Zack Darling, CEO of The Hybrid Creative

Thinking Outside The Bud - 31 - Zack Darling.png

Zack Darling, CEO of The Hybrid Creative

As the CEO of The Hybrid Creative, Zack is deeply focused on business development and expansion of the award-winning agency into the premier international platform for launching successful cannabis brands. Zack brings 20+ years of experience in brand development, design, marketing and event production. Having been raised by cannabis farmers in the Emerald Triangle, he is truly “second generation.”

Zack’s passion for building the industry’s most successful brands is evident in The Hybrid Creative’s client list and portfolio of work. His innovative method for creating purpose-driven, sustainable and radically differentiated brands is the subject of many of his keynote and panel presentations. By embracing a value-driven approach to every working relationship, he has been effective at bringing thought leaders together to collaborate and co-create. The success of this can be seen in his world-class team and vast professional network.


[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 today our guest is Zack Darling, and Zack is CEO of the Hybrid Creative and Hybrid is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Kush coal Holdings which is a fairly recent transaction that has happened.

[00:00:47] We're gonna hear a little bit about that here and talk a little bit about brand brand strategy brand building. Zack welcome to the program. Thanks Bruce. Appreciate you having me on the show.

[00:00:54] Yeah it's a pleasure having you and I'm excited about this because I think that branding is one of those areas that people have not done a whole lot of work in traditionally in the cannabis market. You know things have been moving so kind of so quickly that they think about you know putting the money in place getting the process in place but they really don't think about branding and positioning. So I think there's a great conversation. Why don't we start with just understanding a little bit about you and your background and how you got into cannabis. So tell us a little bit about that.

[00:01:18] Well I was actually raised in the cannabis community. I grew up on an intentional communal land up in the mountains of Mendocino County in the Emerald Triangle and the community I grew up with in cannabis was the economic support lifeline for a lot of these folks. It was back to the landers that moved up to the mountains in the 60s and 70s and cannabis was the way in which they were able to sustain themselves. I remember the war on drugs and had you know we had military helicopters from Camp flying overhead and on a regular basis and I had many friends of mine locked away. I remember harboring fugitives that were being chased by the feds that people that got busted on their land and needed a place to hide out. So you know my my exposure to it from the beginning was really back in the outlaw days. Yeah yeah. I've had the opportunity to witness participate in at this point helped craft the transformation of Prohibition days into a legitimate thriving industry.

[00:02:19] Yeah fascinating. I mean the transformation that we've gone through in the last 10 15 20 years is it's quite big. I'm sure that I don't know how likely you thought it was gonna be that we'd have legalized marijuana when you were younger but you know that's quite a change from from your upbringing and kind of where cannabis was back in the day.

[00:02:38] Yeah I think the shock that this is actually happening has finally started to wear off for some of us. And I think there's a lot of reggae artists that are looking for new lyrics to sing about.

[00:02:47] Yeah yeah. So let's talk a little bit about branding as I know that's that's kind of what you're focused on you know in terms of kind of the professional side of cannabis here I guess what got you into the branding. Like why pick the branding aspect of the industry given all of your background and all of your knowledge. I'm

[00:03:01] Sure you could have you could I've taken many paths in the cannabis space. Why. Branding Sure.

[00:03:07] I started in the creative agency world through music. In 1997 I started my first company Greenfield graphics which is named after the hippie commune up in Mendocino County. And we were a festival concert and in rave promotional design company we created tons of rave flyers and grew into a pretty prominent music industry design house and came to a point where the hydroponics world started really thriving because we felt there was an overt cannabis market. The only place in which people could actually have trade shows and out their brands and participate in the public economy was through it was through hydro so we branded our first hydroponics store in the year 2000 and started to really because of my background and upbringing and in friendliness and familiarity with the cannabis farming community up north. And as we had really kind of put our stake in the ground as being the hydroponics friendly agency it slowly just grew through there. When we started this business nine years ago it was their very first client was building an e-commerce store for a hydroponics shop in Ukiah California and it just grew from there. We ended up rebranding cutting edge solutions and working with Chiapas and Terminator and a variety of these very kind of high profile brands in the in the panics world. So as soon as the need started to arise for actual branding of cannabis brands we had already established ourselves as the green friendly agency and we spoke the language and because we had so much experience in other verticals like music like sustainable ventures like other non cannabis more traditional brands and businesses we kind of brought that perfect balance a good understanding of the public market and just traditional marketing but also a really deep understanding of the history and the context and the evolution and the needs and the and the business structures of the emerging cannabis business.

