The Hall of Flowers B2B trade show in Santa Rosa has evolved over the last two years into one of the biggest such shows in the U.S. One of the most noticeable developments in the evolution of the show was the emergence of Southern California brands and multi-state companies that are keen on developing a brand presence in pivotal marketplaces, from San Diego to the Bay area.

There is also an increasing emphasis on marketing and branding, with companies big and small trying to carve out a niche in a market that includes medical and recreational users, and a cultural divide between north and south that has endured for decades.

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“Just look around you. Two years ago, this was just a farmers’ market, but now there is a new level of professionalism with complex compliance, packaging, and marketing requirements,” said John Figone, senior vice president of business development at Chicago-based Cresco Labs. As a California native, he noted that brands moving into California from other states face some unique challenges moving into the most deep-rooted cannabis market in the country.

“The nuance that California alone shares is that we’ve had a grey market here for two decades,” he said. “So we’re competing with a culture and a pre-conception of what this industry should be, and that’s good but it’s also difficult. There are some parts of this culture that aren’t conducive to professionalizing, industrializing, and standardizing the industry.”

Home-grown companies stretching out

Platinum Vape is a San Diego born company that specializes in extraction and was founded by Chief Executive Officer George Sadler and his son Cody in 2013. The company has grown beyond anything the Sadlers expected and is now a major player that offers cannabis edibles, vape cartridges, flower, and pre-roll products. Several years ago it branched out to Michigan, where Sadler said business is booming, and more recently it signed an exclusive sales and distribution partnership with Indus Holdings.

“Getting into the industry now is much more difficult than ever because of licensing, but it’s also wide open,” said George Sadler. “If you’re dedicated and really focus on your brand, you’ll get there. But if you think you’re going to come in here, and drive a Ferrari…well, we’ve been doing this for eight years now, and I’m not driving a Ferrari.”

In response to the Vapegate controversy, the company is offering customers in Michigan to bring in black market vape cartridges, and they can trade it in for a free Platinum Vape CBD or THC cartridge.

While Southern California brands made a big splash on the show floor with their flashy, no-holds-barred marketing strategies, there were also plenty of central coast and NorCal brands on hand, with their own compelling stories. Sisu Extracts was founded by Joe Wynne and Shannon Byers, who bootstrapped their extraction business in Arcata, in the heart of Humboldt county, and have spent the last six years scaling it up to its current, prodigious capacity.

Sisu uses an ethanol extraction process to produce THC distillate—the primary ingredient in vape cartridges—and it now supplies about 15 percent to 20 percent of the total legal distillate sold in California, according to Wynne. By offering farmers a 70-30 split of the profits from the distillate, Sisu has been able to attract about 200 partner farms in the area, primarily full-sun growers, and will soon have the capacity to run 2400 pounds of biomass per day.

“We’re the only folks bringing weed into Humboldt county in bulk…we’re sourcing from the Mexican border to the Oregon border,” said Wynne. The company recently added flower sales to its brand and sold more than $1 million in its first month. When it brings butane extraction online this year, Byers said Sisu will have an “in-house flavor factory to make delicious cannabis-derived terpenes and high terpene extracts so we can do infusions and formulations in house for our white label partners.”

Branching out and homing in

One of the more notable differences between the Hall of Flowers and the Emerald Cup—Santa Rosa’s long-standing showcase for cannabis farmers—is the latter has always been focused on outdoor flower, whereas Hall of Flowers has a heavy concentration of indoor growers, many with operations in Southern California. In order to stand out from the pack, these flower brands are becoming more creative and targeted in their business models, zeroing in on specific flower strains and marketing product lines with precise tastes and preferences in mind.

Josh D Farms specializes in OG cultivars, and has five distinct types, ranging from heavy indica to hybrid sativa. Its founder, Josh Del Rosso, is credited with bringing OG Kush to Los Angeles in the 1990s and propagating one of the most potent and popular cultivars on the planet.

