Marketing TechnologyCollaborationHow Columbia Care Inc is redefining Cannabis retail

How Columbia Care Inc is redefining Cannabis retail

One of US’ largest cannabis brands is leading a seismic shift from patient-centric to commercial retail by mastering customer experience

30-second summary:

  • With regulatory movements legalizing cannabis in 16 states, the cannabis industry is now forecasted to surpass $100 billion by 2025
  • Even after record sales in 2020, Columbia Care Inc faced a major challenge of carving an identity that resonated with not just their history but also their future as markets and new consumer groups emerged
  • Jesse Channon, Chief Growth Officer at Columbia Care Inc shared how they flipped the challenge into opportunities with a rebrand, opening doors of the ‘Cannabist’ stores, and launched proprietary technology ‘Forage.io’ to refine the consumer experience

With 16 states legalizing cannabis for recreational as well medical use, the industry is poised to cross $100 billion in aggregate federal tax revenue by 2025. The legalization movement is rapidly transforming the landscape of the cannabis industry, unlocking an arena of opportunities for ambitious market entrants. This serves as a fertile ground for market leaders like Columbia Care Inc to expand their market share.

With a record 151% revenue growth and turnover of $197.9M in 2020, Columbia Care Inc is now capitalizing on the legalization of cannabis to expand not just as a patient-centric medical provider but also as a premium, responsible, passionate, and unapologetic expert of recreational products across the retail space.

We spoke with Jesse Channon, Chief Growth Officer at Columbia Care Inc to capture the rebrand journey and understand how they are reinventing the Cannabis shopping experience.

On a roll of expansion

Columbia Care Inc is one of the largest, fully integrated operators in the global cannabis industry operating across the US in 18 jurisdictions and the EU. Founded nine years ago Columbia Care’s mission is to provide access to high quality, precisely dosed, and consistent products to its patients and customers.

Being a vertically integrated provider in the US, they grow and cultivate, manufacture, distribute, and provide retail, and sales for their products across dispensaries and a highly engaged wholesale market.

They have around 2000 teammates across the US and have recently completed the acquisition of The Green Solution Colorado, The Hearing Centre San Diego, Project Cannabis in California, and have recently closed on Green Leaf Medical.

The thought, process, and vision for rebrand

The rebrand is a welcome move in response to the changing regulatory environment in the US. It also serves as a bridge that realigns Columbia Care’s mission while paving a way into the ever-evolving retail future that has a wide spectrum of permutations and combinations – both from a regulatory and consumer group perspective.

“If you asked our Cofounder and CEO Nicholas Vita, and the rest of the leadership team, this is something they’ve been wanting to do for quite some time. It was less a rebrand and more a realignment of who we are as an organization today vs nine years ago and where it is we believe we will go in the future.”

said Jesse Channon

The challenges

A unique challenge that the industry faced is the absence of a level of normalization into the retail experience. The regulatory and compliance nature of each individual state governs what a cannabis brand can and cannot do in their stores. This posed a direct and supremely complex challenge for the customer experience and engagement – considering the customer base was now a dynamic mix of patients and first-time consumers.

Before Jesse joined in 2019, Columbia Care had an exhaustive series of failed attempts at successfully carving a brand identity that resonated with their transforming role in the market. They needed to relate with their evolving consumer base. Columbia Care was going through an internal saturation and they were as a business drained of numerous exercises, agencies, budgets, resources, and people power.

The catalysts

The four key driving factors for the rebrand were:

  1. Regulatory environment’s significant changes
  2. Columbia Care’s diverse product range that spanned from medical states to other states where the products were being used for adult recreation
  3. An exotic mix of different audiences and customer bases that they served
  4. The evolving company culture

Redefining the cannabis shopping experience with ‘Cannabist’

Being one of the oldest operators in the country put Columbia Care in an incredibly unique position as it enjoyed the largest footprint in the US market. They had data-rich consumer insights derived from a huge pool of their historical customer data which included feedback from customers, patients, and colleagues.

What spawned the innovation of ‘Cannabist’?

Jesse and the C-suite’s decisions were backed by data intelligence and Columbia Care’s brand legacy. These factors created the perfect vantage point of customer needs and expectations from the retail experience. ‘Cannabist’ as a name propped them as an industry expert, curator, and also served as a nod to their associates who were experts known for their exceptional service levels. As a brand, they aimed to:

  • Put a name on a door that was consistent with who they are today and who they will be in the future
  • Create a retail store experience that caters to a customized experience and enables a varied mix of experiences across the full spectrum of several locations and consumer groups
  • Deliver experiential sales journeys, not just in-store but also virtually

“We wanted to put out the message that we are unapologetically passionate and the experts in this plant, Cannabis”, said Jesse

How contextual data intelligence fuelled the strategy

Dehumanizing data and not looking at context is a classic recipe for failure that costs brands a fortune as they get consumed by the data vs deriving insights

Jesse and team successfully dodged the above by taking a balanced approach of –

Data + Context + the Human element

They chose a two-prong approach to ensure they weren’t dehumanizing data and avoiding contextual data. Why?