[00:05:05] So let's talk a little bit about branding and we can talk about sort of branding and cannabis just from your point of view or how do you kind of look at the challenge of branding or how do you how do you kind of see the challenge or branding from a strategy point of view like what what is your approach to it.

[00:05:19] Sure. Well the we always start with why we're big fans of Simon Sinek here at Highbury creative and Simon is a well-known public speaker and motivational speaker and in the heat he teaches. People don't buy what you do they buy why you do it and he promotes the concept of starting with why there's a lot of good looking brands out there that don't quite know why they're doing anything other than making money. And those are the ones that tend to lose.

[00:05:46] But if you look at the brands that are really strong in the industry right now the ones that are really thriving the ones that have that kind of high level of consumer loyalty they've really clearly articulated their why they're there 100 percent about what that is then producing high quality products and making money and participating in the cannabis economy. That comes secondary.

[00:06:09] And and when you have really well articulated why your consumers have something to connect with to resonate with and to find alignment with the biggest competitor in cannabis right now is not brand a versus brand B it's brand noise. Yeah it's the clutter in the industry. It's when you walk into a dispensary and you look on the shelves and you've got 100 different products that are yelling for your attention how are you going to cut through that. Know being a purpose driven meaningful brand versus just another good looking brand is what makes that deeper connection with the consumer. People want to be part of change in purpose driven brands are creating change they're challenging the status quo. And so I if if your brand really speaks to something that not only differentiates you but radically differentiates you from the rest of the brands that are there at the dispensary that person has a reason to connect with you. That's more of a personal reason they have an emotional reaction. So for a lot of businesses when they come to us and they're ready to brand their their cannabis brand they have this great story inside of them. They've been at it for a while they have a history of you know maybe somebody who's been locked up in the past and there they're out to you know their back and there's a justice or just a story there. You know maybe it's this beautiful story of this family that's been growing for generations that are finally coming out of the out of the woodwork. You know maybe it's a regional story or an artistic story but most of the time people have something that is really great rich soil to be able to to plant a brand and no pun intended.

[00:07:45] There's plenty of times there's plenty of runs in this space. I like that because I think one of the challenges that I think a lot of companies have of is as this market you know chefs and you know the dynamics change and sort of the foundations shake a little bit.

[00:08:00] I think the companies that I figured out there why have to have really clarified their purpose and you know kind of the principles that they're going to operate but find it much easier to kind of navigate on and kind of tolerate those situations because they're less they're less the less impacted by external factors. They're more grounded in their internal kind of framework their internal purpose which I think is important. So I think that not only from a I guess brand strategy point of view but I find that actually helps with all aspects of kind of business decisions and business growth and business strategies. So like I make sense. Let's talk a little bit about cannabis because there are some particular kind of dynamics or challenges of building brands and building brand value and kind of communications itself. What have you found being some of the challenges when companies do go to develop rounds and copyrights and things like that when they're dealing with cannabis based products. Enlighten us a little bit on what people need to understand and know about.

[00:08:53] Sure. Well first of all we always encourage people to try to rise above the Cheech and Chong and in high times old school stereotypes that have that have identified this industry for so long now that we are in the public sphere and and establishing ourselves as a legitimate mature responsible conscious industry. It's every new Brand's responsibility to to make sure that they're participating in raising that bar of showing that we're sophisticated showing that that we care showing that we are not just catering to that stoner mentality that it's been around for so long.

[00:09:33] It's our job to destigmatize and legitimize this new industry.

[00:09:37] And every new brand plays a vital role in that and for us as a creative agency it's really important for us to be able to help kind of drive that narrative with our clients. So what we. MARY SHAPIRO One of my favorite trademark and intellectual property attorneys in the cannabis space coined the term potty brands PTT why don't create a potty brand.

[00:09:58] Don't call it kind of this or green that don't put a pot plant a pot leaf in your in your logo anymore and don't name it after the county or town or community that you're in because it's all been done. There's that once again there's that brand noise. So to find a name or a trademark or an icon that actually really is kind of radically differentiated from everything else that's out there you have to put a lot of thought into that. The naming process really is one of the most vital part of the parts of the process of building your brand because you want that name to be something that it's totally unique unique and identifiable to you. I was just recently on a panel with Adam Grossman from poppies in Berkeley poppies partisan breakfasts. Perfect example. It's a story about his his grandfather who was sick and his dog and his dog was named Barclay and now he's got this fantastic differentiated brand that has nothing to do with cannabis. His trademark is protecting all he's able to lock down at that corner of his intellectual property and move forward full force knowing that that nobody else is going to come forward when the then the lines between state lines and international lines start to fade. He's not going to be getting a cease and desist letter because his brand that he's built is just like this other person in Massachusetts that they built. There's a brand brawl coming to cannabis and there's gonna be a lot of litigation and cease and desist letters flying around as soon as it's become nationally legal.

