A mainstreaming moment for the cannabis industry: Launching CERIA™ Brewing Company’s first THC-infused beer

Having worked in the beer industry for much of my career, and now in the cannabis business, I find it deeply satisfying to see the two lifestyle industries come together. With the launch of renowned brewmaster Keith Villa’s CERIA™ Brewing Company, Keith is realizing his vision to utilize beer – the world’s most socially acceptable and democratic beverage – to move beyond the stigma of cannabis and unlock its magic for the mainstream.

Keith is a great example of the growing trend of seasoned leaders lured away from their jobs in consumer-packaged goods by the extraordinary promise of the cannabis industry. It’s similar to the Silicon Valley a decade or so ago, when leaders from P&G, Clorox and others transitioned to roles in technology companies, helping them to understand that everyday people don’t speak engineering.

Today, it is crucial to realize that the counter-culture roots of marijuana can be a potential roadblock to consumers who might otherwise be interested in learning more about, and even participating in, the exciting new world of cannabis. While staying relevant to your installed base is important, it can’t be at the expense of growing your audience. This shift in understanding, and focus, is critical for the industry to truly grow up and fulfill its promise. Today, more than ever, cannabis brands must be focused on meeting the needs of their potential consumers to drive sustainable growth.

My agency started working with Keith when he was the mastermind behind the beloved and ever-popular Blue Moon. When he retired from one of the big breweries in late 2017 and started CERIA™ with his wife Jodi, we were thrilled to be tapped to develop the brand strategy and identity for CERIA, Inc. As part of our work together, we helped develop the entire brand system, including strategy, identity, packaging, website and product naming for CERIA Brewing, their cannabis beer portfolio.

SF Business Times Food & Beverage Innovators Breakfast

SF Business Times Food & Beverage Innovators Breakfast

A perspective on the better-for-you food movement: balancing plant-based eating with bacon and marshmallows

At the SF Business Times Food & Beverage Innovators breakfast on 27 April, I listened intently to the esteemed panel of food leaders from Harmless Harvest, Good Eggs, Lotus Foods, Smashmallow, and Ripple Foods talk about the trend towards clean eating and plant-based foods. Hearing about the future of food they are creating was inspiring, and it also gave me pause about eating the last slice of bacon on my plate.

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, these businesses have a common denominator. From start-ups to mature companies, they face similar challenges from hiring the right people and determining the appropriate pace of growth, to working with major retailers to effectively distribute their better-for-you products. What they have in common—at all stages of growth—is the need to define and stay true to the essence of their brand.

As a brand strategist, I was delighted to hear that packaging was a consistent topic for everyone. Not only about the designs themselves but in the strategic decisions these leaders face every day about their brand. This includes using common sense, like the example shared by Good Eggs CEO, Bentley Hall, who reported saving $10,000 in cardboard box expenses in their first week of a new ‘return to the warehouse’ package reuse program. Not only does that solve a problem for the consumer, but it helps the environment—the ultimate brand win-win.

The question asked by the gentleman from SF’s legendary Max’s Diner: “What do you see as the future of corn beef and pastrami?” brought a good laugh from attendees. He also helped bring into focus how this better-for-you trend is playing out across the nation. Even legacy food brands need to adapt and evolve but they need to do it in a way that’s authentic to who they are and on brand.

I guess my wife is right, “everything in moderation.” So, if you’re wondering – yes, I ate the last piece of bacon.

Culturally Curious

Culturally Curious

Our work has deep meaning for us. We take pride in the strategic design work we create, but it’s the partnerships we enjoy with our clients that are at the core of who we are and exemplify our expanded reach as a firm. No matter where our clients are headquartered or where their consumers are, we begin by applying both rigor and empathy to build an understanding of their unique situation. This approach reminds us that as an organization we are far more than where we come from, more than points on a map. By being curious and thoughtful about how we relate to other cultures and communities, we all win.

This approach to working with brands is the foundation that drives us to be culturally curious, to be courageous in our approach and open to possibilities. We immerse ourselves in each of our client’s world to translate their culture into our brand and creative strategy.  We learn and listen first –  so that the approach we take resonates with our client and their values, and aligns with their consumers wherever they live.

