By Jack Porcari
The mantra for MJ Unpacked is that “all it takes is a spark” to inspire greatness in the cannabis industry. With 2023 being such a time of upheaval, expansion, and innovation across the sector, sparks definitely went flying at the event’s spring iteration in New York. There, for the cannabis industry’s exclusive consumer packaged goods (CPG) conference, stakeholders came together, asked questions, and shared opinions at pertinent panels. They also marveled at exhibitors’ glass tower displays - an MJ Unpacked trademark - learned from venture summit sessions and tech demos, and formed bonds that were cemented by the clang of the show’s Flower of Life Gong.
MJ Unpacked Takes Detroit For The First Time
This week, MJ Unpacked takes over Detroit for the first time ever. October 10th, 11th, and 12th, the conference revs up Motor City with an agenda attuned to the cannabis space’s most pressing issues. (No wonder, since the event’s creators, the team at Jage Media, are in the business of staying on the pulse of breaking news.)
“Detroit has long been a city of innovation and growth, and Ann Arbor was the first municipality in America to decriminalize cannabis in 1972, so Michigan is a natural fit as MJ Unpacked’s next destination,” Kim Jage, co-founder of MJ Unpacked said when the show’s new location was confirmed in May. “Michigan is a cannabis powerhouse that has reached a critical point in its lifeline as the second largest market in the country, behind only California. We are thrilled to bring the top event in the industry to such a booming market and look forward to welcoming industry leaders from around the country.”
To get you in the mood for an exciting week of conversation and relationship building, we’re taking a look back at some of MJ Unpacked New York’s best highlights and sharing insights into what’s on the table in Detroit. Though there’s likely no smoking allowed inside the MotorCity Casino where the show takes place, we’re sure the brilliance of the speakers, vendors, and attendees combined will give new meaning to the moniker “Hitsville.”
What Should You Look Forward To At MJ Unpacked Detroit?
MJ Unpacked Detroit is offering a plethora of up-to-the-minute cannabis programming that brands and investors should count as must-sees.
Tuesday, October 10, 2023
Liz Stahura, co-founder and Chief Operations Officer of BDSA, provides a keynote on the market landscape with a special focus on Michigan’s growth. The address will help stakeholders plan ahead for 2024.
An all-female panel of powerhouses confront the divide between Boomers and Zoomers in “Generational Marketing for Cannabis Dispensaries: Engaging Diverse Consumers.” Leah Spokojny, Chief Revenue Officer of BDSA, moderates the discussion between speakers Chris Visco, CEO and President of Fully Baked Brands; Mitch Meyers, Chief Marketing Officer of midose; and Laurie Parfitt, CEO of LKP Impact Consulting.
Safety is king as industry leaders advise cannabis business owners “How To Avoid Getting Robbed.” Amber Senter, CEO of Makr House and co-founder / Executive Director of Supernova Women, moderates as seasoned experts explore practical solutions to minimizing theft, managing cash, and more. Panelists: Christopher Eggers, Founder and CEO of Cannabis Compliant Security Solutions; Dudley Locke, Vice President / Insurance Advisor at AssuredPartners; and Marie Montmarquet, co-founder of MD Numbers.
Wednesday, October 11, 2023
How can brands be an authentic force for good? Find out in “Driving Impact and Success Through Mission-Driven Brands,” a look at the power of aligning business with purpose. Katrina Yolen, Founder and CEO of CNB Strategies, moderates the conversation between panelists Ryan Basore, CEO of Redemption Cannabis; Matha Figaro, Founder of But-A-Cake; and David Haley, President and CEO of Ancient Roots.
Learn how to catch consumers’ eyes like never before. In “What Goes on the Top Shelf May Not Be What You Think,” you’ll discover new strategies for in-store merchandising from those in the know. Rachelle Gordon, Editor of GreenState, moderates among panelists Greta Brandt, President of The Flower Shop; Meg Lefeld, Business Development Manager at ZenGenius; and Travis Ogle, CEO at KRG Enterprises.
