Willie Nelson, Mike Tyson Step into Michigan Market as Celebrity Brands Bloom

This story was republished with permission from Crain’s Detroit and written by Dustin Walsh

What’s in a name?

An aging hippie from Texas hill country and a mainstay in the “Outlaw Country” music synonymous with weed culture is, perhaps to no surprise, a growing cannabis brand name in Michigan.

Willie’s Reserve, a marijuana licensing company started by singer and songwriter Willie Nelson in 2015, is among the latest celebrity brands to grace Michigan dispensaries — when they can keep it on the shelves.

Green Stem, a dispensary in Niles in Southwest Michigan, sold out of its first shipment last month of Willie’s Reserve — nearly 32 ounces of flower and 160 joints — in less than 36 hours.

“People have started to have it with celebrity brands,” said Katie Lindgren, brand director at Green Stem. “If the product isn’t good or doesn’t stand up in the culture … weed people, all weed people — soccer moms, teachers, just about anybody that consumes cannabis regularly — can tell who is a poser. If they aren’t picking up the vibe, that brand doesn’t last.”

Celebrity brands come and go in the cannabis space just like in regular retail goods, but the industry is beginning to find success under certain names as consumers are faced with an overwhelming number of choices at the store and operators look for a way to stand out.

“At the end of the day, the name gets your foot in the (consumer) door once,” said Hilary Dulany, chief marketing officer for Aardvark Industries, which is the exclusive licensing contract for Willie’s Reserve. “It’s the experience that keeps them coming back. You have to have some of the best cannabis behind the name, or you’re done.”

Roll me up

Dulany and her family are no strangers to licensing. The family-owned Tony Sacco’s Coal Oven Pizza franchises in 13 states before entering the cannabis market, including a location in Eastwood Towne Center in Lansing. They’ve since sold the restaurants.

Dulany said Aardvark Industries was established in Michigan in 2019 — it previously operated in Oregon before exiting that market for Michigan — and began selling its own weed under a licensing deal with Cheech’s Stash in the fall of last year. The brand is owned by famed Cheech and Chong actor and comedian Cheech Marin.

The brand was an instant success for Aardvark, but immediately limited its ability to diversify.

“Within three months of selling Cheech, we were selling out,” Dulany said. “We were selling all of the product even before our testing came back. It was a problem.”

The company operates a 500-plant grow operation in Dewitt in mid-Michigan. The Cheech brand was accounting for everything the cultivator could produce.

“In our industry, every segment of the vertical can pivot except a single source grow,” Dulany said. “They are like freight liners; they take six months to correct. We needed a solution. Few growers our size have a marketing budget, so we needed something that could market itself and operate on exclusivity.”

So while the company grows 100% of Cheech’s Stash, it turned to other growers to supplement volumes for other brands. Today, Aardvark manages smaller output for Willie’s Reserve, planning to only sell around 70 pounds of product under the brand in November and 100 pounds in December.

Aardvark only grows 25% of Willie’s Reserve.

“We don’t ever want this to be a mainstream brand,” Dulany said. “We want it to be found in a really good retail. We take those relationships seriously. We find a retailer and give them Willie’s exclusively in their region and don’t sell to other retailers around them.”

Green Stem sells many celebrity-branded cannabis options, including Blues Brothers from Belushi Farms and Garcia Hand Picked, the brand owned by the family of late Grateful Dead singer Jerry Garcia.

“We sell quite a few celebrity brands because they play well in our area,” Lindgren said. “Mostly because of the over-the-border clientele.”

Lindgren said many of Green Stem’s customers hail from Indiana, where marijuana remains illegal, and Illinois, which is hamstrung by high taxes and limited availability. Those consumers may not be immediately familiar with Michigan’s marijuana brands, but instantly recognize celebrity names.

The retailer sells 75 pounds to 125 pounds of marijuana products to an average of 4,800 people a week.

“We are able to communicate very well with our clientele about what brands are coming out and what celebrity brands are worth buying,” Lindgren said. “We are owners who consume. We pride ourselves on being standup drug dealers.”

Punch up, punch out

While Aardvark is focusing on the exclusivity of the Willie name, one of the state’s largest vertically integrated operators is building on volume and name recognition.

Marshall-based Common Citizen recently launched Mike Tyson’s marijuana brand at its own retailers, including Liv Cannabis, and others not owned by the operator. The company currently grows, processes, and sells Mike Bites, which are gummies shaped like an ear with a bite taken out — an ode to Tyson’s fight against Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight championship where Tyson bit a one-inch chunk out of Holyfield’s ear, a move he did late in the match that resulted in his disqualification.

Coincidentally, Tyson and Holyfield now jointly license a gummy product around Christmas called Holy’s Ear.

Mike Elias, CEO of Common Citizen, said he long fought against licensing a celebrity brand, but as retail shelves become overstuffed with different products, having Tyson on board gives a new way to differentiate.

“Look, this idea of licensing brands is an old-age idea that manufacturing and retail has been doing since the beginning of time,” Elias said. “There is a sea of noise in the market. Walk into any retail store. It’s overwhelming from the options that exist. No one has really ever been able to stand out. When you walk in there isn’t always a brand that sticks out. There is differentiation and distinction. Mike Tyson’s name on the package is distinct.”

Elias said the Tyson label generates a 15% to 20% price tag lift for the same product under a different brand.

“Economically it makes a lot of sense for us,” he said. “Look at the gummies, Mike’s Bites. It’s Holyfield’s ear. It’s novel. People gravitate toward novel items. And it happens to taste amazing as well. It’s a great discussion point.”

The company is looking to expand Tyson’s product offerings to vapes and other products soon.

But Common Citizen isn’t rushing to license more celebrity brands.

“When you’re tying up product in your facility and dedicating it to a licensed brand and not your own, there’s a risk,” Elias said. “For us, all the noise means we want to wait to see how some of these brands stabilize in other states before we make any decisions. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a celebrity brand or a well-known brand like Wana or Kiva.”

Common Citizen produces and sells both popular out-of-state-created brands Wana and Kiva in Michigan.

Aardvark is going the other way. The company is in negotiations with an actor on an edible brand that Dulany believes will “be as big of news as Willie in our state.”

The company plans to build a stable of celebrity brands across Michigan.

“If too many show up and they are not represented correctly in the marketplace, it can get muddy,” Dulany said. “That’s why boots on the ground are so important. There aren’t a lot of celebrity brands that are going to work in the market, but it’s not about the brands, but who is marketing their brand. We know what people are looking for beyond just a name.”

Dustin Walsh

Dustin Walsh is a senior reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, covering health care with a focus on industry change and operations, as well as the state's emerging cannabis industry. He is also a regular columnist on all things health, labor, economics, and more.


One comment

  • Keith olson

    November 27, 2023 at 9:16 am

    I am rightfully owner of LARA trademark willies reserve. Cease and desist

    Reply

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