‘A First Mover in Innovation’

Departments - The Last Word

Marina Hahn, a SVEDKA Vodka founder, explains what companies need to do to elevate cannabis-infused beverage brands.

Photo courtesy Marina Hahn

In May, vertically integrated multistate operator Jushi Holdings Inc. announced it had appointed SVEDKA Vodka founder Marina Hahn to its board of directors. With decades of experience at beverage behemoths such as Pepsi and Anheuser-Busch, Hahn’s expertise is in creating and identifying strong, fast-growing brands that resonate with consumers. Four years after founding SVEDKA Vodka, the startup became one of the top-selling vodkas in the U.S., and Constellation Brands picked it up for $384 million in 2007.

“I’ve wanted to get involved because I love emerging businesses, and I’ve tried to be a part of emerging businesses my whole career,” Hahn says. “The other reason why I joined cannabis is that I predict the cannabis beverage segment could be a huge movement in the world of beverage.”

Here, Hahn shares lessons learned to improve beverage branding, as well as marketing strategies to stand out amongst the competition.
Michelle Simakis: People draw many parallels between alcohol and beverages and the cannabis industry. What are important lessons for cannabis?

Marina Hahn: My advice would be get in early to compete in emerging beverage segments and try to be a first mover in beverage innovation. I have learned many lessons working at Pepsi and ultimately at Anheuser-Busch and starting my own business, SVEDKA Vodka, they know their audiences really well, and that's critical. We also take packaging very seriously, that’s critical. In the world of cannabis, there are going to be many cannabis beverages, but the key is how you differentiate a beverage so that it is truly unique and is something that the consumer didn't know they needed but, after consuming, really desire it.

Cutwater [Spirits] canned cocktails is now a no-brainer, as canned cocktails are everywhere, but when Cutwater was an emerging business, Anheuser-Busch was smart to buy them. So that's an example again of us getting in early to emerging segments and trying to be a first mover in innovation. I think that's important for cannabis.

MS: According to analytics firm BDSA, the edibles market represents 15% of all cannabis sales in the U.S., and beverages make up just a small portion of edibles sales at 5%. What needs to happen to change that?

MH: [For] people [who] don't want to smoke, there [will be] plenty of other options to get that enhanced value, whether it's medicinal or whether it's just for pleasure. The consumer usually gravitates to brands that are meaningful to them and that they can emotionally connect to. So how do you do that through packaging, product, and messaging? There are so many elements from the world of spirits that will probably migrate over to cannabis; it's not an if, it's a when. Why it hasn't happened is probably because it's an emerging space and the kind of people who understand that business are just not in cannabis yet. I think there needs to be a more sophisticated approach to strategy and creative in the world of cannabis to create the growth in beverages.

MS: Is there a pitfall you see a lot of brands making, such as expanding too quickly?

MH: [You] can't assume you're going to be able to do it all with a) small budgets and b) without the right team and c) without a really sound strategy. My advice is always, don't try to do too much and build it slowly, and build it against a very finite target audience initially. Make sure you've got the right people who have done this before so you're not just blindly creating brands that won't have stickiness down the road.

MS: How did you differentiate your marketing strategy at SVEDKA to stand out?

MH: I envisioned an outrageous fem bot spokesperson, who we called SVEDKA_Grl, who became this pop culture icon. Talk about small but efficient budgets – everything was geared towards her, and she became emblematic of the brand. And then ultimately we became national with our marketing spend, but she was just visually arresting, and she broke through all the competitive clutter. Once I launched her, SVEDKA sold like crazy, and we sold to Constellation [Brands] four years later.

MS: Is there anything else important to mention?

MH: Look at really smart brands that are suddenly household names and how they started, and try to take lessons from them versus using the conservative consumer goods company approach to building businesses. It doesn't work that way anymore. It's important to carefully target and develop great creative, but it's also about using data strategically to deeply understand your customer.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read the full conversation here.