Taking Vapes To The LGBTQ+ Crowd
What happens when PepsiCo, Starbucks, and a Stanford University MBA share space on the résumé of a pot-loving Latina, LGBTQ+ ally? Besito.
The word is Spanish for “little kiss” -- an apt description for the delicate hit of elation the company’s vapes deliver. Although Besito is not the only low-dose product to grace the market, the “queer-helmed” startup founded by Maggie Connors, a branding expert of Cuban heritage, is a rarity in an industry that trends white, male, and straight.
Connors, 32, has used cannabis since high school to help soothe anxiety and pain, and reflect inward. After five years doing brand management at Starbucks and PepsiCo, she was at Stanford when she started thinking about using her chops to create a better cannabis product for people who wanted a balanced high and enjoyed good design. At the time, recreational marijuana was still illegal in California, but she sensed that would change. “It lit a fire in me knowing that this was on the precipice of a huge legal industry,” she says. “Between my knowledge of the plant and my background in product design and branding…I felt like I had to get involved.”
After graduating in 2016, she moved to Santa Monica, Calif., and started Besito. She raised nearly $1 million from a cannabis fund plus friends and family, and hired a small team of designers and product engineers. For the next two years, they worked on designing the vapes, securing ethical supply-chain partners, and riding out regulatory changes. The first step was to create the right sativa blend. They landed on a 2:1 THC-to-CBD ratio -- which Connors likens to a rosé instead of tequila. “It was built for a few friends getting high, then doing things, like going for a hike or to a concert or a museum. It’s light enough that you want to socialize,” she says.
As for the vapes, Connors decided to make them hexagonal so they don’t roll off the table. And to keep things simple, the pen is all-in-one; when it’s done, you buy a new one. Current law makes them difficult to recycle, so Besito offers $5 off the next $40 purchase when you bring your used product back to a retailer; the company ensures that the hardware is properly recycled.
The branding is where Connors really got creative. “I looked at the retail landscape and saw a lot of very dark, masculine, hard-core brands. And then it swung to wellness, and white, and almost kind of faux-medical brands,” she says. “And I just felt like the category was missing the fun. So we wanted to have bright, colorful packaging that reflected not only delicious flavors but that really kind of vibrant occasion.”
As they worked on the look, Connors and her team thought a lot about gender and decided on a unisex design. “As a woman myself, I don’t like it when they make weed for women,” she says, “and the next generation doesn’t even believe in gender, so I think it would be old-school to hang a brand on it.” She did, however, want Besito to be clearly welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community. She intentionally built a diverse team that includes people of all orientations (Connors identifies as fluid), who are “represented in our creative,” she says. “Cannabis can have sexy effects. We wanted to show that by featuring couples, including some queer ones.”
Within a month of launching Besito this past April, Connors says, the LGBTQ+ community responded. “We started hearing that no cannabis brand has resonated with them as much,” she says. “They saw themselves in our images.” The traditional VC world is starting to see the potential, helping Connors raise another $2 million this year. Her time at PepsiCo and Starbucks is all starting to make sense. “I’ve been selling drugs my whole career -- sugar and caffeine and now cannabis,” she jokes. “But cannabis is the one I’m most excited about and proud to stand by.”