One of the most important pieces of the puzzle for cannabis entrepreneurs is building successful business relationships. The types of relationships that endure past trends and as the industry evolves.
Hall of Flowers spoke with the esteemed Vice President of Consumer Brands and Ethos at Aurora Cannabis, Bubba Nicholson, ahead of a showing at HOF Toronto coming up this September 19-20, 2023. Nicholson is a critical voice spearheading business connections at Aurora, the leading Canadian LP in global medical cannabis revenues. From its headquarters in Edmonton, Alberta, Aurora commands a massive footprint that spans Canada and Europe’s adult-use and medical markets.
Nicholson spent the better part of the past three years driving across Canada and visiting over 3,000 dispensaries, many of them 3-4 times plus. “I’ve truly found a family and community across each province,” says Nicholson. “The most important thing, for me, hands down, is that you actually need to care. You need to care about people, their businesses, their families, and the people they feed every day. Taking the time to understand that all of us are on our back foot right now is also extremely important.”
In his role as Vice President of Consumer Brands & Ethos at Aurora, Nicholson focuses on an “Ethos” defined as the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations. “For me, it’s a real focus on culture, building a culture we can be proud of, both in our facilities and outside in our community,” Nicholson tells Hall of Flowers. “It’s about storytelling, preserving our past, paying homage to the generations before us upon whose shoulders we stand, and being a strong set of shoulders for the next generation.”
“Cannabis is not going anywhere. We are 103 years post alcohol prohibition, and there are still many new brands that are thriving. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”Bubba Nicholson, VP of Consumer Brands & Ethos at Aurora
The VP suggests brand owners and entrepreneurs put themselves in the shoes of their cohorts. “Strong relationships aren’t built in one visit, or one call, they are built on a basis of trust,” he says. “You have to deliver, you have to maintain, and again you have to care.”
Nicholson offers up sound advice when it comes to relationship building with both consumers and within the industry.
“The industry is rapidly evolving and we’re all looking to secure our place,” he says. “No different than the approach we take to connect across retail and build those relationships—we have to connect with the consumers and patients through our brands and our products. We’re focused on innovation and providing the best, high-quality product that meets patient and consumer needs. We won’t rest or accept anything less and that is part of building lasting relationships.”
Aurora helps its retail partners build their businesses, while simultaneously buildings its own through a symbiotic energy exchange. “My focus goes beyond sales,” he says. “It’s about a two-way conversation. I am in the stores, asking for feedback and committing to how we’ll work together to achieve mutual success.”
Aurora reports YOY growth across all of its business units. Its 2024 Q1 fiscal year total net revenue is $75.1 million, as compared to $50.1 million in the prior year. The increase from the prior period is mainly due to the brand’s growth in plant propagation and global medical cannabis. As the industry moves through a contraction, felt in both the U.S. and Canadian markets right now, Nicholson offers guidance for other business professionals who seek to thrive and weather the storm.
“Staying lean and showing responsible growth is the only way I see the companies in our sector surviving,” says Nicholson. “Many people are in a rush to leverage and grow as fast as they can, which has impacted many of our peers. There is still a lot to accomplish from a regulatory perspective and we can change that if we work together. You couldn’t get a beer on a Sunday in the province of Manitoba until 2001.”
When it comes to invention and innovation in the space, Nicholson is excited to see the advancements in the hash realm. “As a concentrate head, I love seeing the improved quality come to market from the licensed producers in both the US and Canada and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon,” says the VP. “With legalization, we no longer have to hide in the shadows, we have access to equipment, inputs, and testing we never had before. I don’t believe we have even seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to form factors and quality yet.”
The brands Nicholson sees winning in the market tend to be great at building and maintaining consumer trust. Some interesting products Nicholson has seen lately during his travels include sublingual delivery systems such as Being Strips, continuously improving vape hardware, and mainstream, CPG items infused with cannabis.
5 tips for brands to build this loyalty and trust, from Nicholson:
- Deliver a great product
- Offer great customer service
- Have a continuous supply of quality products and prevent running out of stock
- Consistency in the product – cannabinoids, bag appeal, and quality
- Be transparent and take ownership of mistakes
There is “no secret sauce” to success in the cannabis industry, says Nicholson. “Care about the people. Without them, you have nothing.”
In 5 years’ time, Nicholson hopes to see established markets begin to settle with a true “Good, Better, Best hierarchy” across the board where producers can provide value at each segment. “At the same time, it’s crucial that we make some progress on regulations that will allow us to communicate directly with our consumers and educate them on our products,” he says.
“From an international perspective, I hope we’ll see more markets opening up to medical and recreational cannabis, using what they have learned from established markets like ours,” says Nicholson. “We have to recognize that each country is unique and there isn’t a one size fits all approach, but we have to make considerations for the local culture. Sharing cannabis culture from country to country on a journey to global legalization which will continue long past our time on this planet.”