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Christopher Lane of Airfield Supply Co: “Go to Therapy”

Go to Therapy. I don’t just say this because both of my parents are psychologists, but it’s a fact that the key to re-energizing your brand is laying it all out there — the good and the bad — and trying to map your way to a better world. The first step in recovery is admitting you have a […]

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Go to Therapy. I don’t just say this because both of my parents are psychologists, but it’s a fact that the key to re-energizing your brand is laying it all out there — the good and the bad — and trying to map your way to a better world. The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem, right? You have to understand your role in the world. Brands are facilitators of experiences and not the end of the conversation. Brands that break through know they have to play that role, they seek to understand their problems, and they build a robust plan to address them.


As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Christopher Lane.

Chris Lane is the Chief Marketing Officer of Airfield Supply Company, the largest single-site dispensary in California. In this role, Chris is responsible for brand and growth strategy across retail and product businesses. With a background in creative strategy and brand building, Chris focuses on building consumer empathy in brands and driving simultaneous top and bottom funnel growth. Previously, Chris was the Global Head of Brand at Fiverr, also leading agency practices and teams at Method, Bite, WPP, and Edelman.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I studied painting in college so it’s clear that I have ended up on a far different path than I anticipated. But I also studied strategic communications, so have worked in different agencies around brand strategy and activation for about a decade. I began consulting for Airfield over six years ago, and helped it rebrand from the South Bay Healing Center to Airfield Supply Co. when it transitioned from being a medical dispensary to a recreational outlet in 2015. I came on full time in late 2019 to help Airfield take its next step in expansion and then the pandemic hit and we scaled our business dramatically toward delivery and most of what we had previously planned either was put on hold or has changed entirely. None of this is what I imagined when I enrolled in art school, that’s for sure.

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

I can’t count how many embarrassing spelling mistakes I’ve made over the years. As a very visual-first person, I’ve always had less than stellar spelling skills, but hadn’t yet embarrassed myself as badly as the time I suggested that we “flush out” rather than “flesh out” an idea while working on a pitch deck for a big consumer company. The senior on the team left a polite, but epically stinging, comment in the document that I’ll probably never forget. I now pass a less burning version of that along to younger colleagues when the need arises.

The lesson: It’s pretty hard to have a great idea if you can’t spell it.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?

Yes. Shortly after the first time I watched Simon Sinek’s now famous TED talk on the concept of the Golden Circle. It blew my mind how simply he translated so much of what I did but in more effective and repeatable ways. I had been working in agencies for a bit of time and using a lot of different methodologies around how to build ideas, but that video basically set up my approach for building brands ever since. I started to be able to cut through the clutter more effectively and everything just started falling into place with my work. Ideas made more sense. Action plans had a clearer map to success. In the years since, I’ve developed an expanded version of the concept that incorporates other elements to even further drive results.

I suppose the key takeaway is that surface level ideas don’t usually translate into major success. Find deeper meaning and ways to translate that into everything you do using whatever method you love.

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

We are! We have several exciting updates on the horizon that I can’t tell you about. (Sorry.) What I can say is that we are working across the California cannabis space to make changes that will impact customers, brands, and the environment. With an industry as new as legal cannabis, the possibilities for innovation are tremendous. We’re not only a new industry, we’re a young industry, with most of our business leaders still in their 40s — if that old — and we all have young children and a new generation to look out for.

We want to ensure that our industry is a leader in smart Earth-first choices that promote longevity and sustainability and make life better for all of us. Because there are so few dispensaries in California — we have less than 700 and could accommodate more than 4,000 — we find ourselves at Airfield in an unexpectedly pivotal position in the industry. Fortunately, we are devoted to using our terrible powers for good, and this positioning allows us to lead.

We’re concerned about excess packaging, which is an unintentional side effect of child-resistance laws; we’re concerned about living lightly, which is why we largely employ Teslas for delivery; and we’re concerned about our customer’s health, which is why we have planned a big fundraising effort around healthcare for the first quarter of next year. We’re a long way from the traditional pot shop that used to serve our community. Being about community is where our focus is.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

Our lives are stressful and marketing can be quite fast-paced and even a little cutthroat. I have to remind myself that it’s supposed to be fun. This is a creative role and you can’t access your full powers if you’re stressed out. I build creative “down” time into my weekly schedule. I try to keep my Fridays, for example, as a free-form day that’s largely unscheduled and free of meetings. That doesn’t mean that I won’t occasionally spend a Friday jumping from meeting to meeting. That sometimes happens, but when things are working as they should be, I have big blocks of time built into at least one day a week when I have time to think, plan, steal a peek at other people’s ideas, and dream.

The pandemic has also given us all a chance to look at our work-a-day styles. My wife and I are lucky to have two healthy active toddlers and life at home is loud and messy and lovely — but it’s not always conducive to work. Instead of renting a space, I often work at a picnic table at a local outdoor shopping center. It’s near the water, the light is gorgeous, there are plenty of trees, and I pack a bag filled with my necessary multiple daily iced teas and protein bars. Things we used to take for granted, such as what a workplace looks like, are being reinvented.

