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How Brands Can Pivot, Create A Strong Equality Culture - Q&A with James Choe

James Choe, the CEO of cannabis technology producer Vessel Brand, offers sage advice for entrepreneurs in the cannabis space in this exclusive interview with Ophelia Chong of AACE.

This story originally appeared on Asian Americans for Cannabis Education

There's no doubt, the circumstances we face today have highlighted key issues (opportunities) that we'll collectively need to focus on and correct in the decades and generations to come. Like anything, promoting change requires buy-in, accountability, consistency, and time. While there is no quick fix there is a playbook to kickstart a new chapter, which at its core, is rooted in kindness.

James Choe/Vessel

When we first reached out to James Choe a few months ago, the world was pivoting from the onslaught of COVID-19, and in the past two weeks, we have completely upended how we participate in our daily lives. With the tragic death of George Floyd, we have broken through the walls of centuries of racism and bias, and each person, each community, and businesses must now look within and together address how we move forward.

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James Choe is the CEO of Vessel Brand, a high-end forward-thinking producer of technology for the cannabis consumer. Asian Americans for Cannabis Education and Green Entrepreneur have the honor to feature him here in his words, however his actions to help create a more inclusive world cannot be captured here fully, we hope you are as inspired as we are to present his words to you on Asian Americans for Cannabis Education.

In the wake of the national movement for the end of 400 years of racism, how will Vessel help the movement forward for racial equality in the cannabis industry?

There’s no doubt, the circumstances we face today have highlighted key issues (opportunities) that we’ll collectively need to focus on and correct in the decades and generations to come. Like anything, promoting change requires buy-in, accountability, consistency, and time. While there is no quick fix there is a playbook to kickstart a new chapter, which at its core, is rooted in “kindness.” We too often lose sight of the power of kindness.

Imagine a world where everyone lived more consciously and actively, where everyone worked on responding and not reacting. Beginning every day with reflection, making it an individual and teamwide commitment to creating ways to be thoughtful and inspire optimism and kindness before jumping into the mundane “to-dos” that consume us. If we live and do for each other, it unlocks the energy of unity and that is powerful.  Addressing systematic oppression and violence isn’t only about “what we do” differently. It’s about how we think, who we value, and also recognizing that we can deliver goodness one person at a time and that’s okay.

We’re continuing to identify ways to contribute and do our part. That said, one thing is clear today. Everything begins with our people and our mindset, then our words and actions. We will always strive for diversity on our team and in our partnerships – we want our team to reflect the communities we serve. We want to support others fighting the good fight against systemic injustices. We need to continue to invest time challenging ourselves – Listening and staying in the conversation. This is not a one-hour meeting. This is a constant.

How has Covid-19 changed your marketing?

We have a unique business model. We are primarily direct-to-consumer (e-commerce) and the nature of our business forces us to look at our marketing on a daily basis. Building a DTC model was a key strategy for us when we first founded the business. Our goal was to create something that didn’t face many of the challenges and red tape that traditional, plant-touching businesses face. Prior to COVID, in the face of “Vape-Gate”, we worked diligently to optimize budgets, focus on strategies that drove the right combination of results and because of that, we entered the pandemic in a strong position. Our business has continued to grow during these times but that said, certain channels, like retail, have had challenges. We know it will recover and get back to a new norm, but we’re seeing it across the board – some are moving assertively and setting a new plan, while others are paralyzed and sticking to the fundamentals of what worked for them yesterday.

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We’re keen to stay calculated and responsive to market dynamics. In fact, continuing to invest in our product engine is imperative to any future success. Pulling back or stalling our plans was a non-starter. If anything, we did what most have, which is challenge every dollar of spend and its effectiveness to support our goals, recalibrate our people’s mindsets (we do this daily) and how we approach our respective roles, then keep the pedal down, and keep our business moving forward.

Our product is our marketing and advertising. It’s the one thing that every customer touches, uses, shares – keeping our product pipeline growing with new designs, functionality, style – it connects people to an experience and if it’s as good as we hope, it becomes the experience they want to share with everyone around them – that’s the “win” we aim for in all that we do.

How have your views on cannabis changed? What was the impetus of that change?

I’ve always had a strong appreciation for cannabis but in years past, it was almost purely about recreation and social fun. A lot of us came from a world where the cannabis experience was consuming whatever someone put in front of you, like a game of “cannabis roulette.” Sometimes you felt good, sometimes you got the “munchies”, other times you got paranoid. That’s all changed. Over the past couple of years, my appreciation has only grown stronger now that we’re much more informed and knowledgeable. We’re only in the beginning stages of formal cannabis research, but the plethora of information already available to us is incredible.

