WHAT’S YOUR STORY? A Conversation With Cannabis Marketing Association Founder & CEO Lisa Buffo
I was ecstatic when the Cannabis Marketing Association came to town. I’d been looking for my professional tribe for literally years, in Los Angeles, no less, a city jam-packed with cannabis marketers. It took a Denver-based outfit to satisfy my desire for information, resources and connection.
With the CMA's inaugural Cannabis Marketing Summit transpiring (virtually) June 1-4, it felt like a good time to satisfy my curiosity about the woman who founded the organization and currently serves as its CEO, Lisa Buffo.
Like me, she’s a Midwestern gal who found the flower at 15. Unlike me, in 2014 she dropped everything and moved to Denver to join the cannabis revolution. She went on to found and co-chair the National Cannabis Industry Association’s Marketing and Advertising Committee, among other contributions to the cannabis marketing community.
The Herbal Verbalist: What do you recall of your first experience with cannabis?
Lisa Buffo: I was a freshman in high school in Shaker Heights, Ohio, outside Cleveland. A friend’s older brother had some weed, so we went to the golf course, he rolled a joint and we smoked it. I didn’t really feel anything. But the next time or the time after that, I remember thinking how funny everything seemed and laughing a lot with my friends. It was a nice break from the pressure of being a 15-year-old. There was something about the act of passing a joint and finishing it as a group that made us feel bonded in a way we’d never felt before.
HV: Do you remember having any particular career direction back then?
LB: I just knew I wanted to be my own boss. I worked for a few small businesses during high school and college. I wanted to see what it took to run a business.
HV: How did you develop an interest in marketing?
LB: My first job out of college [at the University of Maryland] was with a nonprofit startup called Warrior Canine Connection. Our clients were veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who had PTSD or traumatic brain injury. We taught them how to train wheelchair-assistance dogs for other veterans who were amputees.
"I took what I knew,
figured out what I didn’t
and just hustled."
We bred the dogs in house and got a grant to stream footage of the puppies. Within a few months there was a Facebook group called Extreme Puppy Watchers. So I took what I learned from that and developed other channels to leverage the feed. I quickly saw how meaningful the impact was — the feed became so popular that we were able to sell puppy-related merchandise to boost fundraising. We built this crazy following, the nonprofit grew and we were able to expand our mission.
After that, I worked for a business accelerator, where I became a marketing resource for the tech startups who were our clients. I’d create their marketing plans, get their social media set up, whatever they needed. I took what I knew, figured out what I didn't and just hustled.
HV: What was your own first entrepreneurial venture?
LB: I’d always had a green thumb and wanted to see if I could start a business centered on agriculture. Ohio State had a market-gardener business-accelerator program. I was going to lease an acre of land, grow basil and develop a line of pesto products. But as I got farther down that road, it became clear that it meant staying in Cleveland for the foreseeable future, which I didn’t want to do.
So I started researching agricultural-startup possibilities in places I might like to live. This was late 2013. Colorado's legal adult-use cannabis industry was starting up the following year ... and it just clicked. So I took a little exploratory trip to Denver and within 24 hours I’d decided to move here.
HV: How did you go about getting into the cannabis industry?
LB: I networked like crazy. But I also wanted to see how a cannabis operation worked from the ground up, so I became a trimmer. It was great to work with the plant and I got good at it, but trimming is extremely repetitive and doing it eight hours a day … I knew I needed something more stimulating, so after learning what I needed to learn, when another opportunity came up, I went for it.
I took a job with CanopyBoulder, yet another business accelerator, which had just launched. They were looking for an intern, but I said, “I’ve actually run an accelerator; let me help you do this.” So they hired me in an operational capacity. Once again, though, I gravitated toward marketing. I helped CanopyBoulder launch their social channels and grow their reach in other ways while helping the startups take their product to market. BDS Analytics was in that first class, along with a handful of other companies that are now industry leaders.
One of the startups, the first wholesale B2B platform for the industry, subsequently hired me as their CMO. My job was to get cultivators, dispensaries and brands onto our system. I was building relationships with basically the entire Colorado supply chain, and once my contacts got to talking, they’d confide how they were struggling to reach consumers, like, “All the things we thought we knew about marketing don’t apply.” I was having some of the same issues. A traditional marketing plan just wouldn't work.
HV: What were some of the issues?