This enthusiastic spirit has defined our relationship with Carling Beer as we helped articulate how their UK Premier League sponsorship could manifest in far-off places like Ukraine, Australia and Ethiopia. Across such a diverse map, we found that – while fans pulse with a universal shared passion for football – each market had its own cultural nuances and unique regulations that informed the types of successful branded executions we developed.

From the earliest days of Trinity Brand Group, we’ve immersed ourselves in the nuances of clients and cultures from around the globe. One of our first programs was to evolve the identity for Pathé, a world-renowned French entertainment company known for producing and distributing exceptional films. Upon its acquisition of the iconic Gaumont theatre chain, they needed to refresh the Pathé brand and create a culturally relevant brand that could reach across the globe.

Through our immersion in Pathé’s world and our understanding of the different markets where the brand would need to live, we helped our client partner retain their brand’s uniquely French sensibility along with their quirky sense of humor and passion for arts and culture as we extended its relevance around the world. To this day, we take pride in and inspiration from the part we played in furthering Pathé’s mission to provide joy to consumers worldwide through movies and entertainment.

And, in recent months, one of our most gratifying moments has been to see our branding work come to life with the re-opening of the Sullivan’s Brewery in Kilkenny, Ireland. With our office in Dublin and expertise in the craft beer industry, we were uniquely suited to partner with the centuries-old brewing family to position and design the Sullivan’s brand for today. Our work with them took us deep into the Kilkenny community for inspiration and even for local resources as we designed and helped build out the brand’s taproom in the center of the city.  When the doors of the brewery’s taproom opened, we were exhilarated and humbled.  The people of Kilkenny have inspired us with their open hearts, passion and goodwill, something that will stay with us forever.

At the end of the day, this is the stuff that fuels our passion for the work we do. It’s our aim to make a difference in the lives of the people we touch from around the world to right here at home. The best way to do that is to slow down and listen.

Talking Brand with Cannabis Entrepreneurs

Talking Brand with Cannabis Entrepreneurs

In our role as brand consultants, it’s refreshing to get out and talk with companies about their businesses and learn what’s challenging them now and what’s on their horizon. Several of us from Trinity had the opportunity to do just that last week, when we gave a presentation on “Your Brand as a Business Tool” to a group of entrepreneurs and emerging companies at Gateway, in Oakland.

Gateway is an incubator for start-ups in the cannabis industry, providing business mentorship and investment in emerging companies in this new era of legalization. With Trinity’s experience working on brand strategy and package design across a broad spectrum of consumer goods including our work in cannabis with ebbu, a Colorado-based cannabis brand, we brought relevant experience to the table in what turned out to be a fascinating discussion.

Together with my colleagues, Laurie Kreisberg (strategy guru) and Paul Kagiwada (kick butt creative director), we had a strong turnout and a robust conversation during and after the presentation. Here are some highlights.

I, for one, continue to be energized by the thirst for knowledge, optimism and rolling-up-the-sleeves work ethic that’s driving these entrepreneurs. Many have business experience from other industries, some have grown up in cannabis and for others they’re new to all of this. Across the board, they have a deep appreciation for the need for brand and a pretty intuitive sense for what branding is all about.

During the session, our conversations included topics like why branding is important to your business every day and not just when you’re developing a logo; the advancements at retail and the gaps still present in the space; and even points about the details, nomenclature and pricing of what we as a consultancy do.

In cannabis, there’s a brewing conversation and we brought it up during our time together. At Trinity we strongly feel it’s time for cannabis to come out of the shadows and for cannabis brands to go mainstream. But in doing so, the rest of the equation must be kept in mind… Do this while staying true to the positive promise of cannabis, don’t sell out, and maintain your brand’s connection and credibility with current consumers. To a person, this resonated with the assembly’s participants. I’ve been to my share of conferences of late, both cannabis and more traditional consumer packaged goods. I’m impressed with the movement I’m seeing in cannabis towards the mainstream, but I’m also watchful that as that shift happens brands stay true to themselves and the vision of their founders.

In a room full of entrepreneurs, the passion for and belief in ideas is palpable. It’s the driving force. One point we made was that, in the early days, it’s very personal. Much of their brand’s truth will come from who they are and why they are in the business they’re in. The trick will be to leverage that personal foundation to articulate a unique, compelling brand platform that can then drive business.

