Jennifer Culpepper of I+I Botanicals: “Be flexible”

Be flexible. Regulations and laws in the cannabis industry change every day. In fact, even public opinion has changed in the years since I’ve worked in this industry. It’s helpful to read and learn what you can, be forward thinking, but having the ability to pivot is essential. Having a start-up mentality is helpful! As a […]

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Be flexible. Regulations and laws in the cannabis industry change every day. In fact, even public opinion has changed in the years since I’ve worked in this industry. It’s helpful to read and learn what you can, be forward thinking, but having the ability to pivot is essential. Having a start-up mentality is helpful!

As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Culpepper. She founded the Maryland-based branding agency, Brand Joint, after identifying a need for specialized brand strategy and sophisticated design in the emerging cannabis industry. With over 20 years of experience designing successful consumer brands, Jennifer is an exceptional brand strategist and advisor to entrepreneurs who are looking to grow successful brands. She and her team develop brands from the ground up — building strong foundations, designing logos, websites, packaging, and interior spaces. She manages several brand portfolios for clients — including consumer packaged goods, retail dispensaries and services — as well as the CBD-infused skincare brand, I+I Botanicals, for which she is a co-founder. Her award-winning work for a wide variety of food and beverage, medical, non-profit and retail clients has been featured in several design publications. Jenn often shares her cannabis branding knowledge at Women Grow Events, MJBiz Con, and other national conferences and expos. She has appeared on CBS This Morning, in Forbes, Washington Post, Baltimore Business Journal, Hemp Industry Daily, Cannabis Dispensary and MG Magazine.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?

When cannabis was legalized in Colorado and Washington, I began to do some research into the blossoming industry. What I found was a large cross-section of people who consumed cannabis for various reasons; however, the brands and products that were available were designed for the stereotypical stoner. Even the brands that attempted to elevate their brands were mainly targeting 20-something males. I knew that to be successful, brands needed to appeal to a broader, more sophisticated audience and to create products that spoke specifically to their needs. It was then that I launched Brand Joint, a branding agency specializing in Cannabis products. A few years into my work, I learned more about cannabanoids and the benefits that CBD, particularly, has on the skin. I began talking about it with my (now) partner, Selam, who grew up using natural ingredients for beauty and nutrition and together we started making skincare products that use only the best natural ingredients paired with CBD to achieve various skin benefits.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started Brand Joint, the most interesting thing to many people was that I was a mother working in the cannabis space. I was interviewed in the Washington Post and then on CBS This Morning. The focus of the story was how mothers talk to their children about working in the cannabis industry. At the time, I thought it was fun and exciting to be on such a large platform, but it was really my entry into the “world of publicity.” I never knew how to go about getting your products (or yourself) press. I learned that press begets press. Once you’re featured in one prominent article, many others want to talk to you. Later, when working to promote our I+I Botanicals product, I learned that, unless you have lots of contacts in publishing, the best way to get press is to hire a PR professional! A lot of time and effort goes into establishing relationships with editors. If I had known that in the beginning, I definitely would have added that to our original marketing budget! The other big lesson in working to get press is to give them an interesting angle to the story you’re pitching. The Washington Post and CBS were interested in the parenting angle because that was a new take on the story of the emerging cannabis industry.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can’t think of any story.

Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?

When I first started my business in Cannabis, I think my neighbors thought I was a weed dealer! They’d pull me aside at neighborhood functions and ask in whispered tones how to get weed. I was initially worried about certain reactions — especially as it might affect my children — but what I found was that people were generally curious and felt I was approachable to discuss their specific situations.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

So many people have helped us along the way. The magic sauce in our company is our great partnership. Selam and I complement each other in both our skill sets, experience, and demeanor.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are constantly working on new products to complement our existing skincare line. While each product aims to solve a specific skincare concern, like anti-aging, Roscea, moisturizing, and acne treatments, we also feel the need to provide wellness for the soul through encouraging self-care. Additionally, we are continually trying to reduce our carbon footprint through sustainable packaging, efficient shipping practices and responsibly sourcing our ingredients.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Despite great progress that has been made we still have a lot more work to do to achieve gender parity in this industry. According to this report in Entrepreneur, less than 25 percent of cannabis businesses are run by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender parity moving forward?

