Highsman, the Ricky Williams-inspired cannabis brand, recently launched its line of lifestyle flower products, including Pregame (sativa), Halftime (hybrid), and Postgame (indica). The Highsman brand is a bifurcated business model, featuring merchandise alongside its flower products, and is currently available in California and Oregon, with plans to launch in Las Vegas this December. Eric Hammond, CEO at Highsman, spoke with Cannabis Business Times about the Highsman launch, the brand’s positioning in the market, and his visions for Highsman and cannabis industry as a whole going forward.
Zach Mentz: What inspired the launch of the Highsman brand, and why is now the time to launch it?
Eric Hammond: What better time to do this? This is the time when all major sporting institutions are changing their stance on [cannabis] testing and punishments regarding cannabis consumption. So, the stars are aligning for us to launch this brand that’s positioned at the intersection of sports and cannabis. And I always say this, it’s not this crazy, novel idea. People have been using cannabis while playing sports and watching sports forever. Ricky’s a testament to this. So, we’re launching this at the tipping point in the business where everybody’s re-evaluating their stance on [cannabis]. Some people are removing punishments altogether, they’re removing testing protocols, changing testing protocols, [etc]. So, while it’s becoming more okay, the time was now for us to strike. Ricky is such an authentic figure and such a passionate advocate that we think we’re going to be able to cut through the clutter of the standard celebrity brand as we enter the space as being this culturally relevant brand as well.
ZM: How do you cut through the clutter of being just another celebrity or athlete brand? How do you try and differentiate yourself in the market?
EH: Focus, focus, focus, focus. A lot of brands come out and whether they’re a celebrity brand or not, especially in cannabis, I don’t think they have a clear picture of who their customer is. They might have one piece of the equation, [such as] what price point–are they going to be premium? Are they going to be entry price point? They might want to be medicinal, but nobody really knows exactly who their customer is. Berner and Cookies have done an incredible job of identifying the core customer base, how to motivate and speak to them, and taking advantage of that. We think we know exactly who our customer is. We think we know exactly how to speak to them and we’re going to go about it in a really strategic, controlled manner. And I think what makes us different is knowing who we are and who we’re speaking to and how to speak to them.
ZM: Who is your audience?
EH: Sports fans and athletes alike. Sports is so interesting. It’s one of those things in the world that unifies everyone, that cuts through all boundaries, race, religion, socioeconomic upbringing, gender. So being able to position the brand towards athletes and sports fans alike I think is going to be super impactful for us.
ZM: What spurred the three Highsman cultivars – Pregame, Halftime, and Postgame?
EH: That’s our nomenclature for the brand. We positioned it as inspiring different moments in your day. So, Pregame is our sativa, Halftime is our hybrid and Postgame is our indica. That’s how we identify where the product fits in, how it should potentially be consumed. Everything is going to be strain specific. And our nomenclature for the strains is going to be a big part of our marketing initiative. We have a peanut butter souffle strain coming out for our hybrid and we’ve renamed that Ken Jiffy Jr. We’ve got a cherry pie cross [that] is going to be [named] Cherry Rice. We’ve got a Jesus OG crossed with watermelon Skittles that’s going to be Jesus Skittlesworth, which is Jesus Shuttlesworth [from] He Got Game. In Oregon, we’ve got Reggie Kush.
ZM: With any of the names you’re using, like Reggie Kush, have you spoken with or are you working with any of those guys?
EH: Not yet. We would like to. I think we’re changing them up enough that it’s not going to cause us IP issues. Obviously, we would love it as a means to kind of connect with [them].
ZM: What markets is Highsman currently in?
EH: We [launched] in California [in October], Oregon in November, and then Nevada in December.
ZM: How do you go about sourcing your products and what does quality cannabis mean to you? Is it the highest THC? Is it the best terpene profile?
EH: We’re such an interesting, evolving industry. People get hung up on how strong THC content [is] and this and that. We’re not touting that we have the best weed, that’s not who our brand is. We’re not cultivators, we’re not farmers–we’re curating an experience and we’ve positioned our brand accordingly.
