The Digital Workaround – When Traditional Approaches Don’t Work
I’m with Kieve Huffman. Kieve, how are you doing?
I’m great, Greg. How are you?
I’m honored to have you here. There are so much interesting ideas that we have had together in the sense that we have been startups in building brands. Why don’t you tell people about the brand you are building?
I’m running a company called Engager Brands. Engager Brands is a portfolio of cannabis brands that are focused on different music lifestyles. There are two primary brands that we have. One is called Heavy Grass, which is focused on the hard rock and heavy metal scene. The other one is called Neon Roots. That’s focused on electronic dance music and the rave scene. It’s bringing together my two backgrounds. I have been working in cannabis media. I had an agency, the media company, for seven years.
Let your audience be your marketers. Because they can talk about you in ways that you can’t talk about.
Before that, I worked in the music industry for about fifteen years. I saw an opportunity to bring those two worlds together because there were a number of audiences that didn’t have a cannabis brand that was focused on them. Honestly, there are still a number of those audiences but I picked my lane of music because that’s something that I’m very familiar with and I have a lot of connections to and understand. Those are the two brands. We’ve got a couple of other brands that are in development as well.
It’s a fascinating idea because you are building products for experiences to enhance the experience, which enhances the product. That’s a unique notion. I was at a Testament concert. I was like, “That would have been nice to have the right ingredients to heighten that experience.” You build up this notion of these brands and merge these two things together, which is innovative. There’s a digital world to that. What’s the digital pathway there? How do you start attacking that and niche through a digital lens?
It’s extremely challenging because of the fact that even though we don’t hold any cannabis, with the fact that these are cannabis-focused brands, we have a lot of hurdles that we have to jump through. A lot of the big platforms’ terms of service make it difficult for cannabis brands. Unfortunately, they don’t map out exactly what those terms of services are. It’s also very much of a moving target. A lot of the tools that most marketers have in their toolkit are not applicable to the cannabis industry.
Digital Workaround: You have to figure things out and be very innovative. Finding ways to talk about your brand without mentioning cannabis and really focusing on the lifestyle is one way.
It was interesting. Years ago, they had what was called the green rush. They called it the green rush because all of this money was primarily coming out of the Canadian public markets that were fueling all these cannabis companies. You started to see a lot of seasoned CMOs come into the space. I was thrilled because the need for professionals to rise this industry up was very important to me.
It was interesting to see how many of them left kicking and screaming within 6 to 9 months because they realized, “All the things that I could do at my last job I can’t do anymore.” You have to figure things out and be innovative. Some of the things to get into that a little bit are finding ways to talk about your brand without mentioning cannabis and focusing on the lifestyle. It’s one way.
Another way is having your audience be your marketers because they can talk about you in ways that you can’t talk about. Early on, what we did is we worked with a lot of baby bands and what I consider up-and-comers. We got them excited about what we were doing. We got them T-shirts, hats, jackets, and product samples. It’s amazing because they then started wearing it on stage and talking about it in their socials. That organically started to build up our presence because that’s the way you have to do it.
You can’t be afraid to push the envelope. Go out and really market the way that you could market.
We can’t use Google search. We can’t buy Facebook ads. That’s why in my last company, we built a video studio for broadcast-quality video content for the cannabis industry. We had to build our multi-platform network because it’s the only way that we could get the video seen. We had to create a private channel on Roku, BallerTV, Amazon, and all these different platforms. Digital is a huge component of all marketing but it’s particularly challenging in this industry.
A lot of people have been on the show talking about ecosystems and networks and how you have to develop them. Most of those traditional brands have roads that are built. They have to drive down those roads successfully. It sounds like you are building the road, which is a different mode of thinking and learning. What have you experienced as the big challenges? People would be facing this, metaverse marketing, and new markets. They might go from boundary to boundary. What are the big challenges besides waking up and going, “How the heck am I going to do this?”
