‘Brands Don’t Matter’ in the Cannabis Industry—For Now

Parallel CMO Lee Applbaum on the state of the industry at Adweek's Challenger Brands Summit

lee applbaum of parallel and jeff litvack
Parallel's Lee Applbaum in conversation with Adweek CEO Jeff Litvack at Challenger Brands 2020. Sean T. Smith for Adweek
Headshot of Ryan Barwick

Key insights:

As demand continues to far outstrip supply in the cannabis industry, brand identity doesn’t matter. Lee Applbaum wants to change that.

As the chief marketing officer for Parallel, the startup manufacturer of cannabis, CBD and hemp products formerly called Surterra Wellness, Applbaum sees the current state of the cannabis industry like post-Prohibition America, and he’s selling Jack Daniels.

At Adweek’s Challenger Brands summit, Applbaum was joined onstage by Adweek CEO Jeff Litvack to talk about what brought him to Parallel and the ebbs and flows of marketing in a highly regulated industry.

Applbaum, a former global CMO of Patron Tequila, and his colleagues were aware of the growing industry surrounding cannabis and CBD.

“We’d been following the cannabis space very closely. When we looked at what we perceived to be the threats, it certainly wasn’t within our industry,” Applbaum said. “We saw cannabis as, if not an existential threat, a serious one.”

It also provided the veteran marketer, who’s worked with everyone from Target and Coca-Cola to Bacardi, an opportunity to build a brand identity from the ground up. Of course, that’s an ongoing experiment.

As cannabis becomes legal in more and more states, with grandparents and even dogs using CBD products, demand is far exceeding supply, placing less of an emphasis on the importance of brand identity in the space.

“Brand’s don’t matter today in cannabis, not to be crass. … It’s all about ‘Grow pot, sell pot,'” Applbaum said. “It kills me to say that, but our task is to change that dynamic.”

As a fully vertical company, Parallel is responsible for growing, processing and selling cannabis across its own 37 retail dispensaries (34 of which are in Florida, where cannabis is only available for medical use) and manufacturing facilities.

With the legal landscape changing so rapidly, a plethora of opportunities are constantly opening for Parallel and other cannabis brands.

“The cannabis space is absolutely the most dynamic and volatile you’ll ever experience,” he said. “If you embrace chaos, if you embrace change, if you like that, it’s a fabulous space.”

@RyanBarwick ryan.barwick@adweek.com Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.