Dean Harris, Co-Founder, CMO, TabBrands

Thinking Outside The Bud - 025 - Dean Harris

Dean Harris, Co-Founder, CMO, TabBrands

Dean Harris has an extensive background building brands and businesses. He has served as the Head of Marketing/Chief Marketing Officer for HotJobs, Vonage, Kayak, kgb and BlueCava, Three of these brands went public and two were acquired. Before his CMO work, he co-founded and ran a full-service ad agency in New York City and Connecticut with accounts that included: Coca-Cola, J&J, Citi and Sotheby's.

Dean was educated at Carleton College, the Columbia School of International Affairs and Columbia Business School. He was named a BrandWeek Marketer of the Year and won an EFFIE award for advertising effectiveness.


[00:00:01] You're listening to Thinking Outside the Bud where we speak with entrepreneurs investors thought leaders researchers advocates and policymakers who are finding new and exciting ways for cannabis to positively impact business society and culture. And now here is your host Business Coach Bruce Eckfeldt.

[00:00:30] Welcome everyone this is thinking outside the bud. I'm Bruce Eckfeldt. I'm your host and our guest today is Dean Harris who is co-founder and CMO of TabBrands. And we're going to talk a little bit about what they're doing on the cannabis space. We're going to hear about his background in advertising and learn a little about what they're doing with THC a and some of the other products. As always it's always fun to kind of have new and different people on here. Dean welcome to the program it's really a pleasure to have you.

[00:00:54] Thank you Bruce. I appreciate your having me on.

[00:00:56] Yeah. So I was like to start with just kind of hearing people's backgrounds. What's your story. I know that you were in advertising before connect the dots for us. Tell us how you got from sort of the advertising world to cannabis.

[00:01:08] Sure.

[00:01:08] Well this works for me because I am a storytelling CMO actually but I'm actually a third generation marketer which is interesting because marketing is probably only had four generations since it was was formalized in the late eighteen hundreds. My grandfather started an advertising agency in Manhattan in 1922.

[00:01:26] My father ran a direct marketing agency and I've been in marketing and advertising for my entire career. So I said after business school. I started working on packaged goods fairly traditional rooted detergent disposable diapers and then started an advertising agency in Manhattan did that for for a period of time and then in the late 90s got recruited to be part of the whole Internet explosion revolution. So I was lucky enough to be at a few brands that started small and ended big. They all went public actually. So they were in varying categories. I did Hot Jobs. I did vantage the phone company and I did. I asked the troubled search site. So my background has been branding. I really enjoy taking large categories and making a big impact. And I hope to do the same thing in the cannabis space too wouldn't it.

[00:02:15] Cannabis first come up for you. I mean it's it's you know it's it's a sector so it's a circuitous story.

[00:02:20] I mean after years of no physical activity I started working out with a personal trainer and he'd invented this product that was geared to the protein supplement market. It was basically a better way to get protein supplements. And it was a it was it is an effervescent tablet. So after helping him with that product and helping him secure a secure patent we discovered that we really had was was not a way of delivering protein better but a way of delivering a variety of things better. And and cannabis just jumped out at us. So so our product which is called Tab relief is a is an F for best in cannabis tablet. And essentially it it's a very small tablets about the size of a Benadryl go at it you can place it in any liquid hot or cold and it takes on the flavor characteristics though that liquid. Or we have flavors but it's a it's a really interesting way of delivering delivering protein and then beyond that we decided after looking at the market we decided that within the context of our team and our advisors and the market we wanted to become a serious professional medical brand. We thought that the medical cannabis space had huge had huge huge opportunities. And in fact also aligned with the goals of a lot of our investors and advisors. So that's what we're doing we're building a serious professional medical cannabis brand with an emphasis on brand excellence.

[00:03:43] And so you're focusing on the medical side. How do you approach the kind of positioning and the strategy around the marketing.

[00:03:49] That's what I've done for my entire career. So one of the reasons to me this represents such a it's such a great opportunity is that when you look at the medical cannabis space it's a 7 billion dollar category with essentially no brands. I mean there are some but most cannabis brands are dual use both for medical and for recreational.