For me, the most refreshing way to stay creatively engaged and energized is to stay focused two steps ahead and looking to such Big Ideas as: How do we do good business and be kind to the Earth and our bodies? How do we serve our customers where they want to be? Now that we can welcome visitors back to the dispensary, how do we keep the retail experience fresh and interesting for them so that they want to spend time with us? How do we replicate online the browsing experience of a boutique retail outlet offline?

Plus, we have the added challenge of being in cannabis which, as a Schedule 1 substance, has its own fun list of challenges unknown to any other industry. Nothing in this space has just one answer and the answers are changing all the time. That is exciting to me.

Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

Back to my obsession with Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, I define this as the difference between the Why and the What. Brand development and marketing is about why you exist, while product marketing is about the outcome of that existence, the what, as it manifests itself in goods or services.

Anyone can sell something, but few organizations have articulated their fundamental reason for being. Brand is that being, and how you then bring it to the world. Products are simply the outcomes of your values with which consumers can interact. We always focus on the former and let the latter speak for itself.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

Investing in developing your brand story and perspective is about creating something more than a transactional relationship with the world. Consumers don’t develop emotional loyalty with products in nearly the same way they do with ideas — that’s just how the human brain works. Defining your reason for being enables consumers to align with you and form a community around shared beliefs and values.

If you don’t do that you are always vulnerable to transactional relationships. Brands that change lives are always working at much deeper levels to create their worlds. It’s the most fun and really, the most authentic part of marketing as you are not selling, you are building for others. A brand’s job is to make the world better, and that’s about manifesting values.

Let’s now talk about rebranding. What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?

There are many good and bad reasons to rebrand. Sometimes it’s because a company was created and has changed, or perhaps didn’t build the right brand from the start. Other times, however, it’s because you have discovered something profound in your development that needs to be reflected in a more comprehensive way. I always say there is no such thing as a “rebrand,” but rather, it’s a revolution of an old idea. The world doesn’t forget who you were, but it can be excited to learn more about who you have become — and what’s new in that.

Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?

There can be downsides if you either jump into it too quickly or don’t do a deep enough dive into it once you make the decision to act. But the biggest thing to understand for any brand or rebrand is that you have to be all in. A half-developed or re-developed brand is just paint, just decoration. True branding is building a house — and supporting the family that lives within it.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to upgrade and re-energize their brand and image”? Please tell us a story or an example for each.

Go to Therapy. I don’t just say this because both of my parents are psychologists, but it’s a fact that the key to re-energizing your brand is laying it all out there — the good and the bad — and trying to map your way to a better world. The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem, right? You have to understand your role in the world. Brands are facilitators of experiences and not the end of the conversation. Brands that break through know they have to play that role, they seek to understand their problems, and they build a robust plan to address them.

Good ideas are not usually surface level. I always wait for that vulnerable moment to come up before I feel like we really have something. Whether that is from a conversation with the client or a tear-your-hair-out moment while putting a concept together, you have to find that bottom in order to look up at the answer.

Every single successful new business or campaign pitch I did for a decade on the agency side began with a long hard look in the brand mirror. I specifically remember once working on a pitch for one of the top consumer electronics companies in the world and being at the edge of chaos two days before the pitch.

We had assembled a global team in Asia for the meeting and ended up working for 30 hours straight because we didn’t feel like we had cracked it. Time was ticking down. Finally, instead of just one idea, we laid out all of the ideas and looked at what we liked and didn’t like about how they presented the brand, and the concerns we had with introducing them.

We used that learning to build a new brief and the resulting strategy was both authentic and grounded in a truth that we had to discover to build. We still lost the pitch — a reminder there are a lot of unmade great ideas out there!

Learn Your Why. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, my strong feeling is that branding is about why you exist and not what you sell. Your first step in reinvigorating a brand is learning your why because it then sets you up to build an authentic strategy and creative approach, enabling you to create content that speaks authentically to and engage with consumers.

I’ll never forget a particular offsite where my team spent two days locked in a room battling over a company’s why. The meeting included every stakeholder from the company — brand, product, finance, customer experience, etc. — with everyone laying out what they thought the why was as we tried to plan a major year of growth ahead.

Of course, the why should have been decided years before, but that’s irrelevant. My colleagues and I spent days coming to an alignment on the soul of the company, creating a place for the world to connect with it. That was one of the more rewarding things I’ve ever done and it allowed us the freedom to build a strategy and brand that was capable of changing the world.

Develop Your Persona. Because brands are living things, you can’t stop at why, you have to think about how your brand exists in the world. What does it like or dislike, what would it think about current events, who are its friends and enemies. You have to develop out every moment in order to make that come to life.

When working with the New York Times in 2014 on the launch of their NYT Now news app, we had a chance to do some really fun personal development work that sparked an awesome creative execution in partnership with the client. The app was a lower-priced subscription news platform designed to engage consumers with a curated collection of stories. The mapping of the app’s brand values to consumer experiences unlocked some thinking for us about how we could bring readers their news in a fresh way during their morning commutes.