Cannabis legalization is expanding, but what does that mean state-to-state? Industry veterans address “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of it all in “Crossing Borders: The Realities of Out-of-State Expansion.” Corrine Butler, Senior Vice President of Growth at Azuca, moderates the discussion between panelists David Kotler, Esq., CEO of Lake Life Farms; Kristi Palmer, co-founder and President of KIVA Confections; and Cameron Saner, co-founder and COO of Kosmik Brands.
Thursday, October 12, 2023
Something special is brewing in the drinkable category! Industry leaders dive into the latest frontier with “Unleashing Infused Beverages: Trends, Innovations & Impact.” Diana Eberlein, Chair of the Cannabis Beverage Association, moderates what bubbles up among panelists Jerome Crawford, Chief Legal Officer of Pleasantrees; Leili Fatehi, Partner and Principal at Blunt Strategies; and David Pilcuk, co-founder and Director of Electric Brands.
Everyone wants to come together, but how do we really know what makes for good consolidation? Let “Mature Moves: Navigating Mergers & Acquisitions Successfully” be your primer. Valay Shah, Chief Financial Officer of C3 Industries, moderates as ideas flow between panelists Laura Bianchi, Co-founding Partner at Bianchi Brandt; Sandy Suchoff, CPA, CEO and COO of The Canna CPAs; and Kris Krane, Founder and CEO of Kranewreck Enterprises.
What Were Our Favorite MJ Unpacked New York Highlights?
Whether in Rock City or The Big Apple, MJ Unpacked is always a vibe. Here are some of our favorite highlights from this spring’s New York conference.
A New Era of Growth: Understanding Cannabis Market Evolution
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this presentation is that in 2023, “flat is the new up.” Liz Stahura, co-founder and COO of BDSA, revealed the morphology of industry trends in the U.S. and globally in this keynote speech. Factors like inflation, economic uncertainty, legacy market competition and changing regulations shape an uncertain future. Yet despite apparent setbacks, cannabis is continually trending toward growth.
Legalization has opened the door for cannabis business to form roots across the country. New markets coming online in New Mexico, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York have this year offset a 13 percent decline seen in mature markets like California, Nevada, Oregon and Colorado. Back in 2021, dispensaries were deemed essential businesses and sales surged during the COVID-19 pandemic for four quarters, according to BDSA. Today, Multi-State Operators (MSOs) have currently reached 90 percent of total dispensary sales in Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York. Conversely, legacy entrepreneurs and other small and medium-sized enterprises make up 50 percent or more of dispensary transactions in states like Missouri, Michigan and Oregon.
The first step to creating a robust cannabis marketplace is access and data reveals we are just obtaining the full picture. “Seventy-six percent of adults in legal states are bought-in to the concept of cannabis either currently consuming or open to consuming in the future.” Stahura said. “A full 71 percent of inhalable consumers state that they consume daily, and that's up from in the low 60s just a couple of years ago, continuing to see that with accessibility comes adoption and significant participation.” As patients and business owners alike look forward to meaningful participation, BDSA expects New York State to become a $3 billion industry by 2027 and attain a compound annual growth rate of 11 percent nationally, making cannabis a $45 billion industry.
Oh Shit Don’t Do That - Mistakes From Retailers in Mature Markets
Panelists: Ryan Brown (CEO at Groundworks Industries), Gabe Mendoza (EVP of Operations at 4Front Ventures), Crystal Millican (VP of Marketing and Retail at Cookies), Meg Sanders (CEO at Canna Provisions)
This panel discussion brought cannabis veterans together to focus on the art of consistency, community engagement and innovation. With the pressures of financial uncertainty and changing regulations, business owners must focus all their effort on finding the right customers, curations, routes of administration, and pricing models.
To stay competitive in a saturated industry, panelists talked about building business acumen for future success. “This is not a sprint and you need to be very foundationally sound in order to be successful,” said Gabe Mendoza, EVP of Operations at 4Front Ventures. He helped establish 14 successful dispensaries across seven states. “Every moment that a customer spends in your store is a customer experience moment.”
