Zzz Natural: The Cannabis Brand Aiming To Solve America’s $400B Sleeping Problem

Julian Mitchell
Written by Julian Mitchell

Cannabis brand
Zzz Natural Founder Blake Ricciardi seated at his company’s display during the inaugural Hall of Flowers cannabis trade show in Santa Rosa, CA on September 17, 2018. PHOTO BY MIKE LE

By 2050, Americans are expected to spend a projected $52 billion on sleep aids, marking an exponential increase from the $41 billion spent on sleep remedies in 2015.

These staggering statistics largely stem from the fact that an estimated 20% of Americans suffer from a sleep disorder, while 35% fail to register the recommended 7 hours of sleep needed for the body to feel rested. This percentage spikes significantly for teenagers, with 92% receiving less than 6 hours of sleep nightly. Consequently, despite advancements in pharmaceutical medicine, enhancements in bedding materials and design, along with a wide range of natural practices for calming the body — sleep deprivation costs the United States an astounding $411 billion each year.

Noticing an undeniable need in a rapidly emerging market, serial entrepreneur Blake Ricciardi set out to create the answer to a massive problem plaguing millions of Americans across generations.

Founded in 2018, Zzz Natural is the first cannabis brand entirely dedicated to helping people get better sleep. The idea was initially inspired by his own personal struggle attempting to get ample rest, withstanding years of trying several traditional remedies with minimal success. Searching for a natural alternative, Ricciardi toured countless marijuana dispensaries and failed to find an effective solution. More notably, he observed that each dispensary recommended a very different strain of cannabis, exposing the lack of a proven fix for what providers categorized as their most popular inquiry.

Consisting of an all-natural proprietary cannabis formula, Zzz Natural’s flagship product is a disposable vape pen. Each cartridge contains a mixture of sleep-inducing terpenes and botanical extracts that include lavender, mango and chamomile. The company’s formula was intentionally developed for the purpose of helping users fall asleep quickly and enjoy hours of rest without suffering from common side-effects such as grogginess.

Teaming up with Green Street, the leading brand marketing and creative agency in the cannabis space, Ricciardi leveraged his lifestyle marketing experience scaling streetwear giant Popular Demand with the agency’s established track record for adding a disruptive spark to the market. As the cannabis industry continues expanding, with an increasing number of states anxiously awaiting federal legalization, Green Street added entrepreneur and acclaimed growth hacker Gary Vaynerchuk as a strategic partner. Announcing his involvement as an investor, purchasing 50% of the marketing firm, Green Street is finishing the development of a 7-story facility in Los Angeles that they hope will become the hub for Cannabis culture in Southern California.

In September, Zzz Natural debuted at the inaugural Hall Of Flowers, the first ever B2B trade show bringing together a carefully curated collective of cannabis companies and flower enthusiasts alike.

Following their unveiling, I spoke with Blake about the vision behind his company, breaking into the cannabis market and how building a leading lifestyle brand prepared him to thrive in an emerging industry.

What inspired you to step into the cannabis industry with a non-recreational product and what convinced you that launching a sleep aid would be a successful venture people would willingly adopt?

Blake: There’s only so many ways to smoke a good strain of cannabis, and there’s a whole market of people who want the next incredible cannabis-based product for recreation. But, there’s another market of people who want to improve their lives in areas they may be struggling with — whether it’s stress, pain or sleep. For us, I think we’re going to set a tone within the industry in terms of categorizing certain products so that the new or existing user comes into it and feel comfortable using cannabis to enhance their lives. When you walk into a CVS or Walgreens and ask for pain medication, they point you to aisle 4 where you can get Tylenol or Advil. That’s not really how it is in cannabis. But, I think it’s going to move in that direction and we’re going to be at the forefront of it. In part, that’s because searching for a strain to help sleep is the number one question asked at any dispensary, so why not start with that as the first category? Some people have been smoking for 20 years and operating in the cannabis industry for 10 years, so they approach the industry with a certain perspective. For me, I approach it with a deep understanding of marketing and branding, in addition to coming in fresh because I haven’t smoked in years. At this point, experiencing it as a new user, I started asking certain questions through that lens that have provided a huge advantage for me.

