into a medium that is often regarded as outdated and turning that into art is a truly gratifying exercise. And then to see our friends and clients hang the calendar on their walls is remarkably rewarding.

Someone else's project you admired recently.

I always admire brands that are good at building community—especially anytime a brand focuses on building a community around their products, their values, and the way they see the world. Some examples in cannabis include Cookies—the way people tattoo themselves and are so proud to associate themselves with Berner—and Veritas Fine Cannabis—the way they host events at Red Rocks and partner with lifestyle brands like Icelantic and Oskar Blues. My absolute favorite, non-cannabis brand: Liquid Death. It's bold, audacious, unbelievably over-the-top, yet accessible. A heavy metal water brand in a can—it doesn't get much better than that. 

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

Ben Walters at Pioneer Index is doing really great work around measuring the performance of cannabis brands' marketing programs. His group is expanding access to marketing metrics that goes so far beyond the more readily available point-of-sale data. I am thrilled to see how the Pioneer Index continues to establish itself as a gold standard for understanding cannabis brand salience. 

A movie, TV show, music or food you most enjoy pairing with cannabis.

Without a doubt, it has to be Friendsgiving. Having friends and the community come together while eating delicious food is something I love. One of the reasons behind my love for Friendsgiving is the THC pumpkin pie we made at Sweet Grass. Pro tip—eat the pie before dinner to encourage the munchies, so you and your guests don't fall asleep immediately after dessert.

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

Cannabis marketing is a passion of mine, and I have always been fortunate enough to find a place for myself in industries that are interesting and that I'm passionate about. If I wasn't in the cannabis industry, I would be working in marketing for another industry that I love, likely outdoors or fashion, telling folks why that's the best industry to work in. That said, if the job and lifestyle were sustainable—and less disappointing to my mother—I would go back to whitewater raft guiding without hesitation.

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.

Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards, editor of Muse by Clio, and host of the podcast Tagline. He is the former creative editor of Adweek.

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