Amanda Ostrowitz (LinkedIn)

In 2014, former banking attorney Amanda Ostrowitz had the foresight to start CannaRegs in Denver to address inefficient ways municipalities instill and communicate cannabis law. Now a Chicagoan as a result of her company’s $10 million sale to West Loop-based Fyllo earlier this year, Ostrowitz in this week’s Grown In Q&A profile discusses her approach to entrepreneurial problem-solving, “feelings”-based cannabis marketing techniques, and what type of brands are resonating with Illinois consumers in the Covid-infused summer of 2020.  

Grown In: You started CannaRegs in Denver in 2014 and have as much institutional knowledge of U.S. state and municipal cannabis regulation as anyone on the planet. What attracted you to the industry in the first place and how have your professional focus areas evolved over the last six years?

Amanda Ostrowitz: Prior to this I was working in banking regulatory law, and then when cannabis was legalized in Colorado, the banking issue became super evident. It was that intersection of banking and cannabis that led me to begin looking at cannabis regulations. It didn’t take long before I was deep down the rabbit hole and found major research issues. Every city had different laws, and multiple bodies writing those laws, and there was no one place where they could all be found. So, while I was initially trying to search for a potential solution for the cannabis banking issues, I ended up finding an information problem that I thought I actually could solve – unlike the banking issue. 

What resulted was CannaRegs, and it wasn’t until I was at least a year in that we realized we weren’t just solving a cannabis research problem, but rather we were solving a local law problem. Before CannaRegs, no legal research company had ever comprehensively tracked municipal law and rulemaking activity. The most exciting part is that everything we have built to track hyperlocal law for CannaRegs can and will be adapted to any highly regulated industry that is hyperlocal in nature.

Grown In: Illinois was among the first states to legalize cannabis with significant social equity provisions designed to extend ownership to individuals and communities most impacted by the war on drugs. Will future states carry similar provisions and what are you paying the most attention to as the first wave of licenses are eventually rolled out?

Amanda Ostrowitz: The Illinois law, as crafted, has the potential to work very well. That said, the proof will be in the pudding. The concept of social equity is critical, and cannot be cast aside. But it is extremely challenging to implement successfully. The good news is, if it doesn’t accomplish what it intends to on the first go around, the regulators or legislature can pass new laws and keep on trying until they get it right. Lawmaking has always been an iterative process. We always hope they draft effective laws on the first try, but that is rarely the case, especially when you are dealing with a brand new industry.

Grown In: Due to the federally illegal nature of the plant, cannabis companies cannot run traditional advertising and marketing campaigns. Where do you see the most creativity within these restrictions? 

Amanda Ostrowitz: We are beginning to see a lot of creativity in both the messaging and channels utilized by cannabis businesses and brands. We are seeing brands get more creative by eliciting “feelings” and tongue in cheek copy. Within the messaging narratives in CBD, we are seeing brands begin to identify niche verticals where they “own the space” rather than widespread “spray and pray” targeting.

Grown In: What marketing advice do you have for the next wave of cannabis companies that will be licensed to do business in Illinois?  

Amanda Ostrowitz: Illinois is an interesting market because very few consumers are brand loyal. Approaching advertising in a multichannel fashion to drive awareness and consideration is going to have a major impact. Think connected TV to digital-out-of-home to display to event marketing. That, in conjunction with identifying a key audience and clear brand narrative, would help position companies for successful launches in the Illinois market. 

We’ve also seen that new cannabis consumers purchasing in Illinois-licensed dispensaries are shifting their shopping behaviors in a significant way. We’ve seen a huge shift in purchasing patterns that show consumers shopping earlier in the day and earlier in the week indicating they are doing their shopping at times when dispensaries are less crowded and wait times are shorter. This tells us that brands have an opportunity to highlight things like convenience and efficiency in their purchasing process when targeting these new, more convenience-minded consumers. The most successful Illinois media activations we have done at Fyllo during Covid have leveraged messaging that highlights easy pre-order and pick up processes.

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.