Former Molson President and CEO sees green in cannabis industry

Sep 7 2018, 6:33 pm

Dan O’Neill has more than 20 years of experience in consumer packaged goods (CPG), most notably working with Heinz, Campbell Soup, and Molson.

During his time with the beer giant, stock prices quadrupled and Canadian households were blessed with this classic heritage moment:

O’Neill also worked in Colorado running an e-cigarette company and was named a board member for CannaRoyalty, an operator and investor in the global cannabis industry, this past summer.

Daily Hive spoke with O’Neill on the phone about his transition from the alcohol industry to cannabis, what some of the challenges are, and the direction of this emerging market.

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From suds to buds

O’Neill sees the interest of alcohol companies in cannabis as a natural progression of the industry.

“Beer and liquor companies are used to dealing with age laws and restricted sales laws,” said O’Neill.

“They have the cash, they have a declining market, and they know the industry.”

O’Neill believes that alcohol companies will continue to see a decrease in sales, and that’s motivating them to invest in cannabis.

“They’re in for some of the growth. They can say ‘we own a piece of it,’ just in case the industry grows.”

Fighting stigma

O’Neill sees the ongoing stigma of cannabis and the lack of wide social acceptance as a roadblock to the growth of the industry.

“You’re going to have a drink or smoke a joint, what’s the difference?” asked O’Neill.

“There are a lot of people who drink but smoking weed is not acceptable in their peer group. That will be the thing that slows down the total buy-in of the product.”

Allowing for cannabis-infused beverages at restaurants could help propel a wider acceptance of cannabis because it’s a familiar consumption method for intoxicants and carries less of a negative image than smoking.

Edibles may also help close that gap, but O’Neill has concerns about dosing, effect, and the time of impact.

“You would likely consume less wine if you didn’t know how and when it was going to hit you.”

Branding and packaging

“The packaging restrictions are disheartening and disappointing,” said O’Neill, whose background in CPG lends itself to such criticism.

“A branded product builds success over years via trust,” and while brand recognition may be limited for cannabis products, O’Neill sees an opportunity for retail workers to be ambassadors.

“Millennial groups are looking to experience different tastes and experiences and impacts and they need someone to ask questions to.”

“Having intelligent people behind the counter is essential.”

Skilled and trained staff with extensive product knowledge will be crucial for recommending quality products that are tailored to individual consumer tastes. Trying products they like will keep them coming back to that retail location, and hopefully create brand loyalty.

Craft cannabis

“The alcohol industry was never hit with the desire for local beer, vodka, tequila and now you see all these brands that 10 years ago would never have existed competing with the big guys.”

“All these little draft guys and local people with unique flavours are the ones who are really doing well and you have to ask if that is where the cannabis industry will go.”

O’Neill recounts that when Molson bought a local draft company, even though it was the same facility with the same workers, consumers turned away from it because it was associated with big business.

“The question I am interested in is what if the majority of consumers want craft cannabis? You have people saying they want to be Stella or Heineken, but how are those companies doing globally?”

O’Neill sees a need for the craft market which will cater to consumers who want unique products from local businesses that offer superior quality.

“I personally believe that’s a function of the younger cohort, individual taste is important to them and they want to try new things.”

“The people with five or six dispensaries who are selling their own brand might be the ones who end up doing really well,” said O’Neill.

Target markets

“Imagine if you can keep people in a market for longer at a higher level than how they consume alcohol,” said O’Neill.

“In the beer industry, young people go out and drink a lot of beer, that declines for a while, and then it goes back up again.”

“In the cannabis industry, the 55+ age group is actually a good consumer.”

Given that cannabis appeals to a broad range of demographics, can be used medicinally or recreationally and through a variety of methods, O’Neill believes the industry will grow faster than others traditionally would.

“People don’t even recognize how big this industry is going to be.”

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