How to build a successful cannabis brand: Q&A with craft alcohol pioneer Rhonda Kallman

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(A version of this story first appeared in the November-December issue of MJBizMagazine.)

Rhonda Kallman has been honing her craft since the age of 24.

That’s when she co-founded the Boston Beer Co. and launched the pioneering Samuel Adams craft beer brand.

In 2012, Kallman launched Boston Harbor Distillery, a whole-grain whiskey and craft spirits company with an award-winning portfolio of brands including Putnam Whiskey, Lawley’s New England Rum & Gin and the fiery Demon Seed Whiskey.

In preparation for MJBizCon, where Kallman will be a featured speaker on Nov. 16, MJBizDaily spoke with Kallman about what the cannabis industry can learn about brand-building and marketing from the alcoholic-beverage sector.

How much does branding influence consumers’ alcohol-purchasing decisions?

People are very loyal to brands. And that’s what makes brand-building difficult. It takes years and lots of money to build brands, unless you’re a powerhouse.

Take High Noon (the hard seltzer brand) from E&J Gallo.

They have the resources. They have the reach. They have the distribution power to really muscle in the marketplace.

But I feel like consumers – and I say this about the Boston area a lot – this is a really difficult place to build brands, because the industry giants from Europe come here first.

In addition, there is a really strong work ethic around here. Consumers work hard for their money, so they want to spend it on brands that they know will deliver a good experience.

When you were launching Boston Beer Co., when did branding come into play?

It was really from the beginning.

A brand like Yellowtail wine or Barefoot Wine, you know what’s so special about that brand? It’s the simplicity in their branding.

With Barefoot, you literally look at a bare foot on the label. A picture is worth 1,000 words.

When the name and the icon are simpatico, it really makes a strong brand.

So when you look at Sam Adams, there’s a patriot on the label and it was synonymous with the name, Sam Adams.

And from the very beginning, it was built into the brand.

Did your approach to branding change when you launched Boston Harbor Distillery?

With Boston Beer, I was really focused on tactical marketing and the go-to market strategies like salespeople alignment, what the shelf looks like and pricing.

But it was easier to stand out in 1984 and 1985 because it was the land of bland.

There were yellow, corn-based beers and they all looked the same and almost all tasted the same.

Forty years later, and I’m still in my fledgling stage of growing Boston Harbor Distillery, and brands to me are so important because the whiskey bottle label really has to speak volumes.

My competition is the legacy companies of Diageo (maker of Johnnie Walker and Bulleit) and Pernod Ricard (maker of Jameson).

So in order to get people to pick Putnam Whiskey off the shelf and spend $40 to $80, this is the epitome of branding.

It’s all come together authentically. I knew that I wanted to make whiskey, and I knew I wanted to do it in Boston.

But I didn’t have a brand idea, which was kind of odd for me, because usually you build a company around a brand idea.

But we found this 11,000 square-foot, pre-Civil War era, 1850s building.

I bought a small, 150-gallon still and was going to get started by making whiskey for other people – like restaurant groups, retailers and enthusiasts.

Then it dawned on me – why don’t I just name my whiskey after the man who built this building?

The 18-acre parcel that I’m on was the center of entrepreneurial commerce in the 1800s, and it was built originally by Silas Putnam to manufacture the hot-forged horseshoe nail, aptly named The Putnam Nail Factory.

In whiskey, the imagery is often rolling hills and horses, whether it’s Kentucky or Tennessee or Scotland.

So I thought I could tie it all together by calling it Putnam Whiskey.

And I have his uncle, the Revolutionary War hero, Gen. Israel Putnam, that was used as the logo for the nail factory, a horse and rider, on the label.

Do you think branding is as influential to consumer decision-making in the cannabis category?

It’s a new category. We no longer have to buy unmarked baggies from a dealer or a guy on the street. But when I go into a dispensary, I’m overwhelmed.

And the ones that I’ve been in, there’s no marketing. I have to choose from a menu over the budtender’s head.

Somebody helps walk me through it, but I’m not really interacting with it.

And what happens when (consumers) bring products home?

How do you stand out? Some cannabis packaging really stands out, like Fireball Cannabis gummies.

Do you think craft cannabis is at all as popular as craft beer was in the 1980s and ’90s?

From my view in Massachusetts, the popularity is just beginning as recreational cannabis has been legal only a few years.

To me, craft means real people using great ingredients to make innovative or better products.

The dispensaries here are handcrafting every product, whether its flower, drinks, cookies, gummies, etc.

So few brands can market across the country like they do in Canada with the big companies like Tilray.

But trials are really important: Getting budtenders to understand the products and creating a store experience. It’s very similar to building a craft-whiskey brand.

For example, I need those budtenders to put us on the menu in a cocktail; otherwise, we’re just a bottle sitting on the bar.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kate Robertson can be reached at