The resulting activation was an immersive launch at transit points across the country that featured six-foot-tall iPhone kiosks displaying the NYT Now app alongside stylish coffee carts that offered free on-demand espresso drinks. The pitch was: “Learn what’s happening in the world faster than we can pour you a cup of coffee.” That literally stopped potential readers in their tracks at key locations as we showed them that what had once taken hours to consume — the morning news — was suddenly as quick as making an espresso. NYT Now brought subscribers their morning info as fast as they could scroll through Instagram on the train, making users better prepared for their day. That was all about persona mapping and figuring out where the brand brought value to its users.

Every Magic Moment. At Airfield, we are constantly looking at ways to bring our brand ethos into every version of the consumer experience. To accomplish this, we continually map our “magic moments” and iterate on how we translate our brand values of “Elevated, Cultivated, and Ready For Take-Off” into them for the betterment of the consumer. When the pandemic started, it diminished our in-store traffic dramatically, prompting quick thinking about how we could expand online ordering and delivery — two areas we had invested in but not yet truly scaled. The question was: How to build those so that they reflected the same quality of experience as shopping in our boutique brick-and-mortar location. In other words: If Airfield were a car, what kind of vehicle would it be?

We had already made the decision to go with something sustainable, so adding six Tesla sedans to our delivery fleet was a natural fit. We additionally made it easier for our customers to purchase from us online, implementing a new contactless one-click prepayment system that makes buying cannabis remarkably like buying a product from Amazon and allows customers to have an entirely safe and remote at-home journey from purchase to delivery. We realized that we can’t replace the in-store experience that you get from interacting with an experienced budtender who is able to make recommendations, but we can improve it, so we worked with our partners at Salesforce to expand our proprietary “virtual budtender” system that supports customers in making choices and trying new products nearly as well as a human in our dispensary might.

All of these efforts, and the forthcoming even more exciting ones we are working on but I can’t discuss yet — are all based on knowing your magic moments and bringing your brand through them.

Plan (and Crush) Your Lightning Strike. Once you are ready, find the thing that can memorably introduce or reintroduce your brand to as many people in the target world as possible. Often this takes the form of campaigns and using dollars to drive penetration, but don’t also forget how you can show up and make impacts as well. Go all in. Start your new world off right.

At Fiverr, we spent a lot of effort to educate people about what the brand had become — a high-end freelancer engagement platform — not just what it had been when it launched, when it was focused on low-cost services. To create a dramatic “flip the switch” moment, we decided to execute a massive experiential activation at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity — the global center of the creative community.

We built a live, viewable “fishbowl” production studio and, using only Fiverr freelancers, created a complete global creative campaign from scratch in just five days — right in the middle of the festival! You literally couldn’t miss it, wonder what was happening, and when you learned what it was and saw the quality of the work coming out — the message was indelible.

With that, we struck to the heart of an audience and made major waves that lasted far beyond the effort itself in the form of other projects that further raised the brand value dramatically. I love doing that.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job doing a “Brand Makeover”. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Less a “makeover” per se and more of a moment in time captured, I love what Peloton has done over the last few years to transform the at-home fitness market. Pre-COVID, group fitness was a rage in part through the success of SoulCycle, Barry’s, and other boutique fitness experiences. Peloton found a way to message around the emotional benefit of personal fitness and cut through the noise of the class craze. They didn’t do it perfectly (I’m sure most of us remember the ghastly husband-pleasing holiday campaign that was quite the flashpoint) but even with that, they took their punches and rolled it into brand growth.

They stuck to their why of enabling anyone to engage in self-care, and when the pandemic blew up, in doing the right thing at the right time. A lot of the creative has been done by Mekanism, a great creative agency I worked with during my time at Fiverr, and I love seeing how their agency values of authenticity and emotional soul came to life in that brand work. Really fun stuff to watch from afar, and from a bike!

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

At the risk of sounding cliché and offering an expected answer, I can truthfully say that, from my perspective, federally legalizing cannabis would bring the most good not only for the entrepreneurial opportunities it could create across the country by opening up state lines and enabling the creativity and growth of the industry, but also for the potential good it could do for so many people. Right now, we still need to expend a large amount of effort around education or reeducation of cannabis uses because of our limited legal ability to engage across brand channels with widespread audiences. With federal legalization, we would have the ability to more easily explain the benefits across such a wide swathe of uses while also opening up jobs and careers for individuals and revenue for cities, counties, states, and the country. It’s a no-brainer to positively impact the world.

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

“What good is an idea if it remains an idea? Try. Experiment. Iterate. Fail. Try again. Change the world.” — Simon Sinek

I am a firm believer that life is best spent experimenting and learning. Professionally or personally, pushing the boundaries is what makes every day exciting. That’s exactly why I made the leap into cannabis marketing. I wanted to see what this exciting new industry, with its equal mix of opportunities and challenges, could be. In the cannabis industry, we are literally building the plane while we fly it, and that makes every day an adventure.

How can our readers follow you online?

We have an amazing Instagram presence of which I’m super proud, @airfieldsupply.

My personal Instagram @TheChrisLane is mostly friends and family — observational randomness — but always happy to connect! LinkedIn, too.

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