Well, obviously, hire more women in executive and leadership positions! But consumers can opt to buy from women or minority-owned companies. That is really how change takes place in a capitalistic society. In the Beauty industry, retailers see this as good for business, many are pledging to carry 15% Black-owned brands. Companies in the cannabis industry can absolutely act in more socially-conscious way. But, most won’t unless they see it as profitable. So, it really is up to consumers to demand the companies do better. Hire more women and minority leaders, work to create more sustainable packaging, lobby for immediate release (and expungement) of non-violent drug offenders. If consumers care, the companies will follow suit.

You are a “Cannabis Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the cannabis industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each.

  1. Be flexible. Regulations and laws in the cannabis industry change every day. In fact, even public opinion has changed in the years since I’ve worked in this industry. It’s helpful to read and learn what you can, be forward thinking, but having the ability to pivot is essential. Having a start-up mentality is helpful!
  2. Be original. As a branding specialist, I see the biggest challenge many in this industry have is how to differentiate themselves in a crowded market place.
  3. Use marketing data carefully. It’s easy to get a marketing report about what sells well, what’s trending, etc. But remember that the data is showing you the past, not necessarily predicting the future. While it’s helpful to see trends, it’s not necessarily fruitful to hop on a bandwagon that’s already pretty full. (this goes back to being original!)
  4. Be human. It’s really important to know your target audience. But, not just their demographics. Understanding what their pain points are and how you can make a difference in their lives, or even their days will help you stand apart and create a loyal consumer.
  5. Stay positive. Surround yourself with other positive people who believe in your vision. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also listen to different or opposing perspectives. But positive people bring solutions, not just problems.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?

I am excited that the UN just voted to reclassify cannabis as medicine. That is huge news and will hopefully give access to more people who could benefit from this amazing plant. I also hope that will lead to more public research. While we are constantly learning more and more about the plant, there is still so much we don’t know. Maybe one day we will understand it in a way to craft specialized medicine for a person based on their body chemistry and needs.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

One of my biggest concerns in the industry is the difficulty for small, independent or minority-run businesses to compete with the large multi-state operators. That is not necessarily unique to the cannabis industry, however I had a hope that the culture of cannabis might extend to the business side. My biggest fear is that “Big Marijuana” follows in the footsteps of Big Pharma.

What are your thoughts about federal legalization of cannabis? If you could speak to your Senator, what would be your most persuasive argument regarding why they should or should not pursue federal legalization?

I strongly believe that cannabis should be fully legal. No one should be in jail for possessing or selling a plant when others are making millions or billions. I do think more needs to be done to encourage smaller, independent and minority-owned businesses.

Today, cigarettes are legal, but they are heavily regulated, highly taxed, and they are somewhat socially marginalized. Would you like cannabis to have a similar status to cigarettes or different? Can you explain?

Cigarettes should not be compared to cannabis because cigarettes do not offer medical benefits — in fact, just the opposite. Cannabis is unique in that it is a medicine; however, it is also used for relaxation, creativity, and enjoyment. It makes sense to me the regulations are similar to pharmaceuticals and alcohol.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” Winston Churchill

My training as a designer taught me that most of what I do is defining, then solving problems. Challenges and obstacles are always going to pop up. But, if you have a problem-solving mindset and an openness to where that might lead, you will often see opportunities arise where you least expect it,

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Right now, our climate is the biggest existential threat to humanity. Hemp has a lot of potential to create sustainable materials for building, packaging, and textiles. I’d like to see more resources spent on developing cost-effective and sustainable alternatives to plastic and other carbon-dependent materials.

Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!

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