Although connecting with customers in person is one of the most challenging aspects of marketing, getting face to face with consumers can ignite brand awareness and sales. At Airfield Supply Company, a vertically integrated cannabis company located near San Jose International Airport, retail teams and brands collaborate on customized marketing partnerships that bring coveted consumer face time to pass.
From its Tesla Model 3 delivery fleet to e-commerce, Airfield strives to offer consumers and brands an upscale experience built around exceptional service for all. At the heart of Airfield’s in-store program is a shop-in-shop space dubbed The Hangar—complete with dedicated brand ambassadors trained to educate consumers and convert sales.
Since its official launch in January 2021, The Hangar concept has evolved from month-long brand showcases to customized, immersive experiences that include longer-term marketing partnerships between cannabis brands and the shop.
Chris Lane, Airfield chief marketing officer since 2019, offers a simple explanation: “In every aspect of the business, we’re always constantly looking at how do we perfect this experience?”
The Hangar Evolution
Airfield’s shop-in-shop concept drew on Lane’s extensive creative and brand strategy experience outside of cannabis. He acknowledges that retail pop-up shops aren’t a new idea. But in cannabis, in-store engagement typically involves transaction-focused demos or static branded sections. In The Hangar, he envisioned a more meaningful experience.
RELATED: Listen to CBT’s Cannabis Conference Beyond the Show podcast with Chris Lane for more on Airfield’s approach to customer experience and merchandising.
“It’s essentially a rotating educational curation space where we showcase brands that we love,” Lane explains. The curation goes beyond a product showcase. The space is for brands to tell their own stories about the people behind the companies, share details about production practices and what social causes they champion, for example, to educate and engage.
In the beginning, brands paid $17,500—plus $200 per day for staffing—for month-long shop-in-shop takeovers and prime Airfield exposure. “We’re very lucky to be a very high-volume dispensary,” Lane says. He puts pre-pandemic transactions at 1,500 to 2,000 per day. Daily transaction volume now averages around 1,300, but with increased basket sizes, he adds. (According to CBT’s “2022 Cannabis Dispensary State of the Industry Report,” nearly three-fourths of participants reported average single-location daily transactions of 250 or fewer, and 51% said their average individual transactions were between $41 and $80.)
February 2022 brought a new Hangar era, part of what Lane calls a holistic partner marketing programming strategy that includes more frequent Hangar changes.
Unlike in-store demos, where brands generally bring their own product and handle their own marketing, The Hangar is stocked with Airfield inventory, and Airfield’s team partners with brands to create promotional plans.
In this iteration, individual brands and Airfield marketing and retail teams devise year-long editorial calendars around slots in The Hangar, co-creating email and SMS campaigns and content marketing on social platform and blogs. There’s also a 25-foot LED showcase wall in-store, featuring Airfield-shot videos that appear in person and on the e-commerce website. It’s essentially a brand takeover, where a participating company’s message is promoted in multiple places in-store and on Airfield’s digital platforms, so consumers get an immersive experience. Pricing is at an annual partnership level, customized to the brand’s editorial calendar.
“If a consumer comes in once a week or once every two weeks, they’re almost guaranteed to get exposed to a new brand, a new story, a new product, a new experience,” Lane says. The change has proven beneficial for community engagement and business in general.
Lane shares that brands use The Hangar in various ways: to reinforce market leadership, challenge market leadersand competing companies, launch new products, introduce different product forms—such as beverages and tablets—and advance social agendas along with product sales.
Brie Emerson is co-owner and chief operating officer of LEVEL, an effects-focused cannabinoid brand that did a month-long Hangar stint in 2021. The brand did two weeks in May in the space and had two weeks on September’s schedule, too. “I love that they split it and provided a little more flexibility,” Emerson says. “I think that’s a nice way to connect with customers more often throughout the year.”
Emerson shares that LEVEL finds The Hangar’s customer connections especially valuable. The brand is expanding into two new product categories this fall, but the focus to date has been tablets—a format unfamiliar to many. In addition, the brand’s proprietary formulations emphasize lesser-known, emergent cannabinoids and cannabinoid ratios not naturally accessible in flower.
“For LEVEL, our biggest challenge as a brand—especially one that’s a little more complicated and advanced—is to actually be able to connect and educate the customer,” Emerson says. In most cases, she explains, the brand sells a retailer products, then gets cut from the equation.
With products built around less-familiar cannabinoids, uncommon ratios and unique effects, Emerson says consumer communication and education is essential for LEVEL: “That is what Airfield has provided, which is amazing, because they really value that aspect of the relationship with the customer as well.”
Emerson adds that Airfield’s three-person brand ambassador team, dedicated to staffing The Hangar continuously, is one of the collaboration’s best benefits. Already trained to educate, engage and convert, the Airfield employees receive direct training from brands on their people, products and stories.
Emerson describes the Airfield collaboration as a partnership, built on the cutting edge of retail experiences. “I’m always proud of what we accomplish together. Together we’re much stronger than just a retailer and a brand operating independently,” she says.
Future in Motion
As The Hangar continues to evolve, Lane is focused on creating richer consumer experiences and the “next generation of collaboration and 360 partner marketing.” That means finding new ways to differentiate with products, deepen brand collaborations, and boost experiential excitement for Airfield fans.
Expansion mode is underway for Airfield. Lane expects a new Redwood City retail location, set to open early next year, to take immersive retail higher—and answer questions about how the future of cannabis shopping looks. A new Mountain View delivery depot is opening, and a second San Jose store may be in the works. Airfield’s late-2021 acquisition by California-based, vertically integrated cannabis company Gold Flora has teams contributing across that retail network as well.
Lane says that everything in cannabis is twice as hard as any other industry. But he believes there’s much more the industry can do to create deeper consumer connections—from Hangar-like pop-ups to whatever the future holds.
He believes those connections will happen at the brand level through immersive brand experiences. “Right now, people identify with brands that make them feel cool or maybe help them do other kinds of things. But we want to get to that deeper level of emotion where people feel understood, supported, aligned philosophically. And I think that is coming,” he says.
That goal drives Airfield’s evolving 360 approach to brands. “Let’s think holistically of our year together. Where do we want to create moments in time? Where do we want to go big? Where do we want to shout?” Lane asks. In the midst of it all, he adds, The Hangar is the in-store showpiece. For now.
Jolene Hansen is a freelance writer specializing in cannabis, horticulture and specialty ag. Reach her at email@example.com.