(This story is part of the cover package in the August issue of MJBizMagazine.)
Julie Suntrup joined Schwazze, a vertically integrated cannabis business, in late 2020 as head of marketing and merchandising. The Denver-based company was coming off a checkered acquisition spree and was in the middle of a sputtering rebrand.
“When I got to the company, I found a disconnect (between the company and how it was being presented) … which led to us say, ‘Hey, if we’re a modern company that’s data-driven, and we’re a house of brands, I don’t think the current brand reflects who we are,’” Suntrup recalled.
The realization led to a process of rebranding that began with interviewing Schwazze executives to “figure out their mindset” and express it in deed, word and art.
Suntrup led that effort, which has included new designs and messaging on things such as business cards and letterhead. At press time, the company planned to roll out a new website in late July.
Schwazze, which Suntrup describes as a house of brands, expects to finish other rebranding projects this year, such as a redesign and new tagline for its 18 Star Buds stores in Colorado.
“The new (Schwazze) brand is a lot more polished than what the former persona looked like. By polished, we mean we fine-tuned who we are as a company and how we talk about ourselves,” Suntrup explained.
Acquisition and expression issues
In early 2020, the Denver-based company was still known as Medicine Man Technologies, the consulting arm of Medicine Man, a chain of four Colorado cannabis stores. The company was fresh off a hefty infusion from Dye Capital, a private equity firm owned by Schwazze’s current CEO, Justin Dye.
In April 2020, Medicine Man Technologies rebranded as Schwazze (pronounced shh-wah-zz)—a term coined by the business’ former head grower, Joshua Haupt, that refers to a technique of de-fanning and defoliating cannabis plants to maximize growth and yields. Schwazze split with the Medicine Man chain in August 2020, after several acquisitions fell through.
Schwazze’s leadership team still wanted to pursue new acquisitions, but their targets often struggled to understand who or what Schwazze was.
“People wanted to know more about who Schwazze is,” Suntrup said, adding that the company fielded questions about corporate values, the leadership team and how Schwazze differs from its peers. “It just became evident that the time was ripe for change in terms of who we are, our persona, what we look like, how we talk about ourselves.”
Growth by design
Suntrup started the rebrand process by asking Schwazze’s executive team those questions.
Most of the executives, she noted, had data-driven mindsets and came from traditional industries such as grocery, retail and consumer packaged goods.
The feedback that executives gave Suntrup reflected cultivation, of course, but also themes such as “purpose” and “intention,” because they wanted to convey that their decisions are based on data and facts.
“We used the feedback and research to determine what best represents Schwazze and how we talk about ourselves, and we came up with this internal brand essence known as Growth by Design,” Suntrup said, adding that the phrase signifies the cannabis industry’s growth exploding in ways that require “a good Schwazze,” or thoughtful pruning, to create a profitable and mature business.
To assist with the rebrand, Schwazze hired Freer Industries, a Denver design shop that collaborated with Suntrup and other executives.
The process took about three months, and the result was a new logo, which is a combined overlay of the letters “S” and “Z.” In the middle of the logo is a “greater than symbol” designed to resemble the tip of pruning shears, or a “schwazzing” tool.
“We like it because it’s super-polished and looks modern and mainstream. We feel like it represents a company that is modern in this coming-of-age era (for the cannabis industry),” Suntrup said.
She also created the tagline Grow Forth to signify what Schwazze wants to do as a company. “By fine-tuning our external brand image and adding a tagline onto it, it puts a finer point on who we are and how we operate and how we think.”
Despite the deliberate tag lines and clever logo, Suntrup acknowledges that many people unfamiliar with Schwazze wouldn’t know that it’s a cultivation term or even how to pronounce it. For Schwazze CEO Dye, the remedy is to repeat the name and what it means as frequently as possible to increase familiarity.
“On pretty much every call—whether it’s an investor-relations call or pitching to a potential capital investment group—Justin, our CEO, is always explaining Schwazze. He has a couple of sentences that explain what Schwazze is, how we think, how we do business and that Schwazze stands for a pruning technique in the cannabis space to allow for greater realization and thriving of the plant, which is the way we think about the industry and our own business,” Suntrup explained. “So, ‘Who is Schwazze?’ becomes part of nearly every conversation we have. It’s definitely a point of discussion.”
Despite its series of unsuccessful acquisitions in 2019 and 2020, Schwazze has closed several other deals to make it a formidable “house of brands.”
The company currently owns four cultivation sites in Colorado and sells its “everyday” flower under the Grow Forth Gardens brand name. Suntrup added that Schwazze plans to create a higher-end flower brand.
The company also includes manufacturing facilities, namely Purplebee’s in Pueblo, Colorado, and Elemental in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which also manufacture vape products under the Grow Forth Gardens brand.
Schwazze has ancillary companies, such as a nutrients division called Success Nutrients and a growing supplies division named Big Tomato.
Schwazze owns 33 retail stores, including 19 Star Buds and four Emerald Fields stores in Colorado. In New Mexico, where the business is vertically integrated, Schwazze has 10 stores under the Art Greenleaf banner.
Star Buds is undergoing a branding overhaul as well. The rebrand includes jettisoning the Kelly green and black color scheme, “which is very male-oriented,” and introducing oranges, reds and yellows as well as having fun with fonts, Suntrup said.
The retailer will also introduce neon lighting and signs so that lobbies are well-lit, warmer and more inviting. Suntrup describes the new look as fun, colorful, warm and friendly.
Star Buds also is creating a retail section called the Launch Pad for “new and notable products.” Suntrup got the idea while visiting health-focused grocery chain Sprouts, which had a section dedicated to new products.
They’ve also introduced a new Star Buds tagline: Find your happy.
“It’s an Instagramable moment,” Suntrup said of visiting the rebranded outlets. “You and your pals can stand in front of the ‘Find Your Happy’ neon (sign) and tag us on Instagram. … Colorado and New Mexico get a lot of tourists, and we want people to have an inviting experience and to talk about it and share it.”