It’s so fortunate that as the plant has become more and more accepted or mainstream, that we’re now able to marry up our curiosities with credible information to close the loop. Research aside, hearing people’s success stories has been the most moving for me. Countless that now have access to better mental relief and pain management, ending dependencies on over the counter drugs, pills – they’re discovering alternative ways to achieve happiness and that makes me happy. Understanding strains, compositions, formulations have forever changed the way we consume; it’s made the plant a functional part of our lifestyle. The education and knowledge make the experience safer, more predictable and what’s awesome is that it will only continue to get better with time.

Why do you think some Asians are against cannabis?

Like most things in life, I think it comes down to old philosophies, lack of knowledge, or even personal experience. Granted it’s been deemed illegal until recently; some countries like South Korea had steep penalties for consuming cannabis. It comes down to fear of the unknown. That will change with time, with more conversation at every level, and with making sure our communities have a place in our industry to innovate and thrive. 

How does your family feel about your cannabis businesses?

As expected, my family’s perspective on cannabis, specifically my parents, didn’t really shift to positive until cannabis was declared legal in California. I can appreciate their rigidity around legal/illegal considerations, rules are rules. I had my experiences with cannabis when I was young and my parents were always against it, mostly out of care and a lack of knowledge, education, and personal experience.

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Since legalization, they’ve become supporters and it’s piqued their curiosities around its health benefits and uses. So much information and content have come online; this paired with the pitfalls of pharma and the opioid crisis really encouraged them to be more open-minded and ask questions. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re consuming THC products nowadays, but products derived from cannabis and hemp have become accepted and appreciated - that’s progress.

How did you enter the cannabis industry? 

Prior to founding Vessel, I managed a go-to-market consulting team with a track record of supporting over 100 companies, across nearly every sector (except for pharma), primarily in consumer packaged goods. This meant not only creating strategies and opportunities but being trusted to execute the plan. Our disciplines spanned brand, creative, product, marketing, sales, and operations but we took it a step further and anchored our philosophy on speed-to-market.

Fast forward, we caught the attention of key players and entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry and that quickly became our official onboarding, by way of consulting, for some of the largest players in the space. We played pivotal roles in building leading brands in California and nationally. These successes in a new industry highlighted and validated our philosophy and approach.  Our time spent supporting CPG across several categories is one of the main competitive advantages we enjoy daily. The years we invested building brands, driving customer acquisition shaped our obsessions with data-driven tactics and e-commerce. It was time to do it for ourselves. We demonstrated our uniqueness and that gave us the confidence to pursue our own opportunity and make this industry our new “home” for years to come.

Enter Vessel.

Did you do research into cannabis before entering?

We’re wired for deep immersive research in anything we do. It’s embedded in my personal makeup and a core tenet of our company culture. Our prior work in the industry, building leading brands and product lines forced us to understand the market in a multitude of ways and from different perspectives. We’re quick to look well beyond logos and packaging. We obsess over the intangibles of brand. Defining playbooks, creating systems, nurturing interactions, all while understanding compliance to the Nth degree. It’s the constant pursuit of knowledge and striving to do better that has also helped us leverage the intel to anticipate market opportunities and set trends versus following them.

Where do you see the cannabis industry in five years?

I think we’re going to see a new type of company dominate the scene. One issue that’s been highlighted by the turmoil in this industry has been a lack of strong culture within organizations. And this is the toughest dynamic we face because it affects everyone powering this industry. We have countless people coming from various walks of life, many that have little to no experience in CPG, let alone building and scaling companies.  Many are discovering the hard way, the lack of prioritization around people, evolving playbooks, creating more meaningful experiences is hurting them in critical of ways – the road to repair will take time and a relentless commitment to change. I hope leaders begin to value the people part of the equation more intentionally – it’s obvious businesses need to grow and focus on top/bottom line, however, knowing how daunting and challenging this industry can be, do companies spend ample time mentoring their teams?

Are they instilling confidence even when facing failure or challenge? I’m also hopeful that over the coming years, the brands will open up to more collaboration and partnership. I’ve always been a big believer in “strength in numbers” – but partnership comes with responsibility. You have to have a clear perspective on who you are, what you believe in, and only align with those that share the same values. This means spending more time upfront getting to know and understand the people, their history and if everything falls into place, next up, product, retail, or whatever you can dream up.