[00:04:08] And it's our contention that owning the narrative for medical cannabis is possible and building a real solid brand in the space is is the huge opportunity. So that's that's exactly what we're doing.

[00:04:21] And I think that's it's interesting because I think a lot of the struggles certainly when I work with kind of earlier stage businesses and they're in this kind of growth mode it's easy to get caught in into the kind of pattern of chasing money you know anything that shiny that might have revenue associated with it. You go after I mean it sounds like you've made a really kind of firm hard decision to say look we're just going to focus on medical. We're not going to focus on the recreational side. It wasn't that hard.

[00:04:47] It wasn't hard resolve at all because there's a market or in a brander. It's important to take a position and take something that present a brand or a product in a way that people can understand with benefits that are clear and understandable and our sense is that if somebody is serious about using medical cannabis they'd like a brand that that speaks to their needs. Not one that says Oh gee you can you know you can get really high. Oh and by the way you can use it for medical purposes as well. So and the more and more I've learned about the medical cannabis space it feels great to be able to do a lot of good I mean medical cannabis as you know is used for any variety of conditions diseases and so forth. And the more and more folks you talk to in the space everybody has a story where they've tried other things typically prescribed medications you know doesn't work for one reason or another and then they try medical cannabis. So we feel like we have an enormous market opportunity.

[00:05:41] Yeah it's really impressive. I think how how much you focus because I think that is it's not easy. And I think a lot of companies kind of get caught in or struggle with that decision with deciding on which segment of the market they're gonna go after.

[00:05:53] I mean if you think about it Bruce I mean brands that have made it tend to focus on on one or two true defensible important benefits. Yeah. And think of pretty much any product category even though products can deliver a variety of benefits. They tend to get remembered and used if they focus on one. Again this is such a gigantic space I mean for example medical cannabis is about the same size space as disposable diapers. I mean that's not something I've worried about for a while. Although I would like to do a disposable diaper brand back in the day. But but anyway think about a disposable diaper brand with absolutely no position. I mean you're talking about loves and Pampers and hugs and they all have have staked out positions in the marketplace. So as a you know as a marketer to brands by training it seems quite logical.

[00:06:41] I always think of when I think of branding a position I always think of the tastes great less filling.

[00:06:45] You know it's like the whole you're really taking a picture right to straddle things. Yeah I mean you know here's that here's another way that you might want to look at a brand. I know that you are in the New York area so take a place like Grand Central Station which is got roughly 700000 people pass through every day more people than the state of Wyoming. Now if you're in Grand Central Station and you're on one side of the station you can look across the station and see somebody that you know on the other side there could be five thousand people in the you know in that room. But you notice that one person and that is similar to branding. I mean it's that sort of familiarity. And beyond that that sort of understanding that you that you have not only familiarity but a visceral reason to like or understand that person. Yeah. So branding is is I think crucial in this space. And we're happy to be doing it.

[00:07:38] So if I'm the farmer earlier stage entrepreneur I'm I have a product or service and this kind of a space and I'm trying to figure this out. I mean what's the process or what advice would you give to folks thinking about branding.

[00:07:49] I think this is probably one of the bigger issues in the cannabis space right now is really zero you know I mean off approaching this as I have every mind my and my training as I said was in packaged goods originally was on Procter and Gamble. So the first thing I did is I wrote a communications strategy at Procter and Gamble style communication strategy that would mimic the strategies that Procter writes for you know for Tide or for or for Pampers or any of their large products. And then we tested out that product on on consumers. So we have to be very careful about what we stand for what we don't stand for what we want to emphasize what our tonality is the manner in which we want to to describe our brand.

[00:08:30] So I recommend that for anybody in the space that it's only going to make the brand look bigger and more important and it's going to make the brand be more understandable both with the consumer audience and a business partnership audience.

[00:08:42] Yeah talk to me about the testing part of it. I think that's come out of the sort of the lean agile space and you know testing is huge and getting customer feedback and validation. How practically how did you go about testing this stuff. It's an interesting market.