We see our brand position at the entry price point to the premium space, an aspirational brand in California, kind of in that $50 retail price point for an eighth, where it’s well below that craft premium cannabis at that $70 eighth price. We know that’s not our consumer. Our mainline product is going to be the everyday smoker that they can grab it at an affordable price [and] it’s attainable.
And then we have another piece of the equation that’s not shown right now, Rickie’s Reserve. That’s going to be reserved for small-batch, craft cultivators that we can put out in limited capacity and then utilize that as a platform to really showcase these craft cultivators. Especially in a market like California where the big guys are coming in and they’re kind of owning the space, [there are] these really talented farmers [that] have been doing this for decades that have perfected the craft and have some incredible, rare genetics [that] are just getting kind of swallowed and they don’t have this platform to showcase their incredible work. We believe that our brand is going to get big quickly and that we’ll be able to utilize this platform, especially the Ricky’s Reserve vertical, to showcase these craft cultivators. Finding those correct partners has been a really important step as we grow.
ZM: What is important to you in a cultivation partner?
EH: A true partnership. One that understands our business model [and] how we work. We have a bifurcated business model where we own and operate this merch and apparel business that’s going to kind of prop up our business, allow us to seed multiple markets with our brand well ahead of cannabis entering the market–kind of a Cookies-esque approach. So, as we go into the market, we really want to make sure that the cultivation partners understand our business model, that we are a licensed brand, that they’re going have to shoulder a lot of the risks–they’re going to have to cultivate, co-pack, distribute–and our real end of the bargain is we’re going to help drive sales and then drive awareness via our marketing machine and what we’re going to do with building this community.
And then once we get through understanding our business model, [it] is making sure that A, their cannabis is up to our quality and that B, that they can scale with us. So, having a really dialed-in process for demand [and] understanding that we’re not going to have the usual issue [where] a lot of people get a big pop out of the gate, don’t plan properly, and then go in these lulls of not having inventory. That’s really not how we want to do this. We have a really controlled approach, a limited rollout plan, and we’re going to grow our retail footprint in a really slow, strategic manner, hoping that our cultivation partner can understand the demand plan and grow with us.
ZM: What’s your biggest frustration with the current state of the U.S. cannabis industry?
EH: It being so fragmented and trying to operate a business and going into each market and it’s an entirely different market. [With] a merchant apparel business, it’s super easy to model and understand, and it’s scalable and it’s crystal clear. But as we’re trying to build this brand with longevity, we’re trying to figure out how to open each market and each market is a wildly different; what worked for us in California isn’t going to work for us in Oregon. And then we started looking at Florida and it’s a totally horribly restrictive, vertically integrated market. And then we lose our branding ability. So, for me, the biggest frustration is that there’s so many issues with the states that are legal, with their social equity, how they’re handling the legalization, and home grows. So, yeah, there [are] a lot of issues that I think need to be solved across the board at the state level and federal level.
ZM: How does the cannabis industry meld the OGs and the suits? Do both those sides have to work together ultimately for this industry to become mainstream?
EH: They’re going to have to. But ultimately, this industry is just so culturally driven. They have to meet in the middle at some point because you’re going to need the infusion of capital to sustain that growth that potential federal legalization is going to bring. Especially an OG brand that’s owning a pocket in Southern California, as soon as they break the boundaries to the next states, they’re going to have to understand how the business operates to scale up and cross state borders, or they’re going to be stuck and that’s it. So, they’re going to have to meet in the middle, but we’re at the infancy of that.
As we build our brand, that’s been super important to Ricky and myself, maintaining this cultural relevance. Ricky’s obviously a cultural icon, and I come in and I also try and make sure that we stay pretty tried and true to the culture. I come to the business from Greenlane [Holdings], a big NASDAQ traded entity, and when I was there, I also was kind of the suit-ish one. I ran the brands division and our retail segment, and I was very in-tune with the culture, being a cannabis consumer and connoisseur myself. So, I’m hoping Ricky and I and this incredible management team that we’ve built around us will be able to navigate the tricky waters of building a scalable business that maintains cultural relevance.