Special shout-out to Michael Finkbeiner at Gateway for the logistical support getting ready for the session and of course to Ben Larson and Carter Laren, the founders of Gateway, for the opportunity to be a Mentor for the cohort and be involved in other ways.


Cannabis and Craft Beer: Parallels from Roads Less Traveled

Cannabis and Craft Beer: Parallels from Roads Less Traveled

As brand strategists and packaging designers, it is fascinating to witness the cannabis industry evolving so quickly. And it’s invigorating to be playing a part in the evolution of its communications through our initial work with Colorado-based ebbu and others. For cannabis to fully realize its potential at the rapid pace many predict, the industry will need to appeal to a broader mainstream consumer base without risking losing its current franchise.

The cannabis consumers’ need states are as diverse as the strains of the plant itself. Knowing one’s audience will be a critical first step for the industry to connect with and become part of the mainstream.

This is important because, no matter what its past associations, cannabis is just another consumer product. Shed the “pot head” stigmas and the pre-legalization baggage and you’ve got a plant that can be used to produce products for everything from the treatment of life-threatening disease to relief from everyday ailments to a way to simply unwind with friends.

There’s a lot to learn by looking at parallels between the cannabis and craft beer industries. Like craft beer in its early days, cannabis brands are hamstrung by confusion brought about by preconceptions and inexperience.

With craft beer, consumers were initially overwhelmed by so many new tastes and unexpected ingredients. Similarly, in cannabis, the sheer number and names of strains require deep knowledge and, ideally, a decoder ring. Craft beer was infamous for the “regular beer drinker’s” apprehension about ordering a beer that was too – insert challenging palate description here – to drink more than a few sips. Today’s cannabis in all of its forms is unpredictable for new-to-cannabis consumers. Even lapsed users, who were old pros in college, find themselves more than a little lost when visiting a Denver dispensary while on a weed tour from out of state.

And, similar to craft’s early adopters who helped their friends taste the promise of real beer, there are cannabis aficionados taking up the cause to help newcomers make sense of it all. Also within craft, industry players found success educating influential bartenders to serve as guides for those stepping out of big beer. Empowering budtenders with the information and the right brand story to tell should prove equally successful for those seeking to lead in cannabis.

With all this focus on the mainstream consumer let’s not gloss over the current base of today’s market, those who have been around for a while, many of whom embrace some of the naughtiness of marijuana and its counter-culture bent. In many ways they are the driving force of the industry and will be the point of the arrow evolving the market and opening it up to that mainstream consumer. As this unfolds, the stigma of pot and its counter-culture will likely slowly erode. But only if the industry leads by kicking its own habit of living in that past. And, exciting news for branding professionals watching the industry closely, many are starting to make this move.

You already see it at smart dispensaries that borrow ideas from retail leaders and wash their stores with better lighting, encourage exploration with well-designed displays and employ techniques to improve the shopping experience like organizing their selections by desired mood or experience. This all has to happen… soccer moms and the like are already frequenting Denver dispensaries. On the product side, huge strides will be made if the proponents of product reformulations can keep their promise of delivering truly predictable experiences.

With mainstreaming comes classic needs of a consumer-led industry.  As cannabis becomes more readily available within the legalized system, consumers will need information. Smart brands – and the stories they tell – will be the best sources to deliver those insights and help consumers understand and differentiate between choices along the journey. Cohesive and clear messaging direct to the consumer on packaging is a good starting point.

As the legalization of cannabis is getting real, it’s time for the industry to get real too. Like craft brewers a decade ago, it’s time to start thinking from the consumer’s POV. It’s time to realize that the new-to-pot consumer doesn’t know how to use a vape pen. Yet.

Sparking Social Through Design: Four Emerging Strategies for Success

Today, brands are co-owned by the consumer more than ever before. Leading brands are aggressively considering social media implications and strategies early in the brand development and package design process. They are purposefully provoking consumers to take marketing into their own hands.