[00:08:53] One of the things that we've done that I think is perhaps unusual for this space is that we have conducted consumer focus groups. So our first market for our product which is called Tab relief is going to be California. So we did consumer focus groups in into the major markets in California Los Angeles San Francisco among consumers that that bought and use cannabis regularly. These were both recreational users and and medicinal users. And we tried to get a we tried to get a sense of how they perceived our product how they perceived the marketplace. We came to them with some preliminary package ideas and this is again this is the sort of thing that a of a larger more sophisticated company would use. I'm not certain as to whether we were the first cannabis company ever to hold focus groups but we certainly were the first in these facilities. And the results were were enlightening. Now I'm not saying they weren't they were entirely predictive but they were they were clearly informative and it was encouraging because I felt like we were really onto something even folks that that used cannabis primarily for recreational means added in many cases every day had many occasions where they would want to use cannabis for health and wellness conditions for in effect medical like conditions. So you know so my argument would be if somebody comes home after work and they use cannabis to eliminate stress or because they've got anxiety is that a is that a recreational reason or a medicinal reason. I mean I would argue it's just as medicinal as recreational.

[00:10:22] Yeah I agree. How have you seen that kind of on the medical side particularly the whole relationship with doctors and the series on the prescribing process like how are you kind of navigating this this kind of industry as it sorts out how products gets into hands of patients essentially. Sure and their relationship with doctors because I think that's still for me it's still kind of unclear and it seems like it's a very dynamic situation.

[00:10:46] I mean that's actually a great question but I think we're approaching it a little bit differently than some folks. We are going to have distribution among dispensaries. It's troubling to me that there are some folks in dispensaries that are that are in effect offering medical opinions or medevac flight without a medical background. So part of our strategy is to go to what we're calling institutional clients or institutional customers. And these are places where cannabis users can be aggregated there typically is some form of medical supervision and we then can sell through the institution rather than sell to consumers on an individual basis. So I'll give you the obvious example. Sure. Here are three that I think that I think are are interesting. We are targeting assisted living centers. So we're targeting seniors 65 plus and in senior centers.

[00:11:37] Typically the patients or the or the residents have issues with things like pain inflammation in many cases appetite issues and medical cannabis helps all of those. Yeah.

[00:11:51] And then many of these assisted living facilities also have memory care units and of course it's been it's been shown that that cannabis can can aid with Alzheimer's and other other memory conditions. So it seems logical to us to get by and from from the senior center offer the senior center a chance to dispense our product to their patients that have been medically approved and then shipped products to 40 people at a time rather than have to influence them on one by one basis. This argument I think can be made additionally for other circuits sorts of institutions. And one of the might I think is fascinating that would be for the issues of pain. So as you know many people consider cannabis to be an excellent alternative to opioids and opioids clearly are useful. I think in the early parts of after operation of surgical. But after the first five days seven days is it really necessary. And do consumers really really want an opioid prescription as a way to to mitigate their pain the way to relieve their pain. And in fact in several states including New York Pennsylvania and to a certain extent Illinois doctors are now allowed to prescribe medical cannabis instead of opioids. So see that is a humongous opportunity. I'm able to connect to two doctors two cannabis friendly health care professionals two people that are parts of opioid support groups even to folks that have had the same kinds of operations is a way that we can reach a very very targeted and motivated audience. So we're really looking at our distribution twofold both individually through dispensaries but also through what I'm calling what I'm calling an institutional church.

[00:13:36] And I think that's smart. I mean I think a lot of people forget or fail to think through their channel strategy and you know based on their product based on their positioning what is the best way to actually reach you know reach your end customer reach your client and actually deliver product and service there. You know I'm curious how it kind of sounds like that the nature of the product has helped guide guide you on some of these things because the nature that it's easy to apply we guess that that's a thank you for bringing that up.

[00:14:02] I mean our active ingredient is something called THC. Yeah. And interestingly THC is non psychotropic so we're particularly appropriate for for a whole series of audiences that we'd like the health and wellness to benefit the health and wellness benefits of cannabis without the high and certainly that would include an older demographic 65 plus a younger demographic 21 years of age and less. I mean if you're if your kid has got childhood epilepsy. Exactly. You know you love you love to be able to treat your kid with cannabis but you certainly don't want your 7 year old to get high. And that of course in the opioid opiate example I gave you the fact that we're non psychotropic and non addictive without side effects offers many positive advantages for that segment. So THC a is something that we really want to be leaders thought leaders we'd like to own the narrative and THC a and we think that it's a it's a non understood cannabinoid.

