Premium products hold significant appeal for brands. Premium positioning can enable higher prices and greater margin, disrupt categories, and take market share. Cannabis is no exception. Nor is cannabis an exception to the perils of a failed premium strategy. Tactics like luxurious packaging or endorsements by fashionable celebrities haven’t prevented numerous aspiring premium brands from failure.
The one error most duds share is a fundamental failure to craft and tell a compelling story. Buzzwords common to the premium space aren’t sufficient. All the references to “bespoke” and “handcrafted” can’t prop up a story that fails to resonate. If a brand’s message struggles to stand out from the noise of “artisan” this and “curated” that, it’s likely because the brand lacks a well-defined identity. Thus the story comes across as vague and muddled. A brand’s product portfolio might differ in look, taste, feel, and cost from competing options but lacking a tight core proposition, consumers won’t translate those differences into value.
Looking at two recent entrants in the drinks category of the cannabis consumer market demonstrates how cannabis brands can take a premium position. Cannabis beverages outperformed the overall market from 2018-2020 (according to data from Headset), a trend likely to continue due to the overall growth in edibles, and other factors such as subtle shifts in consumer tastes (like “Cali sober”) and product preferences (moving away from inhalables), and the inherent approachability of the beverage format. Both brands covered below launched into the beverages space aiming to disrupt existing players in a category that, despite the modest size of cannabis drinks in annual sales, exhibits some of the more interesting innovations across the industry.
Purejuana: pioneering a new beverage category
Premium typically connotes higher-priced, but offerings at competitive price points can succeed as well without resorting to promotions and discounts. In this context, premium positioning can act as a differentiator by taking on a sense of authenticity and uniqueness. Even priced at parity with category leaders, new entrants might find that some of the success of established brands in a category comes about simply for lack of a better, more attractive option.
When Purejuana set out to create a new beverage category, the decision-makers deliberately targeted an “accessible price point”, according to Jamie McGaw, Founder and Creative Director of Flask, an agency and consultancy specializing in craft beer, spirits, wine, and cannabis. “We want you to feel like you’re getting something exceptional but we want to make it easy for you to try it.”
The “exceptional” theme of Purejuana can be traced throughout. As McGaw rightly pointed out in a recent interview, premium brands have to carry the same tone, deliver the same service, and tell the same story at every point in the customer journey. Each point is important, but for new brands, the first impression is especially critical. Readers of this space may have noted our past examination of the importance of these so-called “moments of truth”, starting with the few seconds consumers spend scanning a retail shelf. “We’re trying to turn folks into cannabis beverage enthusiasts. We want to make the actual purchase part, the toughest part for people, easy. We want to get them in the right state of mind that this is exceptional.”
Purejuana sees the brand as the innovator behind an emerging category in the beverage space, that of “cannabis spirits”. The company claims to have discovered a means to deliver many aspects of the cannabis plant directly to a consumer in a powdered format suited for blending into cocktails, mixed into spritzers, or enjoyed “neat” like bourbon or scotch. This “dry spirit from live cannabis” is strain-specific, to the degree that the mixologists behind the many drink recipes on Purejuana’s site can incorporate a shot of Purejuana’s “Purple Punch” into a “Chronic & Tonic” cocktail or a shot of “Super Lemon Haze” in the “High-Biscus”. By retaining the unique characteristics of the plant, Purejuana is in a place to convey a premium experience to consumers – some of whom may value the authenticity of a “cannabis forward” flavor profile while others connect more closely with the unique “cocktail” aspect.
“We think that versatility is going to be really exciting,” said McGaw of the possibilities Purejuana’s innovative formulation can create. Historically, the user experience in cannabis beverages has been uneven. While not a problem for all brands, the taste profile of many cannabis drinks hasn’t been inspiring in the past. As the category grows, the market won’t have room for brands that fail to deliver a good experience. In McGaw’s words, “there’s too much competition, if it doesn’t taste good, if it doesn’t feel good, you’re not going to come back.” (In classic marketing terms, that describes failing the “second moment of truth” – actually using the product.)
Commenting on the future of the category, McGaw offered a vision for cannabis beverages: “Not too far in the future, the cannabis beverage space will be just as diverse and categorized as it is for alcohol. We’re certainly planning on that, and we’re planning to be the premium spirit brand.”
ALT: out to own discretion and customization in beverages
ALT (Advanced Liquid Technology) offers liquid additives intended to provide a highly adaptable alternative to the canned and bottled drinks that make up much of the infused beverage category. The brand takes a two-part approach to premium positioning. By combining innovation with customization, ALT can claim to deliver a unique experience to consumers. In a recent conversation, Co-Founder Rob Davis and Marketing Director Cheyne Nadeau spoke to the brand’s approach to premium positioning and the future of the beverages category.
According to Davis, ALT was created as “a lifestyle brand and platform”. That alone wouldn’t set ALT apart much from others in the category. The subtle style of ALT does contrast with the vibrant, tongue-in-cheek style of some drinks brands, and the sleek packaging also signals ALT’s focus on the upscale lifestyle. But it’s the innovative aspect of the brand that starts to build a coherent story on ALT as a premium brand.
In contrast to brands that start by focusing on a micro-community of consumers, ALT’s approach to consumer insights was to look broadly at the landscape and seek out points of commonality. Doing so requires spending a good deal of time in the retail environment. “There is a lot of direct to consumers coming online but no one has nailed this yet so we’re hyper-focused on seeing consumer habits in the dispensary,” said Nadeau. “At a ground level, we get to see a real-time connection, who’s buying our product – such as young hip consumers who don’t want to vape or smoke flower. Or a legacy consumer who is interested in a higher dose. For 2021, that has been ALT’s marketing focus.”
By keeping the aperture wide, ALT identified an unmet need cutting across a wide swath of consumers: to incorporate cannabis on a custom, adaptable basis, facilitated through precise dosing, not as a packaged product per se but (in ALT’s language) as a “self-improvement supplement”.
Davis commented on ALT’s positioning, saying “We have positioned ALT as something that is completely differentiated and stands apart from other cannabis beverages – a liquid additive that is discreet and customizable. We formulated ALT’s flavor profile to be as neutral as possible so it can adapt to any beverage. The packaging also enables precise dosing so you can start with 1mg and build your way up.” Combined with a formulation ALT claims to deliver fast (5-15 minutes) onset and reliable (2-3 hours) offset, Cheyne Nadeau described ALT’s vision for the consumer experience as “like consuming a glass of wine, with the speed of onset, controlled dosing – this sets us apart so much.”
Looking to the future of the category, Davis, like most, expects even brighter days ahead. “We felt that the beverage category will ultimately become the biggest category. People are moving away from smoking. Beverage consumption is the most comfortable way of connecting socially. In the next couple of years, we’ll see a huge spike in the growth of the category.”
Prior to co-founding High Yield Insights, Mike Luce led multi-million dollar insights engagements with Fortune 100 consumer goods companies. Mike has nearly 20 years experience developing market insights for some of the world’s leading consumer brands, including Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo and General Mills, and retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Kroger.
High Yield Insights applies best practices and capabilities drawn from that experience to the dynamic cannabis industry.
Mike can be reached directly at [email protected]
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