With this in mind, we’re encouraging marketers and designers to take a step back. Try asking yourself these questions to see if it’s time to revisit your design strategy:

  • Is a competitor’s brand or package being chosen over mine more often than in the past?
  • Do consumers even think about my brand outside the context of the purchase decision?
  • Do I believe my brand has the right to be more meaningful to consumers?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then it’s worth considering ways to step up your brand’s game. As usual, we’ve been eyeing the market. We’re seeing four key trends emerge as dynamic and successful consumer engagement options through brand and package design.

1. Make Your Brand A Social Savant

What’s important to your brand’s consumers should be on your radar. This is why leading brands are focused on anticipating the “moments of truth” in their consumers’ lives. These brands are taking the opportunity to surprise and delight consumers to let them know that they are in tune, in touch and—most importantly—in their corner.

One of the best examples from 2015 is the select group of brands that were prepared for the Supreme Court’s June ruling about marriage equality.  Many brands responded in colorful ways—think Citi Bike, Visa and Ben & Jerry’s —but the Dorito’s “Rainbows” Chips example rises to the top.

Dorito’s, through a simple, thoughtful post, wisely connected their product to a moment in time. A proven pioneer in consumer engagement (e.g., consumer-generated Super Bowl ads), Doritos was able to generate a groundswell of additional interest and social support. Their understanding of their consumers’ moment of truth led to a first-ever rainbow (and online-only) product line based upon social demand.

TAKEAWAY: Look ahead.  The most cutting edge brands are taking both serious and playful stands on social causes in real time and empowering consumers to carry their message of support.

2. Give Your Consumer a Voice

In 2011, Bud Light launched a bottle that beer drinkers could actually write on with any pointy object. And just like that, the consumer had an attention-getter, a badge-worthy object that displayed his or her personality, sense of humor or quirks.

A lot has changed in the few short years since 2011. Social media has become an even bigger obsession for consumers, and the technology to create high-quality, no-budget content has opened the floodgates for user-generated content. The Coca-Cola “Share a Coke” campaign is a great example of how a simple, universal concept can spark consumers to engage with a brand. Personalized Coke cans went viral, spurring passionate consumers to use them to create unique videos and even a birth announcement.

TAKEAWAY: A brand in your consumers’ hands is part of what’s next. You can empower them to express their emotions and individuality. Give your consumers a voice.

3. Be Truly Social, Think Online and Off

Packaged goods brands have long been employing online strategies, but last year some of the leading online-only brands made it a point to “pop-up” in the real world. Consumers are seeking interaction and authenticity, and it takes both online AND offline strategies to truly build loyalty with consumers.

Two of the biggest online-only brands have shown up in the real world.  Amazon announced a brick and mortar store and took to the streets in its Treasure Truck, while eBay toured the country in an Airstream showcasing products.

TAKEAWAY: Some of the best brands today are living brands, coming to life and interacting across all channels. Brand and design strategies should be able to stretch across channels, while still supporting key brand values.

4. Mash It Up

There are amazing opportunities out there for product brands to deliver the unexpected, especially through limited-edition combinations. The ice cream category is a nice example. Ben & Jerry’s has always been a leader in this category. Breyer’s continues to generate growth and expanded its product line, design and sales by mixing with Oreo’s, Snicker’s and even the beloved Thin Mints from the Girl Scouts of America.

Mash-ups can help brands appeal across both old-school and new-school audiences. Lego does this a lot with themed products, enticing the inner child of many adult consumers to geek out. Traditional brands or household staples have the potential to be share-worthy, too. The right partnership will always excite some consumer frenzy with even the simplest execution.

TAKEAWAY: Think outside your world. Consider unexpected brands or products to “mix” with for a reason or a season in 2016.

That’s our take on what’s working to spark social engagement with consumers. What successful trends are you seeing emerge in your market?

Matthew Youngblood Co-Founder and Executive Director of Trinity Brand Group, a leading international brand consulting and design boutique with headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Collaborative Approach Providing Strategic Advantage in Today’s “Need It Now” Business Environment

Collaboration. Collaborative. Collaborate. It’s an idea that’s mentioned all the time in business. You may even request it from your agency, and if not prompted, it’s promised by agencies as a matter of course. But what’s really meant by collaboration these days? Is it now just a buzzword?

