Power Players

Power Players: Wana CEO Nancy Whiteman Says, “Everybody Likes Gummies”

By Alex Halperin Aug 2, 2020
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Alex Halperin is the founder, editor and publisher of WeedWeek. Before he started covering marijuana legalization in 2014 he reported on topics such as fracking, health care, technology a...
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Alex Halperin is the founder, editor and publisher of WeedWeek. Before he started covering marijuana legalization in 2014 he reported on topics such as fracking, health care, technology and finance. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Slate, Fast Company, Quartz, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, The New Yorker and many other publications. His first book, The Cannabis Dictionary, was published in March. He lives in Los Angeles.
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This week for Power Players we caught up with Nancy Whiteman, CEO of Colorado-based Wana Brands, which now sells its gummies in eight states. Among much else, we discussed budtenders, how to launch a product during a lockdown and the future of gummies

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What Consumers Want

WeedWeek: Can you give us an overview of where you are now?

Nancy Whiteman: We are the number one gummies brand in the United States, that’s the BDSA data from 2019. We are based in Colorado and are also currently available in in California, Arizona, Oregon, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Oklahoma. 

WW: A lot of folks make some pretty good gummies. What do you see as the differentiators between brands?

NW: Of course, the most important thing for consumers is how it tastes and what their experience is. I think Wana has been so successful because we invested in creating and scaling a great recipe. It’s got a great texture to it. It’s vegan. The flavors are delicious and it’s incredibly consistent and hits most people the same each time they take it. I would also say we have continued to improve and improve. 

We started out with a great recipe.Then we went to all natural coloring and flavoring. We are about to switch over to all organic ingredients, except for the cannabis, that we’re not allowed to call organic because that’s a federal designation. But the rest of it is organic. We’re taking out the high fructose corn syrup and switching to a tapioca syrup and it’s even more delicious. 

The other thing is that we see gummies really as a platform for experimentation and creating more specialized products. The first leg of that is a product called Wana Quick, which currently is only available in Colorado. We’re using a technology that makes most people have onset between five and 15 minutes. 

The other thing that’s very cool about it is that because it is quick onset and it uses an encapsulation technology, it bypasses the metabolism in the liver. And so the experience that consumers have is more like an inhalation high because [the THC] remains in Delta-9 form. It doesn’t convert to 11-Hydroxy as things that go through the liver generally do. The 11-Hydroxy is what gives out that sort of characteristic, heavy body high. A lot of people really prefer more of an inhalation high. So this is a way to have the discreteness and convenience and treat factor, of an edible but to have a more cerebral, less intense high.

“We are Wana”

WW: How do you measure that? Do you have any data to support a claim like that? Or is it anecdotal?

NW: We do a lot of testing. We tried literally every available technology we could on the marketplace for two years before we actually selected the company that we’re currently working with.

[Wana has done internal tests to determine its Quick product works as Nancy described. Mike Hennesy, Wana’s director of innovation writes that in a test of 27 people, “The enhanced Wana Quick gummies delivered the intended fast onset with the majority of participants feeling effects in 5-15 mins. Participants felt the effects produced by this product were more like an inhaled cannabis high opposed to an ingestible in their subjective comments.”] 

We released it a week before the lockdown in Colorado. Despite that, it’s now over 30% of our classic gummy sales in the adult-use market without any apparent cannibalization to our core product, which is amazing. 

We felt there was a group of people who just don’t use edibles because they take too long to kick in. And because they don’t like the edible high, they prefer the smoker high. So our whole intent with this product was to come up with something that addressed both of those issues, with the hope of attracting a whole new market of people to edibles. Based on our sales results, it looks like we were successful.

WW:    Even if you have a product that works, how do you cut through the noise with so many other companies making similar claims?

NW:    Part of it is we launched in Colorado where our brands is well known. We have over 40% market share of gummies and 24% market share of edibles overall. So, not to be full of ourselves, but when we say, “We are Wana,” and we say this actually works and is something special, people tend to give us the benefit of the doubt. We launched it with Native Roots, the largest dispensary chain in Colorado. We [initially] gave them the opportunity to have an exclusive and five of their high traffic stores. 

We did really extensive budtender training. I encouraged them to try the products themselves and they were wildly enthusiastic about it. So we knew just from the Native Roots data, that it was going to be very successful. 

When we release a new product, it’s always fun, obviously, when stores take it on. The real test of it is the reorders and the reorders have been phenomenal. So that’s how we really know whether it’s working. It’s by far the best selling quick onset gummy in Colorado. When you ask, “How do you know if it’s working and if you’re breaking through?” At the end of the day, the sales numbers will tell you that.

A riff about gummies

WW: Do you think that pandemic means the diminishing of budtenders’ role in sales and marketing products?

NW: Certainly in the short run there’s been an adjustment. But if you look at the market research, budtender recommendations, I think, are the number two way people make their product decisions, right after friends and family. So yes, the budtender input has not been as available to us, as it normally is, which is [makes it perhaps] more remarkable that the product has done so well.

It’s a very challenging time to launch new products. But I think when people are able to go back into dispensaries budtenders are going to continue to be a very important point of recommendation for us. But I also think that brands have to get a lot more adept and not rely quite as heavily on budtenders.

WW:    What are some of the avenues you’re exploring for that?

NW: We have a whole slew of different marketing pilots and initiatives going on. One of the main important ones is our partnership with a company called I Heart Jane. [I Heart Jane enables customers to order from a brand’s web site.] 

WW:    We’ve featured them.

NW: That has been extremely successful for us. We are working a lot more on our social media. 

WW: Gummies have widespread appeal, but the overall cannabis market seems to be fragmenting a bit as more products target women or older people or other consumer niches. What do you think that means within the context of gummies and edibles?

NW: First, let me riff a bit on why gummies are so popular. Everybody likes gummies. They taste really good. But I think one of the other reasons why gummies have really taken off as a platform for THC specifically, is that we’ve grown accustomed to gummies as the way that we take our vitamins, et cetera. 

We don’t get up in the morning and open up our vitamins and say, “That vitamin C gummy was good. I think I’m going to have six or seven.” We’re used to eating one. And it feels satisfying and complete in and of itself in a way that I think other product forms don’t. People often ask, “Why are there not more savory edibles?” Well, because nobody wants to eat one cracker, right?

I’m part of a group that’s working on a white paper for NCIA on women and cannabis and gender issues. And I’m working on the product development and branding piece of that. So I’ve been looking at the data around women and their use of edibles and really surprisingly there isn’t really that much difference between men and women’s consumption of edibles. 

And I don’t have it all the way broken down to the gummy level, but I’m guessing that, that’s probably true at the gummy level too, that both men and women like gummies and eat gummies, which certainly fits with the anecdotal feedback that we get from dispensary.

When we say, “So, who buys our gummies?” usually they say, “Everybody does. Old people buy them, young people buy them, men buy them, women buy them.” It’s just one of those product forms that it seems to appeal to a pretty wide demographic.

I think where the industry is headed, certainly where Wana is headed,  is on creating highly effective products. We are actively working on products that have different rare cannabinoid ratios, different terpene ratios, different mixes, trying to replicate and improve upon the entourage effect.

That’s where I think some of the segmentation may come in: certain combinations of things will work better for certain types of conditions, health and wellness needs if you will. Certain things will work better for sleep. Certain things will work better for anxiety. Certain things will work better for pain. And so I do think that you are going to see all products, but particularly edibles and in our case, gummies, will become more differentiated over time.

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Alex Halperin
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