[00:11:21] I actually have a stake into that because I'm not sure everyone on the podcast understands the nuance here which is well maybe you can explain it I it has to do with how copyrights are out trademarks are issued by the federal government. The fact that cannabis is federally illegal. Can you give people a little bit of a sense of why we're in this sort of predicament and what's going to happen when it becomes federally legal or when the federal issues are lifted.

[00:11:43] Sure well will compliance is is in the eye of the region at this point. You have compliance standards within your city within your county within your state and then you know federal there is. You run into this world. There is no official compliance because at that point you're an outlaw. And so your strategy has to be. We like to say think local plan national strategy has to be one that's that's really locks down your strength within your region so your local retailers or the area in which you're doing business you have complete compliance and you're able to expand and strengthen there as your foundation. But you have to be planning for a more of a national expansion if you want to be part of this this large scale industry.

[00:12:25] If you're down to stay a smaller boutique brand that's fine it's going to be a harder fight because the forces of the large scale brands and in collectives are massing tremendously right now in the small farmers are really getting the squeeze in a small towns are getting the squeeze.

[00:12:42] But if you're if you're building your brand with the intent to be able to grow on a national scale you have to be thinking about it as such. So what people are doing I always recommend that our clients work with a really strong trademark and intellectual property attorney. I've mentioned married. I also mean a huge trend. Brandon branch they're incredible. There's also emerged law up in Oregon. Another great firm and what you'll get when you work with an attorney like that is really good guidance on how to plan your local and statewide trademark protection so for example in California now you can actually get state trademarks and protect your brands within within the state. Then you have to plant your your national trademark protection and which you can't actually really go and protect a cannabis brand specifically something that touches the plant. So you have to show all the other ways in which you're participating and in the the local economic community or great greater economic community outside of the cannabis products itself.

[00:13:40] So some people are putting forward apparel brands. Some people are putting themselves for it as an educational resource and they're able to get a trademark on that name. And the strategy that's there is as soon as things are hopefully D scheduled not rescheduled. Then at that point you can you can modify your trademark and say oh yes by the way we actually touched the plant and so everyone's stocked up with these federal trade. That mentioned everything they do except for the cannabis part and they're just waiting for the shoe to drop for them to be able to add that is part of what they're trademarking. But even there's so many people I guarantee you there's a ton of brands out there that are using the exact same name that that have a very descriptive non differentiated name that when things start to shift they're going to realize that they've invested tremendously in something that somebody else is as has as well. And you're going to end up in court and it's going to be up to a judge to determine who actually has the more legitimate claim. Yes.

[00:14:39] So it's going to be a nightmare.

[00:14:42] And it's not going to end up in that situation. You don't want to take that kind of risk. Just avoid all your waste money on building a brand the equity that you have in that brand the mission and the challenge that you're going to deal with by having to completely reinvent that could be could be the death blow to your business.

[00:14:58] Yeah. And let's talk just briefly about international because that's the other big kind of trend or facet of the industry right now to the extent that you're working whether U.S. companies that are are beginning to work on an international level. How do you approach that as anything different or any any other considerations if you're looking at international brands.

[00:15:16] You know most of my experience internationally has been between between Germany and Canada. And seeing how that's working and really it's and it's it's in its infancy as far as branding internationally at this right now branding cannabis in Canada is very restricted.

[00:15:34] The packaging is highly regulated and not exciting from a design perspective at this point. And in know the way that that say take Germany for example Germany is has legalized for medical and as you can get what twenty seven strains with your government issued health care plan from Germany but they don't want to have a bunch of grows.

[00:15:58] They don't want to fill Germany up with a ton of large scale production at this point so that part's regulated. So you've got the government of Canada selling large scale amounts of cannabis to the government of Germany. You've got you've got federal international oversees pot deals happening. But by the time that actually gets to the consumer that brand experience is lost. Yeah.

[00:16:20] And you know I went into a dispensary or a cannabis shop in in Berlin and spent some time in there a variety of CBD products but the drinks were the only thing that were really very well branded in Berlin. Other than that they were very excited to show me they're all CBD. No THC flower which just looked like shake in a jar. So there's a lot of room for growth.

