As giant Canadian cannabis producers begin to report less significant growth than initially predicted when the legal marketplace started a year ago, it’s falling to small local dispensaries and bud brands to cope with the blowback from restrictive advertising rules and a purportedly glacial rollout of dispensaries in most provinces.
The rules ensure that Canadian cannabis is not a simple game, but John Kaye, the CEO and co-founder of the cannabis lifestyle brand Burb, is willing to take it on. Kaye spoke to PRØHBTD about the way cannabis works in Canada, what it was like going from pop rocker-turned-investment banker to lifestyle/dispensary entrepreneur, and his efforts to bring Canadian cannabis into America.
What sparked the creation of Burb?
I bonded with one of my partners whom I met at university over our love of weed. When we graduated, I went into investment banking, and he went into consulting in the cannabis industry across growing, retail, extraction and processing. We kept in touch and smoked weed together.
We had an opportunity to get together a few years later and build a federally licensed cannabis testing lab. We had a dealer license from Health Canada, and we saw a lot of different products from the black, white and gray markets. It became very obvious to us that there were inconsistencies and a lack of quality standards. We’d see flower come in that, to the untrained eye, had a beautiful structure and a great nose, but it tested through the roof with pesticides. Some came back with mildew and other really shocking stuff. Not all of it, but obviously we saw a lot of that.
The lab was bought by Emerald Health, a licensed producer on the TSX here in Canada. We realized that whatever we did next in the cannabis industry would have to be heavy on brand because we felt that was the only way to gain trust and create an experience that can be repeated. I think that’s really why brands are special, because they create a feeling in the consumer and then they create that emotional connection. So we got together with a friend of mine from the town I grew up in and decided that retail was an obvious choice for us to build a brand.
Before all that—before I went to school, before everything—I played in a band and toured around North America opening up for other bands like Deep Purple, Papa Roach and all kinds of pop-rock bands. It was pretty funny.
How did you pivot from playing in rock bands to investment banking? Was that a big shock?
We never made any money. It was really fun, but I’m a creative at heart, and I realized that I would never get a chance to be creative if people couldn’t take me seriously. I left the band because it was financially becoming a very big burden, and then after that I got into the denim business. Myself and two other people who knew nothing about business were wholesaling denim for TJX group and Winners and Ross and Marshalls. After a year, we built a brand, and places like Nasty Gal and Revolve started to carry it.
When that business folded, I quickly realized that my business chops weren’t there and that we were getting screwed around a lot. We wrapped it up, sold off our inventory and thankfully didn’t lose our shirts, and we learned a lot. I thought I’d never do clothing ever again as long as I live, but here we are, back at it.
What sets Burb merch apart from other cannabis brands?
With Burb, we’ve differentiated through the quality of the apparel. We looked at the swag and the merch and saw a lot of cheap stuff being handed out: gym bags in the trash, never worn types of things. We started from scratch with the fabrics, the cuts, the dips, the colors, the fits, and everything is made in Canada. We’re trying to elevate that experience for people and extend the cannabis culture through that medium. We also did that with the podcast.
The vision from day one was that we were going to have licensed cannabis retail stores, but then we felt that we didn’t want to solely be an access point for weed. We wanted to create an experience and a brand. We’re here in BC, and we’re passionate about our cannabis industry. We have the highest consumption rates in all of Canada and what we feel is the richest cannabis culture, so we wanted to capture that.
Everybody knows “BC bud.”
It’s definitely got some notoriety because of the conditions. BC has the best weather in Canada. Traditionally, law enforcement has been more favorable of us coming out here and actually growing some unique genetics and things like that. So we do feel that there’s something special here. I don’t believe that it’s ever been marketed or packaged up and presented to anyone for easy digestion, so we’re trying to capture that and bring it to a global audience through Burb.
Do you feel like your brand is inextricably tied with the location, or do you think that you’ll end up spreading elsewhere and taking that vibe around Canada or maybe even into the rest of North America once legalization passes?
We want to be a BC bud brand that embodies the feeling and the stories and heritage behind that, and then take it to other markets. We’re not looking to expand anywhere else in Canada. Our strategy is to be the number one brand here in BC and to have stores across the province. We want to dip into the States and bring the brand down there as soon as possible. I call it the Justin Bieber or the Drake effect: born in Canada and then get out of Canada.
Besides Burb’s podcast Light Culture, do you have any other big projects planned that you’re excited about?
The Holy Grail for us is consumption lounges. I think what Burb does best is to create experiences and environments. Right now we can’t be vertically integrated. We’re not making our own strains just because we’re not able to do it legally here. A lot of the reasons people are doing that in the States is because they can mask operating expenses. Many start grows and then push a lot of those costs into their cost of goods because otherwise the tax rate is like 75 percent. Obviously that creates lots of awesome brands and genetics and things like that. We can’t do that yet, so we have been going hard on the experience, the environment, the design, the aesthetic, and the whole feeling that the brand gives.
Canada has a provincial wholesaler model where all the licensed retailers buy from one source that deals with producers. It’s a very interesting sort of dynamic that allows us to really build our brand because people who come into Burb are not hit with any other company’s advertising or trade materials. We don’t have any reliance on any suppliers. It allows us to bring in the best product for the people, and they’re in a world of Burb when they enter the store.
We hope we can branch out through consumption lounges, like creating a bar where you can actually consume on-site. Lowell Herb Co. just opened one up in Los Angeles, but there are a lot of restrictions in Canada on what we can and can’t do. So we’ve been doing Burb lounges at events because it’s not consumer facing. It’s in the back like an artist thing for artists. For us that’s fine because we’re just trying to get those Instagram stories and let people know there’s something happening, but they can’t really fully see it because the rules for marketing and advertising are pretty crazy here in Canada.
How has that challenged the way you reach out to the public?
It is difficult because we can’t traditionally advertise, but it also creates an environment where our competitors can’t do that either.
We’ve been doing these Burb lounges at hip-hop events, but a lot of rappers and people like that are starting to fuck with the brand a little bit. We’ll go and set up an ultra VIP Burb lounge backstage for artists and their crews and then select who can come. It’s this environment where we kind of bring a little bit of our store, like couches to create a chill, laid-back vibe where you can sit around, roll doobies—all of our accessories are there—and smoke weed. Rappers have started to wear our clothing, and we’ve just been getting into those circles, which is natural for us because that’s all we listen to really. We love connecting with the artists.
Other companies may not see value in activating somewhere they’re not seen by anyone except for artists. For us, we’re a lifestyle brand, so that really makes sense. I think we found our niche a little bit in that. Our podcasts are coming at it from an educational standpoint, so we’re not really promoting anything. You’ve definitely got to be creative in Canada to advertise.
Charlie Tetiyevsky is a writer and editor based in New York City. Find them on Twitter @tetiyevsky.