Chris “Cheeto” Batten had racked up close to 20 years in the surf, skate and snow industry before CULTA co-founder Mackie Barch visited one of the stores Batten operated and approached him about bringing the same vibe to Barch’s Maryland-based medical cannabis company.

Now, four years and several digital branding and design awards later, Batten, CULTA’s creative director, has crafted a marketing strategy that he says is the brand standard in Maryland’s market.

“I don’t think anyone’s put as much onus on their marketing and branding in Maryland as we have,” he tells Cannabis Business Times. “Branding is really important because it is your image. It’s the first thing people see, it’s what they associate you with, and then you get to the point of quality.”

CULTA announced earlier this month that it received multiple awards from the AVA Digital Awards and Hermes Creative Awards for the company’s digital branding and creative assets.

CULTA received one platinum and two gold AVA Digital Awards for its brand guidelines and stop motion videos, as well as two gold Hermes Awards for its 7/10 and Bones designs.

In addition, last year, the company received platinum, gold and honorable mention awards at the MarCom Awards for its T-shirt designs, as well as the “Best Clothing Product” award at the Explore Maryland Cannabis 2021 awards.

CULTA’s award-winning brand guidelines took Batten and Senior Director of Marketing Renier Fee four or five months to complete.

“A lot of people look at it as a document and … don’t realize how much work goes into a document like that,” Batten says. “Ours was pages long and was basically the do’s and don’ts of what you can do with our watermark and our branding and our color story. If you were a shop that we were collaborating with on some marketing, … you would get this document and it would help guide you through what you’re doing. A lot of people don’t understand that approach and how … much work that went into it. That [brand guidelines award] was the award I was most proud of that we got as a team.”

The company’s award-winning stop motion videos highlight CULTA’s odor-proof bags.

“[The videos] were really cool because we wanted to not just have an image that said, ‘Hey, these are odor-proof bags,’” Batten says. “We wanted to do it in a fun way that people would engage with.”

CULTA worked with a videographer on the videos, and collaborated with artist Jared Tuttle on its 7/10 designs, which Batten says were meant to celebrate the company’s lab.

“We directed and created this 7/10 logo, and it shines some light on our lab because our lab at CULTA is really great,” he says. “Michelle Sprawls, who runs that, is really great and we thought they needed some love. We tried to come up with something for them, and it turned out to be a really well accepted logo. It’s on some packaging for the lab. It was on the T-shirts, and graphic items that it was put on sell really well. We sell out of them every time, so that was really great.”

CULTA’s Bones logo emerged from Batten’s background in the skate industry.

“It looks like something you’d find in there, but it’s youthful,” he says. “We used it on lighters and … it’s on T-shirts and hoodies. It was just a fun design we put forth.”

An Award-Winning Strategy

Batten says CULTA’s recent digital branding and design awards highlight the company’s broader marketing strategy.

“We’re heavily regulated with compliance and things now, but we looked at it as, we could do more with a T-shirt than just throw on a vanilla logo,” he says. “Just because you’re a patient and you’re looking to fulfill a need for pain, … [it] doesn’t mean you can’t be fashionable at the same time.”

Each of CULTA’s designs must comply with Maryland’s medical cannabis regulations, which are constantly evolving as the industry grows.

Through applying lessons learned in the surf, skate and snow space to the cannabis industry—and many brainstorming sessions—Batten and his team have crafted what he calls “the most aggressive marketing campaign or platform so far” in Maryland’s medical cannabis market.

Batten describes CULTA’s overall branding strategy as “cohesive,” saying that while the company started out testing several different design elements, the team has since discovered what works for its patients.

“You don’t want to be all over the place,” he says. “There for a while, we were because we were trying to test what was working [and] what was not. Now that we’ve learned more about our patients—who they are, what they’re looking for— … we have a better idea of what to bring to them as far as designs and what they’re looking for as far as quality and price.”

Batten says CULTA has the product quality to back up its marketing efforts, both in its medical cannabis offerings and its ancillary merchandise.

“We wanted to make sure our T-shirts were really nice,” he says, adding that supply chain issues during the COVID-19 pandemic made this difficult at times. “We went through a year of hiccups with that, trying to fill in sizes, … but we made it out, and everyone was in the same boat. Everyone was doing the same thing, but for us, we want everything to be quality [and] we want to be able to get it to people at an affordable price.”

CULTA sells its products to roughly 100 dispensaries across Maryland, with some retailers selling the company’s apparel in addition to its medical cannabis offerings.

CULTA also operates an online store, where it sells its clothing line and accessories.

The company has been first to market with many of its marketing strategies, which Batten sees as an advantage.

“My mantra is always, it doesn’t matter what people do after you,” he says. “You should always be first to market in whatever it is you’re doing because you’re always going to be the first words out of someone’s mouth, like, ‘Oh, you’re doing it like CULTA.’ … If people are always talking, saying your name, that’s great marketing. I think being first to market on anything is the way to be, and then you can refine as you go.”

CULTA has made its fair share of mistakes, just like any other cannabis operator, Batten adds, from budgeting incorrectly to creating a design that fails to resonate with customers.

“I would say it’s no different than if you’re a retail store or a coffee shop—you’re going to make the same mistakes,” he says. “It’s just a big learning curve and it still is … because everything changes.”

Looking ahead, the CULTA team plans to keep evolving with the industry. And in the meantime, Batten says the company’s recent digital branding and design awards help validate the team’s efforts.

“I’ve seen [the company] from its infancy to now, and it’s incredible to see where it’s at and to see how far we’ve come and where we’re going as a company,” he says. “For us to get these awards and stand out … is pretty cool. … It’s good to get that recognition.”