There are so many challenges but the biggest challenge that people have to get over is the challenge of deciding that you have to try to do things even if you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. You almost have to invent your solutions, try some different things, and then see what works and doesn’t work. We are inventing how these things can be marketed.
Digital Workaround: The digital space allows you to make connections in a very targeted fashion because you can identify your brand’s audience and connect with them.
You can’t be afraid to push the envelope. It’s better to have your hands slapped than it is not to go out and market the way that you could market because a lot of marketers, in particular, when they come into this industry, tend to be overly conservative, “I don’t want my Instagram account to get shut down.” It’s a pain to get it turned back on. We have had it happen with our brands but that being said, if you are not doing things that are engaging your audience, then you are missing an opportunity.
The other thing that is a big challenge is to figure out ways to market that don’t directly run afoul of these. We will promote and market a lot of our ancillary products, apparel, merch, and accessories because that is easier to market. That’s not a cannabis product. Those are some other things. It’s the model that one of the biggest brands in cannabis took.
The founder was on the cover of Forbes Magazine. It’s this guy Berner from the brand Cookies. What Cookies did was they went out and digitally marketed their apparel brand. That was the Trojan horse. You go out, market that, and get people interested in the brand and into the lifestyle. You almost don’t even know that it’s a cannabis brand until you start to peel back the layers. You eventually can get to it.
When building your brand, know how you can connect with your audience in an authentic way.
Your industry might be at the vanguard of inventing some work around stealth marketing. That might be important with the changing social mores for a variety of products, services, and experiences. I’m not so sure you are going to be seen as an outlier 5 or 10 years from now. Certainly, as the mainstream channels get filled up, people have to find a workaround anyway. The brand equities may rely on it or the legal restrictions in your place make you build different equities to build market linkages. The hardest innovation is tomorrow is today.
It’s like in the early internet marketing days and how porn led the way. I remember it because they had to figure out different ways to market that because they didn’t have a lot of the other traditional opportunities. They were always pushing the envelope. It’s these industries and markets that have to get innovative that end up driving things that then the mainstream follows. In 5 to 7 years, this will be a little bit more mainstream.
We wouldn’t have secure payments if it weren’t for the porn industry. It would never have happened. It was a decade later because no one wanted to do anything. They proved, “We can keep it private and what have you.” It’s a fascinating journey you are on. I admire the innovation. It’s not easy to be out there on the edge. For our readers, when you think about my final question, what’s one word that explains your attitude toward digitally enabling brands? Why do you think of it?
Connection is the word because whenever I’m building brands, and it doesn’t matter, it’s like, “How do we connect?” It was between connection and authenticity, “How do you connect in an authentic way with your audience?” What digital allows you to do is to enable that connection in a very targeted fashion. You can identify and find your brand’s audience and connect with them. As our name of Engager, I engage with them digitally as well. For me, it’s the ability to use digital to connect your brand to its audience.
It’s all their manifold needs because you can’t find the core one but you can find a whole bunch of other to get to the core. It’s a fascinating brand management story. Kieve Huffman, thanks for being on the show. Digitally Enabled, signing off. Thanks for reading. We will hope to see you next time.
About Kieve Huffman
Kieve has built lifestyle businesses and created new brands and products in music, cannabis and tech for over 25 years. He was one of the founders of the leading cannabis media company, PRØHBTD Media, which built the first multi-platform video network, created a leading branding agency that worked on over 60+ brand projects. As founder and CEO of Engager Brands he continues to leverage his deep experiences in cannabis and music to bring a unique and global approach to creating authentic lifestyle brands. He builds multi-state cannabis brands with multinational appeal including Heavy Grass, Neon Roots, and Clown Cannabis.
Kieve has worked for or with leading technology, media, mobile and consumer brands including all of the major music, film and TV companies as well as Apple, Microsoft,, Mountain Dew, Jagermeister and many more. In his time in the music industry he grew the digital business at BMG from under $1mm to $250mm as its GM of Digital for North America. Kieve has a passion for health and wellness, travel, food, and music. He lives his sporting life vicariously through his 13-year old soccer playing son.