What have been the biggest differences from launching lifestyle brand in the streetwear space versus launching a cannabis brand?

Blake: Cannabis is so interesting, because when you think of vices like alcohol, you don’t think of it as a way to have a lot of fun, while also helping you from a health standpoint. It’s an odd juxtaposition. It’s a weird scenario grasping that there is a plant-based product that can make you feel amazing and enhance your experiences, while at the same time it can help you sleep better, relieve stress or help you deal with pain. There’s nothing that compares to it. While there is a whole medicinal side of it, as well as a recreational side, think about the experience of walking into a dispensary. You’re stepping into a space designed to cater to both sides at the same time, so the experience may be a little more difficult. What I’ve noticed going into different dispensaries is that some are heavily driven by recreation and feel great for the person who wants the latest in flower or oil that fits within their lifestyle. Then, there are other dispensaries that when you walk in, they are there to help with a problem you have. I know, as someone who has the first cannabis brand entirely dedicated to sleep, that we will not work effectively in every dispensary.  There will be some dispensaries that turn to us and say your target audience is not our customer. For me, I look at that and say it totally makes sense. At the same time, there will be others that recognize we’re the exact product they’re looking for, because it’s the biggest question they receive and their customer base is primarily middle-aged women. That’s how it’s going to be, and we’re not going to serve everybody. A lot of people launching new businesses look at the emerging market and want to attract everybody. The truth about markets like this is that you eventually get wide after you start narrow.

While there is a non-recreational side that looks to provide positive personal benefits, there is still a very strong stigma surrounding recreational use and cannabis as a whole — How would you describe the attitude surrounding the industry and where we stand in terms of reversing the stigma? 

Blake: As my partner Gary Vaynerchuk says, Nancy Reagan was a great marketer, which is incredibly true. In the 1980s, the Just Say No campaign was massive and effective across America. The reality is that you’re grouping in this wonderful plant that has so many healthy medicinal elements to it, and you’re pairing it with destructive drugs like cocaine. They have nothing to do with each other. But, if you tell someone something long enough, they’re eventually going to believe it. We’re obviously in that world today in an era of Donald Trump and fake news. When you start grouping in cannabis with all of these awful things, while at the same time alcohol and cigarettes are legal, how is somebody supposed to figure out the truth about marijuana? Especially when the government, the one arm of America that you’re supposed to trust, tells you it’s so destructive. So, there’s a lot of unwinding and deconstructing to do. Fortunately, the plant is so amazing, and the smart entrepreneurs within this industry are doing so many incredible things with it that it is reversing these stigmas. But, it’s really difficult to do and going to continue taking time. The good news is that the government, on a federal and state level, are profiting a lot of money from it. Now that there’s obviously an abundance of money in it, and people need new schools and roads, they are willing to say it’s not so bad. However, it was never bad to begin with. They just told you cannabis was bad because they wanted to criminalize it for the purpose of putting poor people in jail among other things. I think we’re going to look back and see the past several decades as an awful time in our history when you have cancer sticks putting people in the hospital while cigarettes are completely legal. Yet, this healing plant has been treated in a totally different way. It will take a lot of work to reverse the stigma, but at the same time, it’s such a positive plant with so many benefits that through marketing and the right momentum it will completely unwind. In 5-10 years, we’re going to look back at the time when it was illegal and ask ourselves what in the world were we thinking.

Describe the response you’ve received introducing your brand in the space and how different demographics have reacted to the product? 

