2019 is starting off on a high note for many in the cannabis industry, especially for Wana Brands. The number-one edibles brand in the United States, Wana will be available for the first time this month in Michigan dispensaries, through a partnership with High Life Farms, as the state’s new cannabis regulations take effect. Recently named one of the 50 Best Companies to Work For in Cannabis and profiled on Inc 5000’s Fastest Growing Companies List, this dynamic enterprise continues to make impressions within the sector and beyond. CEO Nancy Whiteman will be a featured speaker at SXSW 2019 in March to discuss non-obvious trends in the sector, as well as many other engagements throughout the first quarter of the year. Before the excitement reached a fever pitch, Honeysuckle caught up with Whiteman at Marijuana Business Daily’s Marijuana Business Conference in Las Vegas for the scoop on how Wana’s new developments are truly enhancing life for consumers, corporate partners, and the greater good.
JAIME LUBIN: You Wana Brands was founded in 2010, and the company is now considered one of the mainstays of the cannabis industry for infused products. What do you think has accounted for that longevity?
NANCY WHITEMAN: First of all, I wish everybody knew the company. Of course, we’re getting there and as we roll out more and more states, my intention is to be a well-known national brand. We’re probably as close as anybody is on the edible side of the business. So what do I think accounts for that longevity? I think it all starts with a great product and “great” means a couple of things to me: It means it tastes great, but also means it’s completely consistent and that’s so, so, so important in edibles. When we started in 2010, in Colorado there were no regulations that required third party potency testing but we always did from the very first batch we ever made. We always potency-tested, so that was the core of our reputation for consistency, and that was really a personal value of mine.
I never wanted anybody to have a bad experience with one of my products, not knowing good or bad, it’s either easy too strong for them or not strong enough. I just wanted people to know exactly what they were getting. So if you ask people, what do you like about Wana, probably one of the first words that will come out of their mouth is “They’re consistent. I can count on them to be the same every time.”
We also paid a lot of attention to customer service and B-to-B marketing. We understood early on that in a market where people come into a retail environment and have to go to a counter and talk to a budtender, if the butenders are not happy or excited about your product you have a problem. So we really spent a lot of time trying to work at the point-of-sale level doing training, giving people hoodies and making sure they got lots of samples so that they became our brand ambassadors at every store. If somebody orders something from us, they never have to wait a week for it; we never have back orders, I have a lot of money tied up in finished goods inventory because I never want our customers to not have our product. In many ways it’s just good business practice, it’s nothing special.
I know you came into the space from a very DIY-style background, having founded a marketing consulting firm before coming into cannabis and beginning Wana as a startup. Wana is now best known for its gummies; how did that reputation develop?
There was no industry data when we started. We didn’t know what was going to turn out to be popular, so we just tried a whole bunch of stuff and saw what was working… So that was my market research, seeing what people liked, taking products off the market that weren’t selling well, and then ultimately what I really gravitated toward were products that had long shelf lives and that were shelf-stable and easy to transport. The confectionery products fit beautifully in that category. You know, baked goods go stale. Beverages are expensive and heavy to transport. It helped me to have a focus, and then when we started making gummies and got a really good reaction to the product, we invested a lot in really fine-tuning our recipes and standards [and] procedures so that they could scale, they were shelf-stable in all kinds of weather, they could be easily transported. That was how we got to the gummy category.
2018 brought a big milestone in launching Wana’s first vape line. Will edibles still be your first love as the product lines expand?
I think gummies are always going to be an amazing platform for cannabis for a couple reasons. First, we’ve all become very familiar with gummies as a pharmaceutical platform because of vitamins and all the things that now come in gummy form. When I started this business in 2010, everybody was experimenting with everything and so you had infused pizza and infused barbecue sauce, and I think the reason that gummies are the number one category is that it makes sense.
You can have the small delicious thing with the THC or CBD or whatever [combination] that you would like to have and you’re done, you don’t have to eat a whole pizza that taste like cannabis. Why not eat this and then have the best possible pizza you can find? We don’t have to infuse everything.
So I think edibles are going to have a place in my heart. I also love vapes and vaping myself. Also really delicious; the hardware is super easy to use, very reliable. And it’s where a lot of the growth industry is going. Like my children, I love them both the same.
What was the progression from gummies to vapes?
If you look at the data, vapes are the largest and fastest-growing category within concentrates. In Colorado, edibles are a very mature market and our growth has been phenomenal, but as a category it has slowed, so it was kind of natural for me to say, “I think we’re ready to transition.” It was actually a really interesting process because it’s an extremely crowded category and market.
We did a ground-up strategy on it where we did a lot of research, spent time talking to our customers, and frankly, some of our customers said, “Don’t do this; you’re too late. There are already too many vape brands out there.” But what our research actually uncovered was that there was an opening in the disposable vape market for high-quality product [and] there wasn’t a lot of competition there.
