Creative Marketing: Cannabis Grower Sponsors Iditarod Racer
Courtesy of Monica Zappa

Creative Marketing: Cannabis Grower Sponsors Iditarod Racer

Greatland Ganja’s Leif Abel details his decision to sponsor a musher in the world’s most famous dog sled race and shares tips on how to get a good ROI on sponsorships.

March 23, 2020

The Iditarod is an annual sled-dog race held in Alaska that spans an approximately 1,000-mile stretch. Racers and their teams of 14 dogs depart with their team in Anchorage, in the state’s southeast, heading to Nome, to the northwest. It is a challenging and dangerous trek that puts to the test each racer and attracts hundreds of spectators to the Anchorage start. 

blue steel dog iditarod
Monica Zappa
Blue Steel

Cannabis aficionados might notice something a bit different at this year’s edition: Greatland Ganja’s logo is plastered on one of the racers, as the Kasilof-based cannabis cultivation operation is sponsoring Monica Zappa, another Kasilof resident and cannabis advocate.

Most racers participate because they love the sport, relying on sponsors to cover the cost of supplies and registration. Leif Abel, co-owner of Greatland Ganja, saw this year’s event as an opportunity to get some added visibility for his company while supporting a sport in which his family participated, once upon a time.

“We grew up dog mushing, it's one of the most Alaskan sports in existence, one of the biggest things that binds Alaskans and Alaska together,” Leif says.

Zappa participated in her seventh Iditarod this year (although she’s done the trail eight times, having completed it last year without the race’s support). The significance of this moment is not lost on her, especially given the race’s history. The Iditarod, Zappa explains, is “meant to commemorate the Serum Run back in 1925 that was to stop this diptheria outbreak in Nome, where children were dying.”

Zappa sees a historical connection between the race’s origins and her decision to seek out Greatland Ganja’s sponsorship. In the same way that mushers brought medicine to save the children of Nome, Zappa sees herself as bringing a positive message about the cannabis plant and the local industry to villages.

“It'll be interesting when I go out in the villages because there still is a stigma against cannabis in the villages specifically... If we could open up the opportunities for villages to be able to have access to the right products at the right price, a lot more positivity can come from it,” she says. (Zappa ended the race on March 22 in 31st place.

Zappa is a family friend of the Abel’s, so when she approached the cultivation operation to be her main sponsor, Greatland Ganja felt comfortable she would represent the brand well. “[Dog mushing] being a core part of Alaskan culture, the price being right and it being the right people to work with, all those things lined up to make [the sponsorship] worthwhile,” Leif says.

But that isn’t the case for all of the company’s past sponsorships, and lessons were learned from those. One was learning how to evaluate the potential return on your sponsorship investment, which Leif describes as “really, really difficult.”

Monica Zappa

“The reality is that dollar for dollar, your return is really hard to judge on these things,” he says. “But a lot of it is just that: you have to make a judgment based upon data that isn't really scientific data.”

One way the Greatland Ganja team evaluates sponsorship ROIs is by looking at the audience of the particular group or event seeking a sponsorship from the company. “Who are we advertising to? Our local Alaskans,” Leif says, “so it does us little good to go and spend a bunch of money where the only people at the event are a lot of out-of-state companies or a bunch of other cultivators where public is really low in attendance.”

He explains further that, “all of our consumers in the winter are local. All of our budtenders are local, all of our owners are local. In the summer we sell to tourists, but we don't need to sponsor out-of-state groups to sell to the tourists—they come here looking for Alaskan stuff. We love sponsoring local because it promotes our own small community.”

But even associating the cannabis business with what is arguably the most Alaska event of the year comes with risk. “It was a risk though because we don't know the return,” he says. “But we've already realized some pretty great returns even before the main event.”

Chevelle Abel, Greatland Ganja’s creative director, designed Greatland Ganja branded dog kerchiefs, bumper stickers, a truck sign and hats embroidered with both the company’s and Team Zappa’s logos. “Which was perfect because Monica hit the trail in the middle of a blizzard at the Iditarod Restart in Willow, Alaska, so they definitely came in handy,” Chevelle wrote in an email to CBT.

Chevelle believed the sponsorship opportunity was a unique one for both the family business and the cannabis Alaskan cannabis industry as a whole. “We had not heard of another cannabis business race sponsorship and felt we could stand out a little from the crowd,” she said.

So far, the Greatland Ganja team’s decision is yielding some rewards, according to Leif. “Our sponsorship of Monica Zappa is probably one of our most exciting sponsorships. It's stirring up a lot of talk.”

With limited access to traditional marketing methods, Leif says local event sponsorships have been a great tool to promote his family’s company and show that the industry is working to support, not tear down, the Alaskan culture.