Cannabis is shining brighter than ever in an adult-use legal New York, and as the world’s top businesses and brands congregate in the Big Apple, they’re learning more and more to lean into the green. The Luxury Meets Cannabis Conference (LMCC) held its fourth iteration this month at famed NYC venue Hudson Yards, creating a crossroads of opportunities for high-end mainstream and cannabis brands to forge new frontiers together.
Presented by Merida Capital and founded by Jed Wexler of 818 Agency, LMCC was conceptualized as an evolution of the cannabis industry. Wexler envisioned traditional luxury brand buyers should and could be directly connected to revolutionary categories of high quality, design and production in plant-based arenas. His vision was realized at Hudson Yards, where brands from all over the world exhibited their eye-catching wares in immaculately designed booths. Engaging educational panels also took place throughout the two days of the conference, spotlighting such crucial themes as sustainability and planetary wellness, inclusivity, and crossover between retail categories. Throughout, LMCC stamped its signature for amplifying unique brands with the highest quality ingredients.
Education at LMCC 2021: Sustainability and Inclusivity in Luxury Branding
Mitch Baruchowitz, Managing Director of Merida Capital, summed LMCC’s mission up nicely: “As we step into a new phase of normalization, driven by what most feel is impending legislation, Luxury is the next stop on Cannabis’s evolutionary continuum, providing the comfort level that investors, brands, retailers and consumers everywhere have been waiting for.”
LMCC’s panelists brought amazing insight to huge topics this year. Journalist Ashlan Cousteau and Philippe Cousteau (grandson of legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau) debuted their new company SeaWeed Naturals on the sustainability panel. Speaking alongside Ben Dobson of Hudson Carbon and Oren Ezra of Formology Lab, they emphasized the importance of healing the planet and how brand developers should actively fight the climate crisis. The inclusivity keynote featured Nyakio Grieco, founder of the BIPOC-focused beauty brand Thirteen Lune, which launched to form a groundbreaking relationship with JC Penney. Michelle Wlazlo, JC Penney’s Executive Vice President and Chief Merchandise Officer, joined Grieco onstage to discuss how BIPOC-owned brands can play a larger role in reinventing the beauty space.
“Many of you will be asked to change things in your company,” Wlazlo said to the audience, adding, “But never change who you are.”
The very first session, with The Vitamin Shoppe CEO Sharon M. Leite and Prima co-founder and CEO Chris Gavigan, examined the furor around New York legalization as a definitive moment in retail history. At The Vitamin Shoppe, where CBD products now have their own section and mushroom-based items are beginning to flourish, Leite noted both her staff and consumers were excited to learn about the new categories.
“Each brand that we have on shelf has a level of education,” she related.
East Coast Cannabis Cultures Unite at LMCC 2021
All around Hudson Yards, attendees felt that same level of education. Exhibitor Alexander Farnsworth, co-founder of Farnsworth Fine Cannabis, spoke glowingly about the “multidimensional, multisensory” appeal of the event.
“I think the intimate setting is important for actually being able to meet people and make connections and share the brand’s story,” he stated. Farnsworth, from a long family legacy of innovators (his great-uncle invented TV technology), said that reception of his burgeoning company was very warm at LMCC. “We had a few comments that the brand felt developed… I thought that the mix of traditional retailers and industry insiders they had was welcomed.”
One unexpected perk of LMCC has been its ability to reunite the somewhat fractured cultures of East Coast cities versus country areas. “After the conference, I went back to the Berkshires and ran into [Jed Wexler] at the co-op with his kids getting fruits and veggies,” Farnsworth said. “And it’s really apparent that the connectivity between upstate and the city, especially when it comes to cannabis, is that is the same customer and the demand is certainly there… The [East Coast] retail market has centers of fresh food production, plant cultivation, and higher quality product all around… [The synergy of cannabis] has been incredible for the entire upstate area. Until New York opens [for retail], Massachusetts is where cannabis brands are being built.”
“The energy around the NY cannabis market was palpable, and that was the highlight for me,” asserted speaker Alexandra Van Iden, co-founder of marketing agency Prismatics, which focuses on shaping narratives in the cannabis industry. “Having worked in the California market for 5-plus years now, it's fun to feel the buzz of a new emerging market... especially since NYC is poised to set the stage for cannabis retail on a global level.”
In addition to emerging East Coast companies such as Farnsworth (which will debut their first edible in 2022), the women-owned dispensary Rebelle based in Great Barrington, New York based but internationally-sourced Liberate, and the Harlem-based woman and Latinx-owned CBD brand Herbas, LMCC showcased a splendid array of international brands. Some of the favorites included Korean-American beauty brand Two Cranes and MOIA Elixirs from the Czech Republic.
Road to Cannabis Crossover Brands: The Future of Sustainability, Luxury, and Legacy
“The cannabis industry is constantly evolving and the way to stay ahead is to always be thinking of what's next,” said Van Iden. “The ‘wellness’ market emerged as we shifted from medicinal to recreational (‘wellness’ is a category that falls in the middle of those two). We're now seeing the luxury market materialize as mainstream consumers become comfortable with the idea of recreational / social cannabis use. This is helping to lift the stigma, paving the way for legalization.”
Mina Mishrikey, a partner at Merida Capital, agreed. “[LMCC has] expanded the definition of what luxury means,” he commented. Mishrikey enthused that this year included a more diverse array of speakers and that a focus on sustainability, especially in new arenas as the Cousteau family is developing. Looking at the general landscape of luxury cannabis brands, he added, “Most exhibitors are amazing CBD-oriented beauty brands and wellness brands. I’d love to see [LMCC] lean into sustainability themes even more in future years, in particular industrial hemp-oriented applications. When we think about the luxury that cannabis brings into our lives, we think about enjoying the high or the wellness aspects first, but the plant can be used to create better, more sustainable products.”
For her part, Van Iden believes that what will help cannabis brands to cross over into the mainstream will depend on pushing the envelope. “A cannabis brand needs to think and act like a CPG brand to truly cross over,” she said. “Of course, it's not easy, as there are regulations to abide by, but I like to find and focus on the grey area, pushing the limits.” On her panel about storytelling for the cannabis industry, she advised entrepreneurs, “Just be ready to pivot!”
Farnsworth emphasized that legacy cannabis brands must also remain active in the space for the industry as a whole to achieve longevity. Citing the example of the recent event Revelry hosted by cannabis events and education company OnTheRevel, he said, “The majority of the crowd was legacy operators and it was a very different crowd than we saw at LMCC. In New York, both must be able to coexist.”
What Mishrikey envisioned for an upcoming LMCC would definitely be a step to help that synchronicity. “As an investor in the space, LMCC was a great opportunity to meet both established and up-and-coming brand platforms. I would encourage more institutional investors to participate in the coming years, especially in lock-step with the evolution of the New York adult-use market.”