The prevailed wisdom seems to be, “If it’s disposable, we’re going to use cheap hardware, we’re going to use oil that doesn’t taste particularly good.” We said, “Let’s turn this one on our ear, get the best-quality hardware we can and best-quality oil.” We had proprietary terpene blends formulated for us and it’s been really successful and awesome so far. We have a partner who does terpene formulation and they [custom-blend the oils]. What we did is choose some strain profiles that we especially liked and reverse-engineered them. They take the strain, analyze the terpene composition, and then they recreate it with organic botanical terpenes so it’s proprietary to us. They’re really good; these guys are amazing. And on the sustainability front [overall], we are in the process of rolling out new biodegradable packaging which is going to radically reduce our carbon footprint. I’m very excited about that move.
Wana’s tagline is “Enhance your life,” and there are many ways in which you’re developing that aspect of the brand to reach beyond products.
Yes. For example, we sponsor athletes because we believe that being physically active is one of the ways you enhance your life. We try to deepen the meaning of the brand all the time through various things that we do. We’re just launching a corporate social responsibility program that says, “What does it mean to be part of enhancing people’s and communities’ lives? How do we translate our tagline into a mission for how we can be doing good in the world?” We are starting locally in Colorado to mentor our partners and spread it through wherever we go.
Our first initiatives of social responsibility are around issues of homelessness and domestic violence and what we can do to strengthen that quality of life for people. You can’t have high quality of life if you’re not housed, if you don’t feel safe, if you don’t have those basic needs met to get to self-actualization. We’re [partnering with shelters in Colorado] with an eye toward setting up models that can be transferred easily to other states and situations. We’re [working] with our first partner to raise money to help women transition out of shelters into their own living situations. When somebody is fleeing domestic violence, they’re not packing up pots and pans and towels and sheets. They need all of that stuff when they go. We’re [preparing supplies] like that; we’re talking with them about mentoring, how to start your own business, and becoming more economically self-sufficient. We’re really in an exploratory stage with our partners there.
One of the biggest ongoing conversations in the cannabis industry is women’s representation in leadership roles. You’ve previously said that there is not really any glass ceiling to break in this sector because it’s the Wild West. Do you still feel that way?
Well, you know what? I’m going to modify that a little bit, because what I’ve seen has changed over the last couple of years. Colorado and Washington and Oregon are what I would categorize as unlimited license states, which is why there are so many businesses. Then on the East Coast and in the Midwest we have limited license states. In [places like] Maryland, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Jersey, it is very, very, very competitive and expensive to get a license. What you are really starting to see is the rise of well-funded investor groups and now the multi-state operators and all those folks. I have the utmost respect for them, and this isn’t a criticism, but by and large they’re all men and many come out of investment banking or Wall Street-type backgrounds. So I think what’s happening is that as the industry is demanding that people have more resources to play with, it’s starting to slip away from women being overrepresented in cannabis.
Unfortunately, I think it’s going to require that women step up to the next level to compete in this “Cannabis 2.0” world. They’re going to have to figure out how to get access to capital. There are many women who are very skilled at that, but it’s still very male-dominated.
As we’re looking to the future, I have to say I wish you could sell your products direct-to-consumer beyond selling to dispensaries. They would do very, very well.
Yes, that would be very nice, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Even under federal legalization, I don’t see a world where people will just be able to throw ten bottles of gummies into their shopping cart and go. Maybe [in several years if] it’s a controlled liquor store setup. Certainly I don’t want to see children having any access to it at all, ever.
Because of that, it’s hard for me to imagine a situation of pure mass-market retailers. You want to be extremely careful with that. Children having access to things is a legitimate concern and the industry should be proactively ensuring that our products are as safe as we can possibly make them to be. Now, I will say that I totally believe cannabis is way, way, way lower on the list of things that are [harmful] to children. If you look at what sends kids to the emergency room, cannabis is barely a blip on the bottom. But even one kid is too much. So we should all be doing whatever we can to keep children as safe as we can. I’d like us to be very conscious and thoughtful about it. There are some legitimate issues there and we need to be paying attention to them.
What other developments can we look out for from Wana as 2019 begins?
We’ve got a couple of big priorities; one is to continue to roll out the vape line and extend that to our partners out of state. The other is to continue our out-of-state expansion, deepening existing partnerships and bringing on a bunch of new partners. We’re currently in four states, wanted in three more, and we’re probably going to launch in another five or so in 2019. It’s a lot of work to figure out how to support those relationships so that they can be as successful as possible. We [also] have some really fun innovative products to come.
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Stay tuned for the latest updates on the cannabis and hemp communities, plus planetary wellness and holistic thinking, from Team Honeysuckle. Our issue ONE is now available in Barnes & Noble locations nationwide. Find the store nearest to you through our Locator, purchase copies on our site here, through our app for iTunes here, or our Zinio digital storefront here.
Jaime Lubin is the Managing Editor of Honeysuckle Magazine. Her profiles on art and culture have appeared regularly in The Huffington Post and Observer, as well as Billboard and Irish America magazines among other publications. Also an actress, producer, and singer, Jaime is working on a solo show about Tarot. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram (both @jaimelubin).