The Gas Cannabis company, another L.A. brand that specializes in strains that have a gassy terpene profile, offers three grades of flowers: 87, 89, and 93 octane, which is described as “super premium GAS. With the signature deep aroma, 93 will keep your engine running smoothly.”

In addition to focusing on specific strains, flower companies are also getting savvy about targeting different demographics and consumer groups, with marketing strategies borrowed from the fashion and music industries.

L.A. based Heavy Grass “is inspired by heavy music and rock culture” and its products are targeted to budget buyers. A brand representative at its booth, decked out in black leather, pierced lips, and green lipstick, explained that the company offers free tickets to heavy metal/hard rock shows with some purchases, and that its flowers are priced so customers will still have enough money to buy a tour T-shirt when they go to shows. The Curated Cannabis brand, also based in the L.A. area, has a novel approach that is squarely focused on the tops of plants and the large, dense and frosty buds they produce. Every bud the company sells is from this prized section of the plant, resulting in packages with an eye-popping shelf presence, and buds with a more concentrated and varied cannabinoid profile, according to Chief Operating Officer Christian Manrodt.

Sustainability taking baby steps

In an industry that is coming under increasing scrutiny for its power and water usage and plastic-centric packaging, some companies are anchoring their marketing efforts on sustainability and more responsible operating and manufacturing practices.

Ocean Cannabis Company, based in L.A., is taking a stand against single-use plastics, and featuring plastic packaging that has been reclaimed and recycled from the ocean. Working with Denver-based Sana Packaging, Ocean Cannabis Company Chief Executive Officer Patrick Ersig said the company he founded with his wife, Mary, soon will add Sana’s plant-based hemp plastic to its product line.

“Packaging is huge, and we wanted to do something that stood out and makes a difference because the amount of packaging and waste in the industry is such a big problem,” he said.

Indoor growers are facing increasing scrutiny over their practices, which typically include high-intensity lamps and HVAC systems that draw immense amounts of power from grids across the country. While LED and other lighting technologies have shown promise for reducing the carbon footprint for indoor cultivation, only a small percentage of the industry employs them.

Santa Cruz-based Fog City Farms is all-in on LED lighting, and has developed a sophisticated cultivation operation that grows top-shelf flower. Fog City’s 5,000 square foot grow room features an integrated mobile vertical racking system and a pressurized air movement and Co2 system. When it expands into a new facility this year, Fog City will add another 30,000 square feet of LED cultivation space to its operations. To help spread the gospel of sustainable indoor cultivation, Marketing Manager Kathryn Reynolds said the company is working with about 300 groups worldwide that are interested in implementing its unique grow room design.

Herba Buena is another NorCal brand that sets high standards in manufacturing practices, for its own products and its partners. The company puts an emphasis on sun-grown cannabis, grown by farmers with bioydynamic, permaculture and regenerative and organic practices. Founder and Chief Executive Officer Alicia Rose and VP of Business Development Michael Strauss were at Hall of Flowers looking for like-minded partners to supply new products for their delivery service, which is centered in Marin, Napa, and Sonoma counties.

“Our quality standards include no distillate, no indoor flower, no corn syrup, and we’re looking for full-spectrum extractions,” said Straus, who helped his family’s farm on the shores of Tomales Bay become the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi River back in the early 1990s. “We would like to bring in more edibles to our customers, but 95 percent of brands and their products don’t meet our standards.”

Straus did find two edible companies that fit the bill, including Rose Los Angeles, which uses only rosin pressed from fresh cannabis flower and negotiates partnerships with farmers to buy fresh batches of fruit that are incorporated into its vegan, gluten-free treats.

“More than anything, we are just looking for products that we can feel good about putting into our bodies every day,” Straus said.

For an industry in California that is on the verge of becoming the biggest cannabis marketplace in the world, while wrapped up in a controversy over toxic oils that have spread across the U.S., those are words that more cannabis companies should live by.

mg Retailer’s Mike Rosati was on-site to capture these exclusive images (click any photo to open slideshow).