[00:16:47] And as far as building out that strategy that's what we're doing here. I've been creative and that's one of the things that we. It's one of the reasons that we really chose to embrace this acquisition by Kush co is that we are able to explain to them our vision and say that we want to have a agency we want have an office here in our home office in Santa Rosa an office in L.A. an office in in in Toronto and Vancouver and Berlin and Barcelona in Sydney and we want to put people on the ground that understand what compliance means in that market. Anywhere where there's an emerging or established cannabis market we want people who fully understand what compliance means and fully understands what marketing means in that area. We know we're not so arrogant to think that we can paint every region with a California paint brush and it's going to work with that audience. So we want to hire creatives and talented people in each one of these national and international markets to where when somebody says I'm ready to take my brand global I may want to build an international brand our agency is going to be the only one that truly understands what that is.

[00:17:49] And we are moving as fast as possible to be building that level of high industry IQ. I can say that we have some of the top IQ in cannabis industry in California and we're aggressively moving forward in learning as much as we can and growing our knowledge to where we can say that on a global level.

[00:18:06] And how are you. I'm just kind of curious from your agency's growth process. How are you finding talent.

[00:18:11] Are you pulling existing talent from other kind of branding advertising agency world into cannabis are you. Are you finding people that know cannabis really well and kind of training them up on the aspects of design and branding and marketing. What's your like what have you found as work best for you right now.

[00:18:27] You know it's a mix of both. Now you know we have we have somebody up in Portland right now she knows everyone in the industry she's so well tapped and and she's thrilled to be joining our team. We I heard one of the you know an excellent designer that came to us from from the hydroponics world and he'd been designing in hydro forever. Alternatively our new managing director for L.A. comes to us from Nike. You know one of our other designers here comes to us from Apple and I think that's the you know the common ground is that it's people that are really excited about cannabis and how cannabis has the opportunity first time ever to be inventing a new industry. I would say on the creative side and the legal side are the two most exciting arenas to be a part of this this industry because we are truly inventing something for the first time. When does that ever happened. Prohibition. Well with prohibition alcohol was already around beforehand it just got shut down and then brought back. Now you could argue that things like cell phone industry or the internet or things that are industries that got invented but that happened over decades. When have we ever had an industry that just went from straight private market illegal abortion to all of a sudden legitimacy and you know making up for lost time to creatively and legally defined itself.

[00:19:47] Now we're pretty excited to be a part of this and a creative agency like ourselves outside there's only a handful of really solid creative agencies in cannabis that are pushing the needle.

[00:19:58] I'd say there's probably five of us and for people to have the opportunity to jump aboard and do what they love be successful creative and help to find something is is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

[00:20:10] Yeah. No I completely agree. I think there's several professions that are now kind of getting involved in cannabis that have not sort of been involved a whole lot. It's just kind of blowing up and it's fascinating you see how it's how it's playing out.

[00:20:22] There's a fine line between that and green rushers though. There's there's a lot of people out there that they don't care about the history. They don't care about the medicinal elements of it. They don't care about the fact that cannabis has the capacity to change the mindset of the world and help people get off of opiates now put less white powders in their body and body put down the bottle become less aggressive probably stop lobbing missiles from one country to another. Cannabis is the capacity to change the paradigm of the world and that's what most of us especially those of us who have been in for a long time are inspired by. We're not just here to make money we're here to transform the state of the planet in the human condition. There's a lot of folks out there that all they see is money and that's all they care about and that's all they want to get into the industry for.

[00:21:08] And you know we call those those folks green money and no money is what drives a lot of folks. I get it but I believe that for those of us that have been in it for a while that really understand the heart behind the cannabis industry and are dedicated to not losing that heart. We need to be discerning as to who we're bringing aboard from from the you know that that's really new to the industry and really make them to find their way.

[00:21:34] Yeah well I think it's an interesting challenge because you know the growth of the industry is putting huge pressure on the industry meaning that you know there's there are not enough people with 20 years of experience you know in you know cannabis growing cannabis culture you Kenya the cannabis kind of environment that there is a need to bring in folks like how how do you I mean you kind of talked a little bit about it but you know on a broader level how do you kind of filter or how do you help people make that transition.

[00:22:00] What have you seen that's worked well for people that are coming into that space. You know I guess make the right decision to come into it or not.

[00:22:07] And as well as kind of successfully make the transformation I think a heartfelt conversation with somebody will help bring forward what they're in it for now and in so we just had a booth at the argue investor summit here the three days before MJ biz Con Ed we met people from all over the world that are here to invest in cannabis and you know maybe they had nothing to do with cannabis before maybe they're completely new to it.

