Building an Edible Empire: Wana Brands Expands to Nevada
7 Questions for Nancy Whiteman, Co-Founder of Wana Brands, about Opportunities and Risks Ahead
Nancy Whiteman is the co-founder of Wana Brands, an infused-confection company that started in Colorado in 2010. Wana Brands is now in Colorado, Oregon, and recently launched in Nevada, joining an elite club of pioneering companies that have successfully extended operations into multiple states. We met with Nancy to discuss Wana Brand’s success, and recent expansion.
Q1: Your expansion has been achieved through partnerships/licensing agreements. How involved have you been in the setup?
Nancy: We’ve been fortunate to have found great partners – in OR, it’s the Oregon Bud Co. and in Nevada it’s CWNevada. We’ve been very involved in the setup: confection is very sensitive to local climate and ambient temperature – so our R&D team adjusts recipes to ensure consistent product in every market. In OR, we’re involved in everything – we also have a management services agreement to help run the facility – which helps ensure consistency of recipes, production, and packaging. In NV, we created the position of a Brand Ambassador to work with CWNevada’s sales and marketing team on sales strategy and brand messaging.
Q2: What are your expectations for the NV market?
Nancy: It’s a small medical market now, but Nevada will become a key recreational market in the future – there are 42 million people that travel to Las Vegas each year for tourism and convention business. It’s going to be one of the top recreational marijuana markets in the world. Getting a foothold in this market early is important – competition for shelf space is real, and there are limits to the number of products stores will carry. Establishing a presence, building relationships, and developing a loyal customer base early is essential for our long-term growth.
Q3: Have you learned something new in each state? What’s different?
Nancy: The main differences are regulatory in each state. But we’ve also been surprised with the popularity of different items based on local tastes – customers in Oregon love our caramels! For whatever reason, these sell better in Oregon than elsewhere. There are also differences how we service accounts: in CO, we set up a delivery manifest using the most efficient route; but in OR, there are “chain of custody” rules that stipulate only 1 or 2 people in each store can accept shipments and enter these into the state tracking software. So we can’t just put together the most expedient delivery route, since we need to verify schedules/availability of our customers. This requires closer coordination between us and the stores we service.
Q4: Some of your competitors, like Edipure, have expanded into California. Are you looking at CA? What about other markets?
Nancy: We have agreements already in place in MA and IL, and we are in discussions in four additional states. We’re also looking at CA, but we think it may be premature to jump in until we see the cost of licensing and regulations (next year). Canada is also interesting – even though there are no Federal regulations on edibles, they are expected next year. We are already engaged in this market to make sure we follow along with developments.
Q5: We don’t see you chasing Cannabis Cups awards, or promoting Wana Brands at enthusiast/public consumption festivals. Is Wana Brands a more patient-focused company?
Nancy: We really focus on both markets. Our roots and heart are in the medical market but the recreational market is important: we sell more to the recreational market than medical market. But paying (a high price) to enter and compete for a Cannabis Cup isn’t the best fit for our brand – instead, we sponsored last year the “Arise Festival”, with music, yoga, art, and meditation, which was better aligned with our brand message. Wana Brands’ tagline is “Enhance Your Life” – “enhancing life” for a patient can mean reducing pain or symptoms through marijuana use, and for the recreational user can mean relaxing, or enhancing life’s experiences.
Also, the marijuana industry is maturing. We see ourselves as a “responsible” brand, which is reflected in everything we do – our goal with branding and packaging is to create something that would not feel out of place on the shelves of Whole Foods.
Q6: You’re building the company through partnerships setting up operations in each state, which creates redundancy and inefficiency. An efficient infused-candy producer would have a single operation that shipped everywhere — granted, this can’t happen today. But if Federal law de-schedules, you may need to undo relationships, reinvest, and scale operations (again). Does this create risk that larger operators/competitors will come in later, producing at scale? Are the pioneering companies of today at risk?
Nancy: We’re in the marijuana industry, which means we’re risk takers. This industry isn’t for anyone risk-averse. Many people do talk with concern about a future where Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, or Big Liquor takes over. But we don’t know how, or when, Federal regulations will change.
Given this, we’re operating today with what we know, which means building a company state-by-state, working within the limitations of today’s regulatory framework. So we’re creating partnerships in order to keep growing. We do think, down the road, the next set of partners that come into the industry will be better capitalized. The only protection for our company is to scale and build a brand that lasts.
Q7: Do you think the real work you’re doing today is not about expanding into different states, but building brand equity?
Nancy: It’s important for us to bring on new partners that can help us expand and connect with a customer base that will recognize Wana Brands for high quality, consistency, and accurate dosing. We work closely with our partners to make sure we can deliver this. But you’re right: it’s all about brand equity, and maximizing our brand equity requires that we have more than a Colorado presence.