In 2017, Scott Sparks needed help developing the brand identity for his Brattleboro-based CBD store, Vermont Hempicurian. Although its hemp-derived products were legal for sale in Vermont, they were not federally.
“At that time, it was…a crime every time I sold CBD,” Sparks explained. “When I opened, I didn’t know if I would have SWAT teams [showing up] or mothers parading outside with pickets.”
Today, Sparks operates four cannabis businesses, each with a unique identity and customer base. Vermont Hempicurean, now in West Brattleboro, serves health-conscious consumers, including those it calls “little old ladies…who want nothing [else] to do with cannabis.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Vermont Grow Barn, Sparks’ gardening supply store, which caters to cannabis growers. His customers are largely men and “traditional growers”, he said, referring to those who have grown weed illegally for years, often for the black market.
When Sparks needed logos, websites and packaging designs for his businesses, he contacted Will Read, founder and owner of Canna Planners. Read started the Burlington-based digital marketing company in 2017 with the goal of becoming what he called “the Dealer.com of the cannabis industry,” referring to the Burlington-based tech company that builds websites for car dealerships.
Read, a 41-year-old Rhode Island native who has lived in Vermont on and off since 2004, appears to be well on his way to achieving that goal. CannaPlanners, which has just 12 employees, has customers in all 19 states where adult cannabis use is legal, including 80 businesses in Vermont alone.
CannaPlanners specializes in helping cannabusinesses shape their identity: Who are they? What sets them apart from their competitors? Who are their customers and what will keep them coming back?
Such seemingly basic market information can be difficult to determine in a retail industry that was not legal in Vermont until now. And because marijuana is still listed as a Schedule I drug, which means the federal government does not recognize any medical uses, cannabis companies are largely barred from advertising on radio, TV, motor search and social media sites.
CannaPlanners’ expertise, Read explained, is in helping companies define themselves and avoid cannabis clichés that can make it hard for consumers to tell one brand from another.
Even the most basic question, “Who is your target demographic?” baffles many Read customers who had never given serious thought to the matter before. “Anyone who smokes weed,” he said, is like selling a high-performance sports car to everyone who drives.
“They can come up with a great product,” Read added, “but if there’s no message behind it, there’s nothing compelling to go back on.”
CannaPlanners’ office in downtown Burlington looks like what you might expect from a hip, young design company that caters to aspiring professionals. Next to Read’s desk is an electric guitar from his touring days with the band Casual Fiasco. There’s a Nerf basketball hoop above a doorway and a framed Phish poster of a 2012 show hangs above a shelf lined with comic book anthologies.
Despite the playful decor and the pungent trace of fresh grass in the air, Read doesn’t lean into an overtly stoner aesthetic, personally or professionally. The potential customer base for cannabis companies is huge, he noted, but many consumers will need to be brought into Vermont’s legal market.
“Let’s not forget the psychological effect the war on drugs has had on us,” Read said, “there’s Gen Xers and millennials, who grew up on DARE, and ‘Just Say No’ by Nancy Reagan. And baby boomers had [Richard] Nixon’s War on Drugs.”
Read doesn’t have a business degree or experience in Silicon Valley, but he knows how to create a consumer-friendly shopping experience. For six years, he worked as a business manager at Apple, opening its retail stores in Boston and New York.
Then, in 2014, while trying to figure out his next career move, Read traveled to Colorado and visited clinics in Denver and Boulder. Having previously worked for a marketing agency in Vermont, he was surprised to discover that the aesthetic of Colorado dispensaries was bland, seamless, and uninspired. Each product package had a kelly green jar leaf on it, and each dispensary had a green medical cross in the window.
“Nowadays everything looks like an Apple Store, but back then it was weird and gross and not the best experience,” he said. “No one had a soul.”
Upon returning to Vermont, Read immersed himself in the cannabis industry as a digital marketer. Although recreational weed is still illegal in Green Mountain State, legalization bills were already being debated in the Legislative Assembly.
Meanwhile, Vermont’s hemp industry was booming. In 2013, there were only 175 acres of farmland registered for growing hemp, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. By 2019, that number had grown to 9,000 acres, with hemp farms in every county in the state.
Sparks, the CBD retailer, was Read’s first regular customer; other CBD shops and hemp growers soon followed. Read enlisted the help of Kory Mathis, now VP and CTO of CannaPlanners, to help create an inexpensive webpage builder, which they sold to hemp companies for around $1,000 apiece.
Next, Read hired Josh Cleaver, a fellow musician with whom Read had toured with the Casual Fiasco. Cleaver, who had designed the band’s album covers and t-shirts, joined CannaPlanners to design corporate logos.
Soon, CannaPlanners expanded its offerings into other services, including packaging design and industrial design, email marketing, and search engine optimization. For Read, who calls himself a “late-blooming entrepreneur,” his future in the cannabis environment looked set to blossom.
But by 2019, Vermont’s hemp bubble had burst. In 2020, the pandemic shut down businesses across the country.
“When COVID came, I thought to myself, Self? You’re screwed. It’s been fun and cool for the past three years, but that’s it, kid,“Read recalled.
But like many businesses, CannaPlanners has pivoted. Rather than creating bespoke websites, it produced a turnkey version allowing companies to create their own websites; In 2020 alone, the company sold 50. Aspiring entrepreneurs were still starting CBD businesses, Read noted, and they all needed ways to promote and sell their products.
In August 2020, Read hired his first Boston-based salesperson, who began selling CannaPlanners’ services in Massachusetts and other states with regulated THC markets. The company has changed its profile from small CBD operations to adult dispensaries, cannabis growers and manufacturers.
magic man CEO and co-founder Meredith Mann said she started working with Read and her team around three years ago when she wanted to rebrand her bakery, cafe and retail store CBD in Essex. The old name of her company, BTV Local 420, was too ambiguous and confusing for some people, she explained.
“We wanted to grow our brand and have it say more than it said about us,” Mann said. It needed a new name, new packaging, and a new website that was “cross-generational” and “people could trust,” especially as the company shifts to selling products infused with cannabis and THC.
“Will was the guy,” Mann said. “He and his team have been absolutely essential in growing our brand and ensuring it stays strong.”
Read wants to build that strength not just for its own customers, but for the entire Vermont cannabis industry.
“Now that all of this is happening,” he said, referring to the Vermont retail market, “we’re focused on helping our neighbors. We want to make sure the cannabis scene here is… radiant and beautiful.”