Three steps cannabis cultivators must take to create products that meet customer expectations

Learn more about cultivation at MJBizCon 2020.  

(Editor’s note: This story is part of a recurring series of commentaries from professionals connected to the cannabis industry. Sean Sangster is the project manager of horticultural services for Austin, Texas-based Fluence.)

Consider the average cannabis purchasing experience in the past eight years.

Legal options were limited, illegal options were unpredictable.

Customers who could purchase product legally made decisions based on THC percentage, odor and aesthetic as well as whether a strain was sativa, indica or a hybrid.

The nomenclature of the infant cannabis market of a decade ago has largely continued into 2020, even in the more mature states like Colorado and California.

Today, consumers are still presented with THC percentage, but CBD and other active compounds are becoming more of a factor in a purchase.

Customers still consider how a product smells and looks, but they’re beginning to understand the role terpenes, flavonoids and other active compounds play in those considerations – and, ultimately, in consumption and experience.

And while many point-of-sale marketing strategies still classify strains as indica or sativa, consumers are learning that the cannabis plant is too complex to be judged by such a simple designation.

Customer expectations of experience – both in how they purchase and consume cannabis – are evolving, becoming more nuanced and cerebral, a trend many industry experts are identifying and embracing with increasing frequency.

Companies are deploying machine learning to personalize the purchasing experience for customers while providing businesses the tools and insights to make cultivation decisions based on demand forecasting rather than historic trends.

The mandate for cultivators is clear: Refine operational practices and cultivation methods to create products that can meet evolving expectations that are transferred from end users to dispensaries to cultivators and their vendors.

It’s an added responsibility, but it’s also a massive market opportunity to quicken the pace of the industry’s maturation and educate customers about the finer points of cannabis.

Nothing will drive innovation and growth in an industry more than customers who want something they’re not getting.

There are three core commitments that cultivators, their partners and the entire industry must make to fulfill such a mandate:

1. Commit to research

Customer demand for more intricacy in the purchasing experience underscores just how far behind the industry is in understanding the vast complexity of the cannabis plant.

Research partnerships are popping up across the country to tackle the admittedly large task of studying the cultivation, efficacy and effects of cannabis.

It’s a daunting but necessary endeavor to truly enhance the industry’s ability to understand, consistently cultivate and ultimately market its products based on specific market demand.

The creation of active compounds – terpenes, carotenoids, flavonoids and many others – are dependent on critical factors such as light spectra, intensity and genetics.

Individual cultivars similarly respond differently and uniquely to particular light strategies.

The only way to truly maximize plant expression – and to communicate and market those subtleties to end users – is to study how active compounds and specific cultivars react to various controlled-environment conditions.

Though THC and CBD are the two most prevalent cannabinoids, they and the dozens of others – not to mention hundreds of other active compounds – hold so much potential for groundbreaking genetic and horticultural research on which the industry can capitalize.

Research will drive market consensus and innovation, ultimately influencing educational campaigns, marketing strategies and point-of-sale customer engagements.

2. Commit to standardizing strains and cultivation methods

Many plant experts from traditional agriculture have diversified and moved into the cannabis industry, myself included.

There are many best practices and methods from food cultivation that can be applied to cannabis, but a methodology that stands out to me is the lack of a universally agreed-upon manual of cannabis strains.

We have been growing tomatoes for centuries. The tomato plant’s storied evolution gives us the varieties you see in your local store today.

Cannabis is at the forefront of a similar journey. While variances in state legislation undoubtedly present challenges, they shouldn’t deter the shift toward industrywide consensus on strain classifications and standardized cultivation methods.

For the individual customer at any given point in time, the lack of strain standardization isn’t necessarily monumental.

But over time, the lack of consistency in how cannabis strains are classified, cultivated and therefore marketed inhibits the industry’s ability to hold intelligent, modern conversations with customers.

Marketwide standardization – in strain classification as well as cultivation operations – is a critical threshold to cross in tandem with ongoing research to reach industrywide maturity.

Because strains respond differently to various lighting strategies, the most insightful research findings in the world are null and void if we can’t agree collectively on how we classify them.

3. Commit to advancing technology

The hallmark of any great product and company is consistency.

While controlled environments are by definition less volatile than outdoor agriculture, they can still be prone to crop disease, pests and variable conditions in key cultivation factors such as latitude and longitude, leaf surface temperature, ambient temperature, humidity, lighting, nutrient solutions and simple human error.

Creating a consistently high-quality product year-round that customers can continuously return to is the industry’s gold standard.

The cultivators that can implement the right technology to control those conditions at the micro level and build a suite of products on which dispensaries can rely becomes the best value proposition that can be marketed to the end user. This requires a level of detail across every phase of cannabis cultivation operations that lacks standardization.

Cultivators are hungry for light strategies, best practices in facility design and research that can guide daily operations.

As the industry turns its focus to refining and perfecting these business practices, it’s equally crucial that they have the right technology at their fingertips – such as lighting systems with more intensity and diversified spectra, efficient HVAC and dehumidification setups, extraction and testing systems – to deliver the consistent, quality products customers are beginning to expect.

As cannabis cultivators scale and their consumer base grows smarter, head growers should be challenging their teams to think differently about how to grow more specialized, nuanced plants.

Adjustments in light spectra, for example, have been proven to draw out certain terpene profiles in cannabis plants.

Similarly, adjusting pot sizes and introducing drought stress techniques to your grow have also yielded higher terpene or cannabinoid levels.

By committing to in-depth research, industrywide standardization and the implementation of cutting-edge horticulture technology, cultivators will serve as the catalysts for industry maturation and innovation, ultimately shaping how consumers experience cannabis now and into the future.

Sean Sangster is a project manager on the horticultural services team at Fluence. He has spent the past decade helping cultivators optimize their farms and grow facilities for maximum production and quality. He can be reached at [email protected].

The previous installment of this series is available here.

To be considered for publication as a guest columnist, please submit your request to [email protected] with the subject line “Guest Column.”

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