Blake: There are so many people who may not be using Zzz Natural yet, but they have told me they only smoke weed to sleep.  It’s so interesting that there’s an entire segment of the population, representing all different ages, that have started using it. I believe our formula is better and going to help them with sleep that much more, but people have been using cannabis to aide sleep for a long time. I’m just packaging it, branding it and introducing a formula that we honestly feel is better than anything on the market. The fun part about this for me is that I have a clothing brand that I sell to a certain age demographic and I market to them. With this brand, it’s a wonderful feeling talking to a 21-year-old in college struggling with sleep and so excited about the product — sending us a DM or comment. Then, I can talk to my mom and her friends who are obviously much older and they are equally as excited about the product. That’s really powerful to know that it can cross generations, because when was the last time somebody told you they don’t care about getting a good night’s sleep? Everybody connects with that, regardless of age, gender or walk of life.

Marketing and branding is such a focal point in the space — How do you effectively market the product to a multi-generational audience that share struggles with sleep?

Blake: The tagline of my clothing brand, Popular Demand, is No Apologies. It’s loud, abrasive and out there. It’s geared toward a certain audience with a certain attitude. As I was developing this brand, my partner made a comment about how everything looked. He told me that I have to bring a little more of that edge to it. It’s too sterile. The things we were saying and the way we were positioning it was too safe. That’s partially because I felt as if we went too far on the other side with Popular Demand. When you look at other brands today across industries that are having tremendous success, they can be provocative and appeal to a 20-year-old the same way they appeal to a 75-year-old. An older person can still appreciate that sentiment and connect with a provocative message. It may not be the same type of provocative, but at the end of the day, it’s about being bold and saying something that leaves an impression on you. For us, we have a series of catch phrases that appeal to a younger audience. We also have some that will appeal to an older audience. But, we also have some that any audience can relate to and say that’s clever enough to make me want to try the product.

So much of successful marketing comes down to understanding lifestyle and seeing the shared values between demographics — Explain the importance of tapping into these lifestyles with this type of brand? 

Blake: The companies I look to for inspiration are brands that appeal to any generation. For example, how does Pepsi appeal to someone who is 23 and someone who is 60? How does Target appeal to the kid who is ready to start college or the mom who is ready to start decorating her new guest room? What makes them feel special walking into a Target or Ikea store? If you look at the way those companies market, there are some consistencies. First, aesthetically, everything looks spot-on and high quality. You have to do that, because people see your product before they experience it. People can always spot bad design. They may not be able to decipher incredible design, but they always know when it’s bad. When a product looks great, they feel comfortable trying it out and learning more about it. You have to start visually. Secondly, our name, Zzz Natural, reflects the emoji with three Z’s. It’s a universal symbol of sleep anyone can identify with. Adding ‘Natural’ to our name is obvious and makes sense, because our product is 100% natural. Going to back to reversing the stigma about cannabis, we have a completely natural product. It’s about finding your voice and having that voice translate generationally in a way that connects with human beings from all walks of life. We have to find a voice that both somebody at 25 and 75 can understand. Some of our tags may not work for some segments of our audience, but it also depends on where and how we’re going to market the product. If we’re going to be narrow and focused, which is where I genuinely feel marketing is going in the future, we have to make sure our messaging is consistent across the board.

As more cities and states work to legalize cannabis — What is your approach to scaling the company and breaking into new markets as they arise?

Blake: Scaling is such an interesting question in this space, because the majority of people in this industry are in California, Washington and Colorado. At this point, it’s almost as if every state is its own country. Legalization is very different and complex in every area. You can’t cross state lines with cannabis, so if you make an amazing product in California and want to sell it in Nevada, you can’t legally bring it into the state because it’s federally illegal. For us, I see that as an opportunity, where others may see it as a hinderance. I see an opportunity, because while these restrictions have made it much more difficult to be recognized across the country, it has also made it easier for great brands in the market to take ownership of specific segments of the market. If you say Budweiser in any state across America, you know what the brand is. The most successful companies in the world are known everywhere. That’s very difficult to do in cannabis, because every state operates very differently. We’re working on a licensing model that will hopefully put us in more states quicker than just about anybody. Our goal is to have more brand awareness in this biggest category — which is sleep.We believe that if we can get mass market brand awareness state by state across the country, through things like PR, advertising initiatives, influencer marketing and doing unique experiential activations in each market at different dispensaries — We can become a brand that generates tremendous value in a short period of time. It’s the holy grail, but it’s so hard to accomplish because of how the laws are established today. This may change six months from now and it becomes federally legal, but we just don’t know. So, when you’re talking about a rollout plan across the country, that’s literally a matter of where we are today versus six months to a year from now. Not only where we are as a company, but more importantly where the country stands at that point.