With all the talk about collaboration, we are questioning whether everyone is referring to the same thing. Is the definition today the same as it was a decade ago? In the branding and design industry, collaboration typically meant firms and clients rolled up their sleeves together. They both dug deep into consumer needs from different perspectives and shared insights. Collaboration implied trial and error – development of ideas, testing and evolving – together. Clients and firms relied on each other equally to generate ideas and poke holes in them, uncover opportunities and address potential issues. Is it the same today?

We’ve received comments after recent work sessions. Our clients and third-party partners alike have said that it had been quite some time since they’d done something like that, something truly collaborative. We were surprised, but in some ways it makes sense.


Collaboration Today

The immediacy of business culture and high expectations for time to market have taken a toll on real collaboration. Most brand owners say they want collaboration with their agency partners, but the reality of business has forced the definition of the relationship to change.

Business problems need to be solved now or yesterday. Rebranding projects that once had 9-12 month timelines are being shortened to 3-6 months. The assumption is that there is little time for collaboration to take place. This breakneck speed leads to pitfalls and forces teams to be reactive. Quick, band-aid solutions are executed with little time spent on understanding and addressing bigger problems, which continue to lurk in the shadows. Some clients are even forced to step out of the process and just wait for suggested answers by the agency.


What Collaboration Could Be

Even if you feel it has been lost, collaboration can be rediscovered and proven successful between clients and agency partners. We’ve seen it happen. We’ve lived it. Here’s my advice, cultivated over the last 10 years at Trinity and my time in branding before that.

Hardwire it into the Approach and Your Team Members

Build collaboration into your workflow. Install collaboration as a step in the process; don’t just talk about it as a cultural value. This doesn’t mean that a major work session is required every two weeks. As long as people are sharing ideas and others are building on them, collaboration is taking place. An agency may need to do the heavy lifting, but brand managers and other experts should be tapped to build on ideas.

Also, team members need to be okay with giving the entire team credit for an idea. If people hold back on ideas until opportunities arise where they feel they can get more credit, then collaboration suffers. And it’s okay if ideas aren’t fully baked when they are shared. That’s the point of collaboration. Let someone else finish the thought.

Collaborate When It Counts

It isn’t necessary to hold a big meeting or work session for every decision within a given project. If so, a minor decision of whether to change the version color from blue to purple on a package may blow an entire timeline. I’m sure some of you out there have lived through this.

Instead, collaborate when it counts. If clients and agency partners can work together on defining the problem and internalizing the strategy, the smaller decisions easily become non-issues.

Beware of Consensus Building in Disguise

So-called collaboration could become a pitfall if it’s really consensus building in disguise. If your company culture does not require a consensus for decisions, think twice before reengaging the full team. Involving too many people will bog you down and dilute ideas.

To make quality decisions you need to have heard the different viewpoints of the business context so that ideas can be vetted thoroughly. This will come from the process of collaboration and will build trust from key stakeholders. With that trust you have the proxy for consensus.

Furthermore, involving fewer people in these late stages, allows the others to pay attention to their day jobs.

Keep an Open Mind

This phrase gets used a lot for good reason. It works. Ideas can come from anywhere. Also, clients and agency partners need each other. Both are experts in their own right and their knowledge is complementary. Rarely can one solve a branding or design issue without the other.

The conduct of the group is vitally important, too. Shooting down ideas too quickly can not only stagnate progress of the group, but more so it can thwart a group’s willingness to be open and really engage. So be respectful.

Learn from Every Situation and Every Person

It’s inevitable. You will face a similar problem in the future. Learn as much as you can from all parties involved, so that you can more effectively address the issue in the future.

Typically designers take few business classes in school, and marketers are taught little about creative methodologies. Both have a lot to teach each other.

Without collaborative dialogue, we risk wasted resources due to unfocused efforts and time spent heading down the wrong path. We also risk outcomes that are less rich because diverse experts aren’t given an opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas.

Collaboration is possible in today’s “I-need-it-now” culture, and I would say that it’s even more necessary. It just might look a little different than it did a decade ago.

What advice do you have for collaborating in today’s fast-paced world? As mentioned, ideas can come from anywhere. Please share.