Last October, I led La Voz reporter Ernest Gurul on a tour of the Lightshade retail location in Denver’s diverse Montbello neighborhood. Gurul’s visit wasn’t planned as part of a marketing campaign, but instead resulted from a voter drive hosted through Lightshade’s partnership with CLLARO, a local Latino advocacy group. La Voz, a nationally recognized bilingual publication reaching more than 150,000 readers each week, heard about the voter initiative and sent Gurul to learn more about the project.
Gurul had never been inside a dispensary. He was surprised by the bright, welcoming environment, which stood in stark contrast to his preconceived notions and piqued his interest to learn more. After his visit, he also spoke with Leaf411, a nonprofit cannabis advisory hotline staffed by nurses, to gain perspective about cannabis as medicine. His article about the partnership between CLLARO and Lightshade was by far the most positive story La Voz had published about the cannabis industry to that point.
La Voz’s shift to a more positive tone when reporting about the legal cannabis industry illustrated the impact Lightshade aims for in the implementation of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) program.
Many people might be surprised to hear the company’s CSR program is not directly tied to its marketing strategy. Lightshade does not maintain detailed metrics or demand a specific return on investment (ROI) to justify its community work. Instead, the company believes giving back by being a good neighbor, providing support, and caring for its local communities is a responsibility. While many people are fond of saying, “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist,” I would argue that simply is not the case when it comes to CSR. Lightshade hears daily from its customers and neighbors about the positive impact of its community work.
In fact, focusing primarily on ROI when developing a CSR program likely is the wrong approach. A solid CSR program is built around a company’s core identity and values. It does not aim for short-term gains but organically nurtures long-term relationships with the communities where customers and employees live. To put it another way, under a well-designed CSR we all thrive together. Lightshade’s CSR has accomplished more than we initially envisioned by focusing on doing good rather than on specific marketing goals or sales-funnel metrics.
A CSR program will succeed if the company is doing the work for the right reasons and the program aligns with the brand’s values and priorities. Lightshade formalized these values through its CARES model, with five key pillars of focus: homelessness and poverty, food insecurity, veterans, environmental sustainability, and public health and safety. Knowing who the company is and what it stands for has allowed Lightshade to remain focused on areas where it can have the most significant impact.
When launching and expanding a CSR program, cannabis companies should seek nonprofit organizations with established track records that are willing to work side by side in the community and are not merely seeking a check. Companies should perform due diligence to ensure the nonprofit benefits the community—not just its own employees—with values that align.
Nonprofit community partners can be powerful allies when legislative issues arise. Potency limits recently came up in Colorado, with several legislators proposing a 15-percent THC cap on all cannabis products. In response, Lightshade’s community partner Athletes for Care, composed of retired professional athletes who depend on medical cannabis for relief, offered to write letters opposing the proposed limit. The partnership allowed Lightshade to advocate for its customer base more effectively.
CSR partners do not need to be famous or influential to make an impact. When members of the public see companies partnering with a local homeless organization for food drives or planting neighborhood gardens, many will begin to re-think their position on cannabis. We often find people we first meet in the community decide to visit our retail location after engaging with one of our team members during an event. While customer acquisition is not the CSR program’s primary goal, it absolutely is an outcome. People want to support businesses that are making a positive community impact, and they are more comfortable visiting a retailer where they know they will find familiar faces.
For that reason, when building a CSR program, bear in mind the roles employees play as ambassadors, volunteers, and community representatives. Many Lightshade employees live in the same communities its CSR serves. They see the company’s dedication to giving back in their own neighborhoods and often are eager to share details about the CSR with their families and friends, as well as with customers. These word-of-mouth encounters contribute to customer acquisition and loyalty.
CSR begins at home
Recently, Lightshade has focused on its employee community directly, examining ways to support workers’ long-term growth and success. One outcome has been the development of a complimentary personal finance class for employees, many of whom are relatively new to the workforce and have little to no financial knowledge. The company hires a professional finance instructor, purchases textbooks and all other supplies, and limits class size to ensure participating employees receive personal attention and get their questions answered.
When a company cares for its employees, engaging them in its CSR efforts, there is a discernible level of pride that expands to the customer experience. As competition continues to grow in the retail cannabis sector, customer experience is becoming a critical differentiator, especially since customers are keen to share their opinions via online reviews and social media. A CSR program can be a valuable tool for building employee retention, and by extension, improving the customer experience, all while doing good. Positive stories in the cannabis industry combat age-old stigmas and outdated federal laws. A well-designed CSR program that engages established nonprofit partners has the potential to change communities, minds, and regulations. The stories of our program’s impact shared by our employees and the communities we serve gain traction and spread through the community to news outlets like La Voz and lawmakers who have the power to shape our industry moving forward. Do these stories also connect to customer acquisition and retention? Absolutely. But they represent so much more.
As vice president of marketing and corporate social responsibility at Lightshade, Lisa Gee develops and directs marketing strategies, event campaigns, dispensary design, and social equity efforts. She possesses nearly two decades of experience in omnichannel marketing, including innovative digital mobile marketing solutions. Previously, she advised Ford Motor Company and Walmart about how to create authentic interactive mobile marketing experiences.