Industry

“Diversify Your Staff” 11 Insider Tips with Lisi Willner, VP of Marketing at Sprig

I had the pleasure to interview Lisi Willner, VP of Marketing @ Sprig — a marketing executive with nearly 10 years experience in product + brand strategy.

What is your “backstory”? How did you first get into this business or get interested in the business?

Iactually have a background outside of the cannabis industry. For the last 5 years, I worked with Panasonic as a strategic marketing manager, responsible for global go-to-market strategy and positioning. In January 2017, I met Michael, Sprig’s CEO, and thought what he was working on was fascinating, especially because of the timing. We’re near the end of the ‘prohibition’ of cannabis, and the concept of leading such an innovative brand into a brave new world was (and still is) extremely interesting to me.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

A couple things:

Sprig was the pioneer in cannabis-infused beverages. Michael had the vision back in 2014 to introduce a THC-infused beverage to the California medical cannabis market, with the understanding that within a short period of time recreational use would be legal. The fact that he chose to bring Sprig to life via a canned beverage — a very familiar method of consumption for people — has made us very successful.

We’re also the first cannabis brand to be sold in both dispensaries and mainstream grocers. Our CBD-infused soda is available for purchase in Bristol Farms across the state of California, as well as in gas stations, convenience stores, cafes, bars, etc. We’ve really put a lot of effort into making our packaging and branding approachable and friendly — something that your everyday consumer would be comfortable grabbing in their fridge.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Noel Catlett, my former boss and mentor. Noel always gave me the tools I needed to succeed and some great advice, and then let me run. When I periodically would run into a wall, he also let me crawl under his desk and hide as I was having a meltdown. True story.

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

Yes! We’re in discussions with numerous hotels to make our CBD soda available in their minibars and/or at their hotel lobby bars. CBD-infused cocktails and mocktails are becoming incredibly popular, and we’re working on some really cool collab opportunities with celebrity bartenders. At this point I can’t disclose who, but stay tuned!

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?

Three things that excite me:

1) The idea of ending prohibition

2) Normalization of cannabis use/removal of social stigma

3) Cannabis 2.0 branding

Three things that concern me:

1) California’s ‘marijuanapocalypse’

2) Lack of access to banking

3) Product quality & reliability

Can you share your top “5 things you need to know in order to succeed in the Cannabis industry”? Please share a story or example for each.

1) Stop thinking about cannabis synonymously with dispensaries. With federal legalization on the horizon for hemp, cannabis brands should be thinking about alternative markets outside of dispensaries and defining their plan of attack now — not once it happens. Marketing and selling outside of dispensaries is an entirely different animal, which leads me to my next point.

2) Diversify your staff. The companies that will be the most successful will be the ones with a healthy mixture of people from inside and outside of the cannabis industry. It’s been a black market for so long, many legacy brands don’t have traditional, ‘best practice’ marketing and sales knowledge that the rest of the world knows to be effective because it hasn’t been available to them (e.g. marketing on Facebook, Google AdWords, eCommerce, etc.).

3) Embrace your competition. When Constellation Brands announced they were putting $184M into a Canadian company to make cannabis-infused beverages, I panicked for a second. A second later, I realized that it just further validates our space (that we have first mover advantage in!). Competition is healthy and results in top quality products for consumers.

4) Be agile. As legalization continues to happen, state regulations will be added, modified and removed. You want to be invested in your current strategy, but not too much to the point where you couldn’t easily change directions based on what comes down the legislative pipe next. We’ve designed and re-designed our cans, as well as adjusted our products numerous times to stay compliant with the latest regs.

5) Love what you do. This one’s easy. Most people who are involved in the cannabis industry enjoy their work, either because they’re cannabis users themselves and reap the benefits of the plant, or because they realize the widespread good that it can bring others. There’s truth to the saying, “Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life”!

In our experience when people are passionate about what they do they are more successful. Where does your cannabis passion come from?

I’m passionate about what I do from both a marketer’s perspective, as well as from a cannabis perspective.

From a marketing standpoint, bringing an innovative product like Sprig to a brand-new market is a marketer’s dream — the definition of a true go-to-market strategy. There’s so much opportunity for creative evangelization.

On the cannabis side of things, I’m passionate about bringing Sprig’s mission — to make the world Smile More™ — to life. People tell us that our THC-infused soda is the social lubricant of the future, and that our CBD-infused soda helps fix whatever is ailing them. I love both outcomes, because either way, they’re smiling more.

Where do you see your business going in the next 5 years? Where do you see the cannabis industry going in the next 5 years?

Over the next 5 years, I foresee Sprig introducing some new flavors of soda, staggering our product milligrams, and potentially manufacturing new types of cannabis-infused beverages. Our portfolio strategy is definitely quality over quantity — we do a few things really well and people love us for it. We’re hyper-focused on the cannabis-infused beverage space and probably won’t stray. Probably.

As for the cannabis industry, there’s pending federal legislation that legalizes hemp in the United States and we’re hopeful that it passes in the coming months. I predict within the next 5 years, we’ll see complete reform of the federal marijuana policy.

What growth sectors should most people be paying attention to that they might not be currently?

Cannabis is a heavily fragmented market that hasn’t really been tapped in to. There are 21 year olds that use cannabis products, as well as 75 year olds. I see growth opportunity to offer highly targeted cannabis products specifically catered to the elderly population, women, different races, athletes, etc. Think: Skinny Girl Margaritas.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and author of Lean In. She has inspired me throughout my career, giving me courage to raise my voice and raise my pay grade.

The most valuable thing I’ve learned from her is that everyone has moments where they ask themselves, “Do I actually know what I’m doing?”. The truth is, no one knows what they’re doing. Everyone is figuring it out as they go — some people are just better at hiding it than others. Don’t doubt yourself!

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

With exception to LinkedIn, I’ve actually deleted my social media accounts. The older I get, the more I cherish my face to face interactions and being ‘present’. However, they can email me at l.willner@drinksprig.com. I’m always happy to have a conversation, especially in person over a cup of coffee!

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