I had the great pleasure of sitting down recently with one of our long-time partners in cannabis beverage, Matt Johnston, CEO and co-founder of Collective Arts Brewing, the creators of the Collective Project infused beverage brand. They’ve developed an incredible line of craft beverages, including my personal favorite and Canada’s market-leading infused beverage, the 1:1 Blood Orange Yuzu Vanilla Sparkling Juice. It’s like an adult creamsicle in all its sparkling beverage glory.
Before Matt entered the cannabis market, I was already a huge fan of Collective Arts. A Hamilton, Ontario-based brewing company that not only had an amazing line-up of craft beer, but a true depth of character when it came to the brand. Their intentional and persistent support of the arts is what really drew me in. Each new release brandishes a unique piece of art while highlighting the artist and telling their story on the Collective Arts website.
In an emerging market, finding partners who know how to grow and scale a manufacturing operation all while building an authentic brand is like a dream come true. Matt has this in spades. He has worked in the brewing industry for nearly 20 years, leading marketing, sales & operational teams. Matt has always been driven by creativity, which ultimately led him to launch Collective Arts with partner Bob Russell in 2013. Collective Project is Matt & the company's first dive into Cannabis and we’ve been honored to work alongside the team for the past few years as we explored hemp and cannabis across the US and Canada. Read-on to learn more about Matt’s journey.
[Ben] I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me and offer an inside look into the journey you’re on with Collective Project. I’m especially excited to discuss your background in the brewing industry and understand how it’s influenced your work in cannabis. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe we first met when your team reached out to Vertosa to learn more about our work with infused beverages in Canada.
[Matt] That’s right! I first came across Vertosa and met you as we searched the world for the best emulsions. We were looking for a provider and partner that understood our constant need for innovation & creativity, and Vertosa continuously provided the answers and vision we were looking for. You and your team seem to share our spirit for collaboration and understand our vision for where we see the cannabis industry going.
[Ben] Collaboration is key. Our most successful partnerships are often based on a shared vision for the industry and product category. Given your background, I’m eager to know how your experience in the craft beer segment has influenced your move into cannabis?
[Matt] Working in the craft beer industry has given us the incredible opportunity to really understand what it means to focus on a consumer's entire experience - from the selection of the product to consumption of the product. We continue to disrupt existing categories by showcasing what you can do with a little creativity. Collective Project creates beverages to be as diverse and creative as the artists we collaborate with.
[Ben] Taking a creative approach to all elements of brand development from product and ingredient selection right down to consumption experience seems key across industries. What, if any, radical differences do you see between the craft beer and cannabis markets?
[Matt] There is a certain degree of difficulty that comes with making elevated cannabis beverages, there is a need for consistency in the product. Not only do you need to make a great beverage but you need the emulsion to deliver the desired efficacy and experience for each drinker, every single time.
[Ben] That’s an interesting point. I imagine some industries allow for a wider range of product consistency than the cannabis space. You certainly understand what it takes to create not just a consistent product, but one that consumers love. What would you say it takes to launch and maintain a market leading SKU like the Blood Orange, Yuzu, & Vanilla SKU?
[Matt] In our eyes, drinking a cannabis beverage should be a holistic experience. It’s not just about launching a beverage for the cannabis experience, the liquid should be something you should love and enjoy drinking, from start to finish. Taste is absolutely on par with experience and this is something we have nailed down in all of our skus, but especially the Blood Orange, Yuzu, & Vanilla.
[Ben] I can’t agree more and appreciate the holistic view you’ve taken. What role did Vertosa play in helping your team solve key challenges throughout the product development process?
[Matt] Vertosa assisted our innovation team by finding the perfect emulsions that compliments flavor first. Each of our products are unique and it requires a careful eye to know which emulsion will suit not only the flavor profile but the experience of the beverage. We treat cannabis emulsions as one ingredient in our beverage, just as we do any other ingredient. The Vertosa emulsions are consistent and provide a great experience and taste.
[Ben] I’m grateful to hear that. While our one size doesn’t fit all approach can be challenging, it’s proven key to helping brands create consistent, effective products. That being said, product quality doesn’t always translate to significant sales. What education do you feel is most critical for brands to invest in to ensure their products get into the hands of consumers?
[Matt] Cannabis Beverages are a new category and it is important that brands take on educational programming for Budtenders so they can advise consumers. Knowing the facts is important for consumers to make informed decisions that shape a cannabis experience. Educational programs like Zentrela Inc. provide consumers with trustworthy research behind the psychoactive effects of our products. Focusing on the quality and science behind the emulsion in our educational sessions for Budtenders is very important to us as we can’t lean on strain lineages, plant types, terpene profiles to help further educate consumers.
[Ben] You hit the nail on the head. Budtenders play a critical role in educating consumers and arming them with knowledge about the quality and efficacy of products is key. I was impressed with your recent work with Zentrela to shed light on the effect consumers can expect from your products. You seem to be taking a similarly strategic approach to market expansion. What key differences do you see between the cannabis industries in Canada and the US?
[Matt] Like most Canadian systems, our cannabis industry is highly regulated, which in this case has made it easier as an entrepreneurial company to enter the category. The structured framework, as compared to the USA, has made it easy for new cannabis companies to launch and succeed. We are looking to explore what options might be best for us as we continue to look into relaunching in US markets.
[Ben] I’m glad to hear Canada’s structured approach has made it easier for entrepreneurs to enter the industry. The same can’t be said about all regional markets in the US despite regulators often citing industry access as a key intention behind the laws they enact. We’re especially excited to help brand partners like you navigate the various challenges involved in expanding to new markets.What's one of the most unexpected challenges you face on a regular basis in your role?
[Matt] Collective Project is still new, we are growing, learning and challenging ourselves everyday. Challenges are expected, but how we navigate them as a team is where we really win. We are a young company competing in a number of highly competitive categories. One of my greatest challenges is building an efficient process for the team from start to finish, yet being nimble enough to evolve, all on a shoestring budget. These things get worked out in time, but with growth comes more challenges, so having a team on hand that is prepared and ready to take on the growth is key.
[Ben] Driving process without disrupting growth is quite the balancing act! If there’s one secret to success in the cannabis industry, it’s the ability to adapt to change. Before we jump, do you have any questions for me?
[Matt] I do have one question - what is your favorite Collective Project beverage?
[Ben] Do I have to pick just one? I’ll agree with consumers in saying the Blood Orange and Yuzu is delicious, but I’m also enthralled with your Mango, Pineapple, and Coconut. I find it to be a really on-trend, sophisticated, adult beverage. But really, I’ll take anything that comes off your line. Matt, thank you so much. Always a pleasure. Where can folks learn more about Collective Project or find your products?
[Matt] Check out our website to learn about our brand and follow us on Instagram and Twitter for the latest news on product launches.
About Collective Project:
Collective Project believes that a creative world is a better world and we’re on a mission to bring inspiration, collaboration and creativity into everyday life. Collective Project stands behind all creatives in their efforts to push the boundaries and challenge the status quo. We think there’s creativity in everyone. We’re here to spark it. Our craft cannabis beverages are made with real and fresh ingredients; sparkling juices and sparkling teas that are well balanced in both flavor and dose.