After a yearlong setback, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors earlier this month unanimously approved a new marketing strategy for local cannabis through Project Trellis, the county’s three-tiered micro-grant, local equity and marketing program. The marketing initiative prioritizes long-term sustainability and the production of craft cannabis by tying marketing to a region rather than a free-floating brand.
“With the national decriminalization of cannabis on the horizon, communities such as Denver, Colorado, and others in our backyard, will begin to aggressively market their cannabis products,” said Humboldt County Economic Development Director Scott Adair in a Nov. 10 presentation to the Board of Supervisors. “That’s why Project Trellis was created, to protect Humboldt County’s cannabis brand and to protect its market share in the cannabis industry.”
Project Trellis was adopted by the Board of Supervisors in March 2019. The program is funded through a 10 percent allocation of Measure S cannabis tax revenue. The county allocated $1.19 million to Project Trellis for fiscal year 2020-21, 10 percent of which covers administrative oversight. The remaining funds are divvied up among Project Trellis’ three tiers: $214,000 to the marketing initiative, $696,150 to the micro-business grant initiative and $160,650 to the equity budget.
In September 2019, the county received proposals to brand, promote and market cannabis for the county. However, after reading through 28 proposals (most of which came from out-of-the-area agencies), staff found the scope of services provided lacked a common framework.
“The best metaphor I can share with you was that we had asked contractors for proposals to build a house without providing architectural renderings to those contractors,” Adair explained. “While the proposals we received were very impressive, they varied in comparison wildly and were essentially apples to oranges.”
The county decided to take a new approach and commissioned the Humboldt County Growers Alliance to perform a marketing strategy assessment. HCGA was paid $25,000 to conduct the assessment, help facilitate town hall discussions and educate the public on the findings and conclusions of the assessment, Adair said.
The alliance looked at successful case studies from Napa Valley wine, Bordeaux wine, Colombian coffee, and Kona coffee as potential marketing models for Humboldt cannabis.
“These are very different regions,” explained Ross Gordon, HCGA policy director. “Colombia has over 550,000 coffee producers, but if you look at Kona coffee they only have 600 producers. There are big differences in scale and content … but we wanted to look at these successful case studies and see what we might be able to draw from them.”
“Looking at these regions, we realized there was something that brought them all together and that was their geographical indications,” Gordon said. “In one sense ‘geographical indications’ are an intellectual property term that refers to a form of IP that is held collectively.”
Gordon said the success in all four regions can be attributed to eight major factors: strong organizational and institutional structures, equitable participation, effective legal protection, strong market partners, effective grading and quality control, collective data collection, research, and educational programs, promotion of environmental sustainability, and integration with public policy expertise.
HCGA provided 30 recommendations for the marketing assessment based on these eight factors. The recommendations focus on a strong collaboration between the cannabis industry, community and local government that prioritizes a “long-term strategic vision over short-term sales.” HCGA recommended that cannabis marketing be held by local government and to adopt a countywide stamp program that would include a certification mark to deter fraudulent use. The marketing assessment also recommended the adoption of an across-the-board “minimum quality or quality-based classification for cannabis labeled with the Humboldt name” in the long term.
“I think keeping it with our local farmers is a big thing,” said 1st District Supervisor Rex Bohn. “I think they know their market, they know where they need to go and giving that opportunity to these farmers to extend their brand and the county brand.”
“This is very farmer-oriented and I think that’s great, but also just a reminder that there’s a Silicon Valley element of this as well,” said 3rd District Supervisor Mike Wilson. “Part of what we see here in this industry is technology, in terms of growing technology, genetics, processing…That means people come here because this is where ‘it’ is, not just to exploit this place, but come here because they want to be a part of it in a positive way.”
Supervisors unanimously approved and adopted the marketing assessment.
“Now that the Board of Supervisors has adopted the assessment as our framework for the cannabis marketing program staff is busy preparing the request for proposals,” Adair said in a follow-up interview. “Our hope is to release it by early January.”
“This represents the long vision. This is what we’ve been talking about for a long time,” said 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell. “I know it’s a rough road as we make this transition but as I said earlier it is obvious to me, people who have gone legal have stepped up and are doing their very best to make sure that this moves forward.”