Inside this experience moment, the consumer should be at the forefront, according to Crystal Millican, SVP of Retail and Marketing for Cookies. “We need to be listening to those customers, understanding what they're dealing with in day to day life,” she said. “Making sure we have the right product and assortment in a retail store at any given time to meet their needs, whether it's a consumption need or an economic need, on that given day.”
Described as the “people’s champ” and an “upper-core attainable premium,” Cookies has evolved into a product ecosystem with a recognizable experience across 18 markets in 58 dispensaries. Millican says entrepreneurs must remain true to their mission to survive: “What is your vision—reminding yourself: Why are you in this business, right? What are the values that you have as a company,” she said. “If you can also build your customer experience based on those values, I think that's what really can set you apart for the long haul because it is a long haul, we are thinking and talking about how Cookies is going to look in 100 years.”
Another theme of the discussion was the challenges in achieving customer loyalty. “I feel that telling the story of your brand doesn't necessarily reflect the ranges of prices or the values that you offer in the store,” said Meg Sanders, CEO of Canna Provisions. “And I feel like that's where a lot of brands have a hard time because you ask them who's your target market—and they say everyone.”
Ultimately, dispensaries with a robust understanding of who they serve and what the experience feels like will succeed. “The products that are carried in the different stores that you have all need to at least in some respect, reflect the community that is operating and lives around those stores,” said panel moderator and CEO of Groundworks Industries, Ryan Brown. “Our experience has been and continues to be that this is an industry where there is a lot of online chatter about cannabis brands and companies and where to shop, but there is a huge amount of word of mouth conversation.”
More MJ Unpacked New York Cannabis Industry Insights
The vast array of experts at MJ Unpacked New York left us with some lustrous pearls of wisdom still shining in our minds months later (and even truer now).
Wesley McWhite, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission
On community reinvestment: “Cannabis regulators are on the cutting edge of outreach and innovation because we're going into communities as no government agencies have before.”
Leah Samura, CEO, Yamba Boutique
On selling unique, female-forward product lines in a competitive marketplace: “[My strategy] is not fitting in… “One of the challenges I had with that product was men saying ‘Oh, my partner doesn't need that,’ ‘I’m good’ or ‘Oh, she doesn't believe in it.’ How do you know that, did you ask your wife?”
Kim Napoli, Esq., Counsel, The Mensing Group
On cannabis business being good neighbors to their local communities: “Creating the culture that you want to live in is to me how you be the best neighbor… I think we all win when we all win.”
Damian Fagon, Chief Diversity Officer, New York State Office of Cannabis Management
On what makes social equity different: “Social equity is not corporate social responsibility. Equity is giving someone a business that they can operate successfully. Equity is not corporate sponsorship deals.”
Tai Duncan, Vice President of Community Integration, Cresco Labs
On being community-focused as an MSO: “If we don't ask the community what it needs, we don't get it right.”
Helen Gomez-Andrews, CEO, The High End
On creating well-thought-out products and inspiring women as business leaders: “I want women to believe that those ideas can make change and make meaningful change. We just need to reach out, share, talk more and work together.”
Khari Edwards, Head of Corporate Relations, AYR Wellness
On addressing community-specific issues: “How do we heal communities? Let’s look at it from a people’s lens first… Every community has different issues, from housing to food insecurity, [but] the communication level has to be consistent.”
Lana Van Brunt, Co-founder, Sackville & Co.
On proper representation in retail and in numbers: “You have to be willing to alienate a part of the audience to make sure you're focusing on the audience that you do want… Until there's a day where women, people of color, marginalized audiences are spoken to as audiences, there's always going to be a gap in the data.”
For more on MJ Unpacked, visit mjunpacked.com.
Jack Porcari is a multidisciplinary content creator and advocate from the vibrant city of Buffalo, New York. His work is highly focused on equity, human experience and cannabis justice. To read more of Jack’s words, visit loudthoughts.online. Follow @thecannaprofessor and @loudthoughtszine on Instagram.
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Featured image: The MJ Unpacked New York main entrance hall (C) MJ Brand Insights