[00:14:58] Yeah.

[00:14:58] And I think the whole the tablet form the fact that you can take on different flavors or you can kind of mask flavors and stuff it is interesting when to because I think we're coming out of this culture of kind of the pop culture and I think people thinking about weed and as you moved more kind of a medical chemical approach to it that the world opens up. I mean you know I think the wellness space is a huge one where you know we're not talking about what we're talking about what are the effects. Physical psychological that you want to have on people and no longer the actual plant thinking about the plant material itself and just kind of opens the doors and I think people really getting innovative around how the products they come up with the delivery mechanisms. Talk to me a little bit more about the branding because I think that you know there's kind of the product design which is you know how how it's used and you know the format and the physical form and things like that. Talk to me about some of the packaging and things like like how do you tell the story or how do you tie this physical product into a narrative.

[00:15:55] We'd like it to be we'd like our story to be clean and simple to understand. So all of our communications are going to reflect that and of course packaging does that as well. But our website our investor materials our partnership materials all reflect an attempt to be very clear precise and consistent and I think that if one does that it makes a brand grow faster and also makes the brand look larger than it is.

[00:16:19] But I would like to just bring up one thing that that you mentioned before I mean I think what's truly interesting about about medical cannabis and actually about cannabis in general it is truly a global kind of product.

[00:16:30] And of course in the United States one has to manage on a state by state basis. We're also pursuing a strategy we're trying to pursue a partnership strategy with a Canadian firm we're actually in in talks with a number of very large publicly held Canadian cannabis companies and we think Canada represents a great opportunity not because you can just produce in one place and then shipped to every province but I think almost more importantly because Canada's going to be a great export center. So so the notion of being able to produce in one place and then send your product all over the world is is incredible. I mean and the need for medical cannabis doesn't doesn't stop at a state or a national border Yeah. What about mother in Germany. That's got a kid with child epilepsy is going to have the same sort of need for a product as as a mother in California. And because of the way communications work these days the mother in Germany will actually be able to read about our product and will understand that we represent we represent a treatment possibility that they may or may be they may be unaware of.

[00:17:30] Yeah yeah. And it's this kind of this modern age of being able to create demand on a global basis you know for products as people have information people can search for it people can find out you know and then how do you how do you deliver as well that's true.

[00:17:42] Well I mean in our case art we certainly want to be able to deliver in the United States but we are going to have to do it state by state based on current laws. But we think that we can really really expand our our global reach if we use Canada as a production center and as a place from which we can export.

[00:18:00] Yeah exactly I know the other one too I spoke to some folks down in Australia and they sort of similar process. They're actually pretty squarely focused on the medical side of it. They have Australia has a fairly big industry for opiate opioid production on a global basis. So they have actually the supply chain and the legal chains and stuff set up for doing opioids internationally and they're now mirroring that and doing a cannabis based one which is they're taking a little walk because of the federal legislation there. But you know it's interesting cause I think that is that really is the sort of the next or the bigger market as the global market and as these countries start to adopt cannabis as as a medical tool it opens it up and I think at some level the U.S. companies are you know unfortunately quite hamstrung because of the federal legislation and having to do things state by state and not being able to participate on the international market quite so much. So we'll see we'll see what happens. Do you have any sense I was kind of curious to get people's take on what they've seen in terms of the state by state kind of adoption the federal legislation when you do your strategic planning and you're kind of mapping. What's your sense in terms of when this stuff might work at a federal level.

[00:19:03] Yeah we you know we really don't know but it's encouraging to see things like the Quinnipiac voter poll and the most recent Quinnipiac voter poll showed that that 93 percent of all U.S. voters believe that medical cannabis should be legalized. Yeah I mean getting 93 percent of US voters to agree on anything on earth. Exactly. But we find that very very encouraging. So I think that that cannabis is going to become only more legal on a state by state basis and hopefully on a on a federal basis. And of course when it does it makes us I think a more interesting and a more valuable company. Yeah in the interim we can perfect our brand we can protect our product or our marketing techniques and it's sort of odd to say that we can test in California because California does represent one eighth of the population of the country. Yeah but that is where we're going to start and we think that the learnings that we get from California will be incredibly useful as we you know as we rollout throughout the country.