“Because data without context is just noise”

– Said Jesse

“Data was incredibly important but the contextual data on top of it from interactions with human element was the most impactful part of the exercise.”

Here’s an outline of Jesse and his team’s methodology:

Combining objective data sets to identify that answered these burning questions:

  1. What are people buying and looking for?
  2. How and what products are people consuming?
  3. What is the feedback on certain products?
  4. How often do people come back?
  5. What are the trends with regards to shopping patterns?
  6. What is missing from our current retail experience?
  7. What are our teammates having to compensate for due to a lack of proper structure to make it more seamless?

They later combined the above-derived insights with softer, more subjective data sets obtained by:

  1. Interviews and conversations
  2. Reading online reviews
  3. Social listening for sentiment analysis

They also used mystery shopping for competitor analysis that helped them look into the retail experience at their own as well as competitors’ stores.

“For us, the insights had to come from the more subjective, contextual conversations that captured the human element. And as we continue to adapt and innovate on top of this platform we’ve launched with Cannabist – patients, customers, and associates will see that they’ve not only been put in the middle of this consideration set that helped build cannabis shopping experience from inside out”.

 A silo-free strategy to enable collaboration

For the rebrand to translate well across the organization, it needed representation across the business. It would be impossible to rebrand if done in a silo.

Key participants and their functions in the rebrand

There was a mix of in-organization members from across the board and tie-ups with external agencies.

  • Brand marketing created the initial aesthetic, messaging, and core strategy around the brand
  • Marketing operations lead on overall project management
  • The Chief Operations Officer made hands-on, involved decision making for the overall strategy
  • Chief Data Officer focused on integrated technology to build in differentiators that created immersive customer experiences

Columbia Care’s c-suite was engaged in the project’s progress, reporting to the board periodically. External agencies were brought in to craft the retail spaces and experiential shopping technology.

Creative agency, 22 Squared built a brand book and worked with the internal team on all the strategy and implementation.

Architectural partner, Method designed the spaces and was responsible for bringing the Cannabis retail experience vision to life.

In-store innovations to tackle state regulations and optimize CX

The Cannabist stores stand to serve as a hub, a premium space where design, trust, and technology converge to create seamless customer engagement opportunities and elevate the customer journey in its essence. To provide an experience built on unmatched knowledge, passion, community commitment, and product standards the C-suite had to take some chances and be unafraid to build certain elements into the infrastructure of certain spaces that could adapt with time.

For example, they set up a bar, a ‘CANNA-BAR’ in every store. This element empowered them with the flexibility to create a retail experience designed to adhere to the state regulations without compromising the customer experience. The CANNA-BAR is inspired by Apple’s Genius Bar and intends to serve as a point of sales station for pre-orders, in-store express service, or self-service pick-up.

The idea of the CANNA-BAR was to help people socially engage, ask questions, and get a feel of the product range available. People would be guided by knowledgeable staff, called the ‘Cannabists’.

Columbia Care cannabis retail store assistance 'Cannabist'
2104-16 1242 Columbia Care Cannabist Stocked Space
April 29, 2021
© 2021 / Meagan Larsen

Technology: the driving agent in crafting the retail store spaces

In light of the pandemic, Jesse and his team designed and deployed the retail spaces via Zoom, Facetime, email, and cloud content management systems. They used a lot of technology to coordinate project management that kept all stakeholders across the country aligned and aware of the progress, design language, and factors that would make the spaces unique.

Columbia Care cannabis retail store 'Cannabist'
2104-16 1316 Columbia Care Cannabist Stocked Space
April 29, 2021
© 2021 / Meagan Larsen

Empathetic consumer education

Data revealed that many consumers shop or educate themselves about brands on digital long before and multiple times before they ever step into a store. The pandemic only accelerated it further. Columbia Care assigned significant web development resources to build a platform that enabled virtual shopping, creating an almost realistic, in-store, face-to-face experience that seamlessly integrated technology.

On June 9, they announced the launch of their proprietary technology, ‘Forage.io’. The platform is designed to match consumer moods and activities with products and locations to provide convenient pick-up and reach.

Marketing the rebrand

They leveraged social media, text marketing, programmatic buys that complied with programmatic display guidelines. They also used a suite of technology with their partners for:

  • Hosting and cloud services
  • Cannabis and CBD compliant marketing platform
  • Customer experience platform for social media insights
  • Media intelligence software
  • Digital media data to test and monitor conversations post-launch

Outcomes and the future

The rebrand process has been a nine-month exercise right from sign-off to completion. Columbia Care recently opened doors to their Utah store on April 30 and have a lineup of three more Cannabist store launches in San Diego, Arizona, and Illinois. They’ve also added a roadmap of 60 locations over the next two years. Jesse remarked that the coming two-three years would be the key observational window period as the cannabis consumer-scape continues to evolve.

“Columbia Care will continue to educate their customers and continue to provide the full spectrum of price points and products that we do today and even more so as we continue to merchandize ‘Cannabist’ to remain as an approachable, consistent, yet premium brand.”

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