Keith Cich on Cannabis and Creative Energy, and Expanding Markets for Kanha Gummies

Plus, HBO Max and the growing mainstream acceptance of weed

Keith Cich is co-founder and president of Sunderstorm, a leading California cannabis company that manufactures and distributes award-winning Kanha gummies. Sunderstorm self-distributes to over 500 retail locations throughout California and is a pioneer introducing nano-tech products to the cannabis industry.

Cich spent more than a decade on Wall Street in fixed income sales and trading for Merrill Lynch and Barclay Investments. He moved to Northern California and managed commercial real estate projects, including retail, office and urban in-fill development.

He has a B.A. in economics from Stanford University, an MBA from New York University, and a master's in philosophy, cosmology, and consciousness from the California Institute of Integral Studies, where he also served as chairman of the board. 

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

Keith, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I grew up in freezing Minneapolis. I remember going into my college advisor's office and saying I am only going to college in California, because everyone was wearing T-shirts at the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. Lo and behold, I am living in California.

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

I am co-founder of the one of the largest edibles companies in California, Sunderstorm. We are well known for our Kanha gummies, with the tiger logo on the package. I am based in the Bay Area but spend a lot of time on Zoom talking with investors, evaluating business development opportunities, and checking in with our various managers. 

Your earliest cannabis memory.

I remember trying weed for the first time after wrestling practice in high school—it was love at first toke. Shortly thereafter, we scored some Thai stick and I went with my friends to see Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke when it first came out. I loved the culture that was forming around marijuana as a radical new voice in favor of social change, and that is something I still love about our industry today. 

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

I think cannabis has a unique ability to spring to life my creative energy, to pause my logical mind so I can think in more creative ways. As someone who has a controlling left-brained rationality, when I consume cannabis, it allows the right side of my brain to become dominant. Surprisingly, even in business, you need to evaluate problems in a much bigger context than breaking it down into parts. I love smoking weed and going for walks and thinking "outside the box."

A favorite flower, edible, product or brand.

I am a fan of mini joints, such as Dogwalkers, because I prefer modest dosage. I also love our 5mg nano gummies, because they hit in 15 minutes and give a perfect high where you can still go about your daily routines, but with a special smile on your face.

The biggest challenge cannabis marketers face today.

The inability to expand a brand's reach via traditional advertising methods. Due to the strict, prohibition-era regulations that are still in place, cannabis marketers cannot tap into modernized options that other CPG brands utilize like Google and social advertising. Instead, we are forced to rely on word-of-mouth, billboards and slow-moving initiatives where tracking ROI becomes incredibly difficult. Our marketing team spends a lot of time brainstorming creative campaigns and activations that build organic buzz and target the right consumer, all while generating measurable results. 

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

In general, I'm excited to see more mainstream brands and industries begin to partner with cannabis companies, which will do a great deal to further destigmatize the cannabis industry. For example, last year, in an unprecedented move from a major media network, HBO Max partnered with our brand Kanha to create uniquely flavored gummies inspired by the show Close Enough's main characters. Legal cannabis' federal status has historically prevented the industry from executing or participating in mainstream marketing campaigns. However, HBO Max's willingness to partner with us reflects considerable shifts in public opinion and the professionalization and sophistication of the cannabis industry.

Outside of this, I'm excited to see more cannabis companies making social equity a priority. Canndescent's Justice Joints is the perfect example of how we can all contribute to strengthening our community and sparking positive change for those who have been most impacted by cannabis prohibition.

A cannabis trade/social justice organization that you support. 

As a company that benefits from the legal cannabis industry, we believe it is our duty to help assist in combating how cannabis criminalization has negatively impacted so many Americans. We recently announced a year-long partnership with A New Way of Life Reentry Project, which is a grassroots organization based in Los Angeles that supports women working to rebuild their lives after prison. This nonprofit organization provides housing, case management, pro bono legal services, advocacy and leadership development for formerly incarcerated women. Their goal is to promote healing, power and opportunity by taking a multifaceted approach to mitigating the effects of, and ultimately eliminating, mass incarceration. ⁠

A recent project you're proud of.

Our new state expansion plan has definitely been our biggest, most complex recent accomplishment. We're getting ready to launch into three new markets (Massachusetts, Colorasdo and Nevada) all around the same time, which means we've had to take an "all hands on deck" approach. After gaining a considerable consumer following in our home state of California, expanding to these new markets has been extremely rewarding. So many travelers from other states have enjoyed Kanha gummies while visiting California, so we're excited to offer these consumers a chance to purchase them in their home states.

Someone else's project you admired recently.

I've admired our production team's hard work and dedication in getting our new high-dose Kanha Belts to market. This project has been a long time coming and the production department has had to work through numerous challenges (on top of navigating this process through Covid) as they developed a brand new format in our product line. This new offering is specifically formulated for the high-dose consumer who typically needs to eat half a bag of gummies or more to reach their desired dose. With our new Kanha Belts, this same consumer will be able to eat less gummy and less sugar, as each belt contains 50mg THC with five 10mg segments.

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

I have always had great love for electronic music, since the early days of New Wave and Depeche Mode and New Order. Today I am a hobbyist DJ playing at Burning Man inspired parties in Northern California, and I still love the culture around sharing a joint and dancing to mesmerizing house music beats. I look forward to having a vaccinated country so we can have social gatherings again. 

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

I would be working on my DJ skills. They need a lot of help. ;) 

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 was editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio from 2018 to 2023.

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