[00:19:58] I think one of the really fascinating aspects of this market of the cannabis space right now is because you have this federal legislation issue legality issue. You know the big players the pharmaceutical companies people like that are not you know kind of don't get involved because they can't sort of taint their other businesses. Yes they do create that back yet.

[00:20:16] Well yeah but we're at night we're I opioid company opiate manufacturing company. And one of the biggest ones is about 10 miles south of where I'm sitting and they want to be responsible in terms of dispensing their product I would think that they might want to look at medical cannabis sort of as phase two. In other words Phase 1 is provide opioids for acute pain. And Phase 2 is provide non addictive cannabis as an alternative. Yeah. So I think I don't think they have to degrade their core offering. I think they just have to be true to what they're saying and the you know in the in the public relations arena that that opioid should be prescribed responsibly. And I believe they should be. And of course I mentioned New York and California and Illinois apparently in the state of Oregon. Doctors are not going to be able to prescribe opioids at all in 2019 to to Medicaid patients. And in the UK now doctors are going to go in to prescribe opioids can prescribe opioids. Sorry prescribe cannabis instead of opioids. So since Medicaid is a federally funded program and since the government of England has national health care I guess it's just a matter of time before the state pays for for cannabis which currently it's not doing.

[00:21:34] Yeah. Do you sense that. I mean is this a bit of a game right now in terms of you know everyone's trying to do a little bit of a land grab kind of carve out their knees grow their business as big as possible once federal legislation gets passed then Big Pharma is going to come in and just do a big roll up on all these things is this I mean is that kind of.

[00:21:49] I don't know. I mean I do think there's going to be a lot of acquisition in this space. And I think that I think that interesting viable useful brands are going to be targets. So we consider that to be a possibility in our future. But right now we have to continue to build a great product with great team. And do you know do interesting stuff. And I think that will make that will give us many more options in the years to come.

[00:22:13] In terms of where you're going with the product I mean where where do you see your next kind of iterations of the product going what are what are some of the things that you're looking at developing. Sure.

[00:22:21] Well I mean interestingly we have we have two pages in medicinal chemistry that are working on this product simultaneously one of them is in California and he's an expert probably one of the world's leading experts on THC.

[00:22:33] And then separately we have a date in in Florida working on working on the product. And she's much more of an expert on on food and nutrition cuticles she actually has a background in food science she worked for Kraft for a couple of years. So our delivery system could be used to deliver anything. I mean we are working on a a protein product currently but in theory we could deliver more than in theory and practice we could deliver a THC tablet or deliver CBD tablet. As a marketer and a brander I would be adverse to doing that under our name. Just because I want our product tab relief to stand for non psychotropic THC. Yeah I think if we were to have a variety of offerings if we had THC if we had CBD if we had THC a I think it would be incredibly confusing. So I'd like to own the THC narrative. That being said we've already had interest from other companies to license our our technology to deliver something other than THC. And and I think that's interesting. Yeah. We've also had we've also had inquiries from folks to deliver other medications for example. We've had inquiries to deliver AIDS medication. And if we can provide a useful interesting convenient portable way to deliver medication I think that only enhances the value of our our overall brand and our company.

[00:23:54] Yeah but I like the keeping the the brand and positioning for your market clean and clear so you're not going to get it because it's easy to just start coming out with all these different products and now as a consumer I'm like well what what do I go to you for and are you serving me as a whole segment or you know we want people to come to us for that for best tablet and non psychotropic THC. Yeah excellent. DEAN This has been a pleasure. If people want to find out more about you about a product what's the best way to to do the short shorts.

[00:24:23] So my my email is Dean at TAP brands dot com and our Web site is tap brands dot com. Awesome. So we have a lot of information about what we're doing science behind what we're doing. Our team our backgrounds our progress and we we'd be happy if people took a look because again we're you know we're relatively early stage company and we'd love to talk to other folks that are in this space.

[00:24:47] Awesome. And I'll make sure that the email address and the link to the website is on the show notes here so people can click through. Dean thank you again. This has been a pleasure. I've really enjoyed it. Thank you I appreciate it.

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