Describe your partnership with Green Street and the thinking behind the team you’ve assembled around the brand?

Blake: I’m very fortunate because I developed the idea for this product and I wasn’t a cannabis smoker at the time. I hadn’t smoked in years. Being a new user who was also new to the industry, I didn’t want to just jump in all by myself. So, I sat down with the owners of Green Street, the premiere marketing and creative agency in cannabis, and shared the concept. One of the partners, Rama Mayo, is a friend of mine whom I’ve known for years. I explained the idea to him, pitched what I was envisioning, how I planned to market it, our approach to storytelling and what I believed the bigger opportunity was. After sharing the vision, he loved it. I asked if he would be interested in partnering, and it organically came together. What’s unique about Green Street is that as a creative agency, they typically have clients. I wasn’t focused on being a client of theirs, only because I didn’t need some of the primary services they provide because I had extensive experience marketing through my clothing brand and have assembled a strong team. Instead, for us, I wanted a strategic partner that could help guide us in terms of decision making, strategy and overall approach to the market. They have a deep understanding of what works, what to stay away from and how to set up the brand for future success. We all work collaboratively to direct the brand, leveraging the expertise they’ve acquired through being an industry leader for over six years. In the midst of our partnership with Green Street, they bought a seven-story building in Downtown Los Angeles. Everybody that rents from them in that building is in the cannabis industry, which will make this the hub for cannabis in Los Angeles. Then, along the way, they partnered with Gary Vaynerchuk who purchased a large equity stake in the agency. So, it’s amazing to have a team in Green Street and Gary on board with us, as well as this new building coming and the amazing team we’ve built to really make our mark in the space.

To potential investors, entrepreneurs and brands still skeptical about jumping into the cannabis space — What are your words to them?

Blake: As a potential business person or investor observing the cannabis space, if you’re not ready to pounce now and get into the business — then you better be paying incredibly close attention and be just five degrees from the outside of it and learning everything you can. If not, it is going to pass you by. There are going to be a lot of people in a lot of industries that are going to regret never getting into this space because they were skeptical or worried about different things. Cannabis will be legalized on a federal level eventually, whether one year or 15 years from now. It’s a positive product and a positive industry that has battled an unfair and unfortunate stigma for a long time. But, that stigma will eventually evaporate. If you’re not here now, you will eventually miss the boat. If you’re not ready to jump in, really take this time to learn as much as you can and pay close attention so that you’re right on the edge. That way, when the tables turn, you’re up to speed and ready to take full advantage. Things are about to change. Right now, there are hardworking and talented people in the space that are doing amazing things. A lot of them are going to see very big payoffs when the market opens up because of all the work they’re putting in now. They’re dealing with the stigmas and fighting through the different challenges. At some point, that’s all going to end and people are going to look at them in an entirely different way. If you’re in the game right now, you have to embrace that you are at the beginning of that shift and the reward is worth the temporary risk and discomfort.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

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About Julian Mitchell
I'm an award-winning content creator with a passion for adding my perspective to topics in music, media and entertainment. I've spearheaded campaigns and content for brands like American Honda Motors, Wells Fargo, Google, and Magic Johnson Enterprises. I also worked closely alongside Sean "Diddy" Combs to launch REVOLT Media & TV as Social Media Director, before shaping the network's voice as Editorial Director. I've notably covered many of the biggest stories and moments in music, while interviewing many of its biggest artists. I teach Brand Writing and Content Marketing for MediaBistro, showing digital marketers how to tell impactful stories and build meaningful brands.