Under Ed Brown, who served as CEO of Patrón Spirits from the early 2000s until last year, a once-humble make of tequila became one of the world’s best-selling and best-known alcohol brands.
He did this at least in part by making sure that if you knew one brand of tequila, you knew Patrón.
If you lived through the 2000s, you knew and you know: Patrón was everywhere. Tom Cruise yelled for it in “Vanilla Sky.” It was the call tequila for every popular rapper and oh, did this marketing work. According to data from Bacardi Limited, which bought Patrón out in April 2018 and announced Brown’s subsequent retirement from the company last year, under Brown, Patrón sales increased from 118,000 cases sold in 2001 to more than 2 million in 2018. All this, despite Patrón being both kind of expensive and just kind of OK.
What can Brown do for cannabis? Something pretty good, multi-state operator Surterra is hoping. Atlanta-headquartered Surterra— Spanish for “Southern Earth,” basically —one of the biggest cannabis operators in Florida in the process of buying out an operator in Massachusetts, in what it says is one of the biggest-ever transactions in American cannabis, recently announced that Brown is joining their team in the vaguely defined role of “executive director.”
What he will do for the company isn’t exactly clear — or at least it isn’t being made clear by the company. Surterra already has a chief executive. That would be Georgia-based Beau Wrigley, scion of the chewing-gum fortune, who was named CEO in November after securing control of enough shares to become chairman of the company’s board last August.
In that time, Surterra expanded from 14 dispensary locations to at least 24, with the latest opening its doors in Miami in May. The company also claims operations in Texas and Nevada as well as Florida and the pending deal in Massachusetts.
But more important than its expanding footprint, in all likelihood, is the company’s brand cachet. And here’s where Brown fits in.
Surterra is also the commercial power behind “Coral Reefer,” the Jimmy Buffet-licensed cannabis brand. Putting cannabis in a celebrity’s hand (and, hopefully, their lyrics) is what worked for Brown at Patrón, and it’s exactly what built Cookies, and whatever else San Francisco-based rapper and cannabis-adjacent marketing prodigy Berner touches into successful brands.
According to a company press release, Brown used some of his Patrón fortune to invest in Surterra. How much of Surterra he owns, the company isn’t saying; disclosure forms filed with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission say only that the company sold $165 million worth of exempt securities last year.
The obvious question, then, is whether Brown can help Wrigley do for Surterra what he did for Patrón. The problem with this is that putting booze in the hands and mouths of rappers and actors doesn’t exactly fit with what Wrigley has been doing with Surterra so far.
Wrigley appeared at a cannabis-related “thought leaders” event in April, where he beat on the same predictable drum every cannabis CEO brings to every public event. He called for federal reform and he said that cannabis is going to become the next-biggest wellness product in America. That’s all well and good if you’re playing cannabis-industry CEO bingo — as soon as they say “paradigm shift,” you win! — but it isn’t exactly going to differentiate your brand from everyone else selling weed in exactly the same way. And “this is a wellness product” doesn’t appear to be how Colorado cannabis companies sold $1.6 billion worth of the stuff last year. People go to Colorado to buy cannabis to get high, after all.
No, Brown’s secret move is product placement. Under Brown, Coral Reefer will likely appear wherever he can put it. Under Brown, there will likely be other similar Surterra-controlled brands. And if there’s a “Vanilla Sky” sequel, do not be shocked if Tom Cruise or whomever is cast in the role starts screaming for a Surterra-brand of weed. Vida? Bienestar? Salud? Life, wellness, and health in Spanish are all available, and squarely within this operation’s established wheelhouse.
TELL US, how do you feel about alcohol executives getting into the cannabis industry?