[00:22:34] I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But you know their their motivation and their reason for jumping in is is really what defines them and there's some people that are so thrilled to finally be like I know a lot of people within their cushy organization and other major cannabis brands that come from alcohol or come from big tobacco. Interesting yeah. You could look at that and you can say OK.

[00:22:56] These are you know very powerful arguably know unhealthy industries that have been said that have had repercussions on humanity.

[00:23:09] They're all of a sudden coming into corrupts the you know the cannabis industry. I've actually learned that a lot of these people are so thrilled and so excited to finally have an opportunity to take these large scale business skills that they have and these this knowledge that they have of how to navigate an actual industry and come into something that they can truly believe in and feel good about and sleep you know put their head on their pillow at night and feel like they're doing something that's contributing to humanity in the world. And you know it's it's wonderful to see how not only is this business try to influence a new industry like cannabis but the cannabis industry is having a dramatic influence on the traditional business world as a whole as well.

[00:23:53] The other one that I find interesting is pharmaceuticals united people kind of transition over from pharmaceuticals and you know on one hand it's you know it's an industry based on health and helping people and things you know on the other hand it's also a big complex that is based on money and profit. It's interesting to see who's kind of coming over and why they're coming over and what they end up doing once they come over because I think that's a you know there's there's a lot of kind of parallels but there's also a lot of kind of underpinning kind of value differences and some respect. So yes it's a fascinating kind of time to see to see the industry kind of flocks in and adopt people adopt in different ways.

[00:24:30] Let's stop briefly because I think there's one other kind of topic I wanted to make sure we have a chance to cover which is you know as the kind of cannabis market if you look at kind of the consumer side those from this kind of traditional you know kind of pop culture to kind of middle America soccer mom you know how does that change your strategy or how does that impact your brand brand strategy like how you approach marketing things like that. I guess how do you see that happening right now where do you think we are in that that kind of market growth. And then how does it impact the work that you do with your clients.

[00:25:03] Well it's finding that target demographic is one of the most exciting parts of building a brand. When we are working when we're doing a brand strategy workshop with a new client we always try to drive home the idea that if you're trying to be everything to everyone you're not something to someone. And right now in the cannabis industry the exponential growth that we're going to be seeing isn't going to necessarily come from current cannabis users just consuming more cannabis.

[00:25:29] Exactly. It's going to come from new markets. And if you look at our brand portfolio of the different brands we've worked with in the work that we've done the clients that we've taken the market. I'll challenge you to find one that looks like any other one because everyone has such a unique story and unique opportunity and is focusing on a unique market that the sky is the limit on how diverse and and how broad we can go with building out brands.

[00:25:53] So we have some brands so we've taken the market that are going for the conservative red blooded American patriotic truck driving country music listener something they use that we once in a previous hit in the previous era we thought was the antithesis of the cannabis industry.

[00:26:12] But it's no longer defined by the Baby Boomers and the hippies in the rosters.

[00:26:16] It's you know there's everyone is coming forward and finding great use for it whether they're a micro dozer that's using it for anxiety or so you know a professional that's you know a corporate professional that just really needs to chill out at the end of a very stressful day and is tired of using alcohol to be that tool to add opioid addicts to you know the soccer mom and being able to build out brands that really identify that target audience and finds their motivating influence in speaks that motivating influence and resonates with them is one of the most exciting parts of the process.

[00:26:51] And if you look at them again the most successful brands out there they've done that they've identified that they've nailed it and they have that dedication.

[00:26:59] Yeah perfect. And I've got a long list of questions but unfortunately that time so this has been a pleasure. I've learned a lot. I think this is a great conversation I think we had a great opportunity to kind of dig into the brand the sort of the brand kind of complexity right now that's in and can of us and I'm looking forward to see how things play out if people want to find out more about you or the hybrid creative.

[00:27:20] What's the best way to get more information.

[00:27:22] Sure. Please go to our website. The hybrid creative dot com we're also on Instagram at the hybrid creative.

[00:27:29] Perfect. I'll put both of those links on the showdown so people can click through to those. Zack this is a pleasure. I really appreciate the time.

[00:27:36] Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. Bruce it's been a pleasure.

[00:27:40] You've been listening to Thinking Outside the Bud with Business Coach Bruce Eckfeldt to find a full list of podcast episodes. Download the tools and worksheets and access other great content. Visit the Web site at And don't forget to sign up for the free newsletter at