LB: The industry was so nascent, the product we were launching was new to the space and the regulations were even more restrictive than they are now. Federal prohibition weighed even more heavily on us. I was hammering away at brand awareness, which meant spending a lot of time at events, where I found there was this massive professional-education gap.
So I started inviting people to meetings after hours to talk about what they were doing that WAS working. Every time I came across a successful campaign, I’d call whoever was running it and invite them to tell us how they’d pulled it off. Or it could be as basic as, “What did you do when your Instagram account was shut down?”
There was a lot of interest and these little gatherings got too big to have at my office, which is when I decided to start a Meetup group. We had 80 people at our first Meetup. It was incredible. Then I started doing them once a month, and people kept coming.
"When you go to the store
to buy toilet paper,
you have to decide
which brand to buy —
you don’t have to decide
whether to buy it at all."
It never occurred to me that this would turn into a formal organization, but after fix or six Meetups I started hearing from marketers in L.A. and the Bay Area who wanted to replicate the model. So I flew up and hosted meetings in California, and that’s when I started thinking in terms of chapters. That was in 2016, the year I officially founded the CMA. We now have nine chapters, including San Diego, Seattle, New York, D.C. and Boston.
HV: How do people benefit from membership?
LB: We’ve had a lot of success with in-person panel discussions and networking events. I remember an early-stage entrepreneur who came to one of our Denver meetings. He was planning to launch a brand in Massachusetts. He started watching our Boston meetings via the online portal and realized that the initial concepts he’d mocked up wouldn’t be compliant in Massachusetts. Once he understood what would be required, he was able to reimagine his brand accordingly. The changes he made got him started on the right foot. He could have gotten himself into a very expensive situation otherwise, which happens to a lot of cannabis entrepreneurs.
We also offer a series of webinars. The next one, on May 21, is "Connecting Business & Culture in the Cannabis Industry.” And we have a podcast, "Party Like a Marketer." The latest episode of that is “Data-Driven Growth Marketing in the Cannabis Industry With Chris Day,” who’s VP External Relations at Marijuana Business Daily.
Of course connecting people is as important to us as educating them. Members have found jobs in the industry through contacts they made at CMA events, or a brand will hire an agency based on something one of their executives said on a panel. And people make friends. There are so many challenges in this sector and in our piece of it that it can be a relief to find someone you don’t have to explain everything to. Our Slack channel helps facilitate these relationships.
And we’re having our first conference, the Cannabis Marketing Summit, in June, which I’m really excited about. We’re in a position now — in part thanks to our partnership with Marijuana Business Daily, our exclusive national media sponsor — where we’ve been able to get some of the best-known and most-respected marketers in cannabis to participate.
HV: How has taking the summit online affected your plans?
LB: It’s actually allowing us to bring together stakeholders at the national level in a way we wouldn’t have anticipated before Covid-19 forced us to move the summit from New Orleans — where we were presenting it in conjunction with MJBizConNEXT — to the internet. Even though cannabis was deemed essential in most of the legal states, our industry has not been spared furloughs. A lot of companies have seen their travel budgets slashed or eliminated altogether. But their employees can still attend online. The lower the barrier to entry, the better for us because we want this to be as accessible as possible.
HV: How do you see the future of the Cannabis Marketing Association?
LB: In the short term, we’re focused on building the community and extending our mission to all the legal states, which will actually set us up for the longer term: helping our profession adapt to the end of federal prohibition. What will national cannabis marketing look like? Despite the diversity of state regulations, we’re well into that conversation.
My dream is to create a national industry campaign along the lines of “Got Milk?” We have so much to overcome as an industry. There’s no overestimating the damage prohibition has done, not only to the millions of people who could have benefited from cannabis over the last 80 years but to the industry brand. When you go to the store to buy toilet paper, you have to decide which brand to buy — you don’t have to decide whether to buy it at all. You haven’t been bombarded by misinformation for generations telling you that toilet paper is bad for you. As a society, we have a lot to learn about this miraculous plant, and as cannabis marketers, we have a huge role to play in educating consumers as to what it is and how it can help them.
I’ve spent years learning about cannabis, figuring out what works for me, personally, through trial and error, for sleep, for creativity, for fitness … It helps me stay active and focused, and the social aspect is still there, of course.
The beauty of being an informed consumer of cannabis is that I’m able to align the various products and delivery methods with different aspects of my lifestyle. I see it as a privilege as well as an opportunity to help consumers benefit from cannabis as fully as I have.