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"It's a great product, it will sell itself." WRONG- Says Rachel Boykins

In conversation with Rachel Boykins, as she shares her insights on scaling a business by improving branding strategy

Rachel Boykins recently made her way into the cannabis industry. After completing her MBA in Marketing and Entrepreneurship at Northwestern University, Rachel worked for big brands like Target, McDonald’s, Molson Coors, and Blue Moon. She took her first step in cannabis as Brand Marketing Manager for PharmaCann. Rachel is currently working with MXXN a THC-infused non-alcoholic drink,  a flavour infused beverage made as a replacement for cocktails. She is also the Board Member of Cannabis Media Council which aims at sharing the positive experiences of cannabis and broadening consumer awareness. In this interview with Rachel Boykins, she shares her experience in the cannabis industry and talks about branding.

Can you tell us the "backstory" about what brought you to the cannabis industry?

My career started at Target working in merchandising and I quickly learned I had a passion for consumers and branding.  I went to get my MBA at Kellogg concentrating on Marketing and Entrepreneurship.  Once graduating, I entered the traditional world of brand management to really build my skillset.  My first job was a bit of a dream working on Skittles at Wrigley.  From there, I've had the opportunity to grow my brand skillset working for companies like McDonald's and Molson Coors. While serving as Senior Brand Manager on Blue Moon, I started to see how much cannabis was growing in appeal and acceptance to today's consumers.  In the beer world, we often saw it as a threat down the road as legalization grows.  I researched what was going on in Illinois and didn't love what I saw.  People that look like me (black, female) were really being left out of the conversation and decisions, despite having contributed so much to the cannabis industry.  I looked to start my career in cannabis and was very upfront about me having an impact as a diverse candidate was key.  I landed at a MSO, PharmaCann as Brand Marketing Director for their dispensaries and wholesale brand. I really appreciated the crash course in the industry and found working in cannabis to be really rewarding.  Now I'm working with a few different smaller companies to help them win with the brand knowledge I bring.  


Explain your role

I currently serve as Brand Director at MXXN (pronounced MOON).  MXXN is a THC-infused non-alcoholic spirit currently available in California but quickly expanding across the country.  I love taking my traditional experience and applying it to make MXXN a known and admired brand in the cannabis industry.  Day-to-day includes working on messaging, partnering with creatives on assets and point-of-sale materials, strategizing our key retailers, building out a media calendar, and pivoting with the changes associated with cannabis. It's not that different from working on a CPG brand on the surface, but the curveballs are what keep it interesting for me. 

How do you write a brand definition and brand guidelines?

I'm a stickler for ensuring the brand positioning and guidelines is clear since I believe this is the foundation for all the work to come.  Sometimes I think brands get a little too lofty with their brands and the roles we will play in consumers' lives.  The brand doesn't need to be ground breaking in problem solving to still be a good brand.  I think starting with a good Reason to Believe in your product is key.  Knowing why it even exists and how that differentiates from every other competitor is important in driving distinction.  A lot of this can stem from product traits, but those can often be duplicated, so ensuring the RTB ties to the brand positioning is a great way to further drive differentiation.  From here, the brand can go forward to build out robust guidelines including brand look, personality, key assets, voice, activation pillars and other opportunities.

How can a cannabis brand set itself apart and what are the questions one needs to think about to execute this?

Cannabis brands often have tons of personality, but the messaging can be a bit confusing especially if you are new to the industry. There are still a lot of newcomers who need the education and to gain familiarity with the plant. Yet education is often kind of boring (sorry teachers), so you have to make learning engaging.  With MXXN, we have seen that it takes consumers a little time to fully understand our product. "Is it alcohol? or to be used with alcohol?  Is it a Ready-to-Drink or a shot?"  We get these questions and more, so the brand has really focused on education and simplification. While not the sexiest to some, it's actually helped us evolve our brand identity and given us new ways to showcase the brand personality.

What trends are you seeing in cannabis in the US?

I find it interesting how much variation you see in cannabis packaging compared to other industries. In CPG, you strive to make packaging similar in dimensions so it won't disrupt shelves and put you at a disadvantage with retailers. Packaging for cannabis varies across brands, forms, states and gives consumers a lot to unpack.  Seeing the artistic and unique sizing/shapes is definitely unique to the industry.

Give us 2 great examples in your experience with any big brand that you thought has done well and that can be applied in Cannabis branding

Micro-influencers vs Big Celebrity names. Celebrity endorsements tend to mean less and less over time and need to be done really well to drive a brand.  Given the social world we live in, paying micro-influencers to drive your brand in a much more efficient way.  The social media rules for cannabis are tricky, but I'm curious to see how this will evolve, especially on Twitter to make cannabis an easier industry to discuss on social platforms.

Where do brands fail when it comes to cannabis branding

Too many are just foregoing branding in order to get a product out quickly.  It would drive me crazy to be in a meeting and hear "It's a great product, it will sell itself."  WRONG. Great products die every day in every industry.  I understand there's a lot to focus on from a compliance and operations stance, but cannabis brands need to invest in marketing and branding to succeed in the long term.  Only the best brands will survive and there won't be many, so building a brand now will definitely pay off in the future.

What is an ideal checklist to get your branding right?

-Is the positioning clear?

-Does the consumer actually want it?

-What are our plans B, C, and D?

What are you working on right now?

With MXXN it's all about liquid to lips.  Our product is solid and consumers love it once they get to try it.  We want to activate outside as much as we can this Summer and have some great events in the works to support our retailers and the California social calendar.  Outside for us also includes On-Premise and consumption lounges.  We are growing as this channel does so it's exciting to figure out how to take our alcohol knowledge and get MXXN cocktails to consumers.