With five states voting in 2020 to legalize some form cannabis sales, more state legislatures already taking up legalization in this year’s legislative sessions, and the possibility of action at the federal level, the cannabis industry is poised for massive growth in 2021. As the legal cannabis industry takes off, it will become more important for major brands to understand how U.S. cannabis consumers think and what drives their demand.
Enter Carmen Brace, a consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry veteran who founded Aclara Research in 2016 to fill that exact void. With two decades of experience across Fortune 500 CPG companies including Campbell’s Soup Company, Mars-Wrigley and ConAgra Brands, she’s now laser focused on cannabis, founding and self-funding a cannabis data company, Aclara Research, serving on the board of directors for Chicago NORML and the Illinois Governor’s Committee on Cannabis and Health. I had the chance to speak with Carmen about her data-driven company and her goals for the new year. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get involved in the cannabis industry? What made you decide to pivot your career to cannabis?
In 2014, I took a year-long sabbatical to study four emerging trends while living in Madrid and cannabis was one of them. After returning to the U.S., I took a trip to Denver and observed many customers – including women in their 40s – looking for products to help with sleep and pain relief in an easy-to-use form, like gummies or creams. With cannabis as the hero ingredient, I realized this was the next CPG industry. I wanted to understand this from a very classical, CPG research angle. And the most important element is understanding what drives consumer demand. This is when I realized I had the opportunity to launch a cannabis data company.
I spent the first year immersed in qualitative research with patients in Illinois and Michigan. We formed some focus groups – patient support groups, at that time – and these patients had chronic need states that were causing them to use cannabis products regularly. About 70 million Americans need better sleep, about 50 million have chronic pain, and 40 million have anxiety. That’s what made me think, “if I can take it from this angle and develop a company that offers access to hard-to-find consumers over time – like our consumer panel – then that’s the foundation to create an existing proven model of data products that help Big CPG and healthcare understand the drivers of demand, how they’re going to manage this disruption, and the opportunity.” Cannabis is a driver of growth innovation.
Tell me more about what Aclara Research does and your 2021 goals. What are you currently working on?
We’re working with Nielson and Ipsos on a really exciting pilot for CPG and healthcare clients. Within the past 4 years, we’ve developed a panel of 30,0000 cannabis and CBD users across legal markets. That’s really our golden egg. We’re able to leverage the data we collect from the panel to create scalable data solutions that help clients increase ROI for innovation and marketing. That’s our number one goal for 2021.
It boils down to two elements. Number one: the need states focused on a chronic, ongoing problem. If you think about those who are using cannabis for more of a symptom-based management element – think of chronic pain, trouble sleeping, anxiety – at a minimum, that’s 100 million Americans or about 40% of American adults. Many of those consumers don’t have a product that’s fully meeting their needs, so we see demand around that space.
And we also see demand around the space of mental health and relaxation. Think about that moment when you just want to chill out. Cannabis use as a method of relaxation and integrated wellness allows us to capture how we’re all thinking about physical and mental wellness in a different way. And we’re looking for products that have a plant-basis, there’s certainly an affinity to that as a consumer trend.
Here’s a really interesting and important discovery: in a recent Aclara study, over 80% of our respondents stopped or decreased usage of traditional products – including OTC drugs. pharmaceuticals, alcohol and supplements – after using cannabis and CBD products. This shows us that these consumers were using a product that didn’t fully their needs, so it was replaced when cannabis and CBD became available.
How did you choose your panel? Was that based on state law? Are you hampered by issues such as access to banking that other legal cannabis companies face at the federal level?
We recruit panelists in legal states using social media and with cannabis industry partners. We are an ancillary company – we don’t touch the plant – but we have had banking challenges. We were denied a bank account when I told the representative that we have cannabis clients. Fortunately, we found another solution.
What are you looking towards in 2021 in regard to state legalization or with the new Biden administration?
I look toward passage of legislation that normalizes cannabis industry business practices and expands cannabinoid medical research. The U.S. cannabis industry was projected to reach $15 billion in 2020, yet many businesses can’t obtain a bank account. Our ability to conduct medical research is also thwarted due to Schedule 1. The United States has 50 years of research whose sole purpose was show how cannabinoids are harmful. But we don’t have to look further than Israel and Tikun Olam for robust clinical data on the impact of cannabis across specific conditions. For many health care consumers, cannabis improves outcomes. Our data also supports this.
As for the Biden administration, I expect that cannabis will be legal sooner rather than later. Cannabis is fully legal in Canada, and Mexico may be next. We are the world’s largest market, and this industry represents a tremendous growth innovation opportunity. Aclara is positioned well to help our global data partners and our clients develop the products that consumers need for health and wellness.
And from a local view, I’m optimistic that the state of Illinois will issue cannabis operator licenses to social equity applicants. Illinois is a $1 billion market and people need to open their businesses. They’ve been on hold since August and these applicants are the least likely to have the liquidity and capital to hold on.
I had a unique opportunity to be very close to the process of developing the Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act (CRTA) legislation. I’m really proud of the work that Chicago NORML did to advance the CRTA and the social equity legislation. We talked to The Drug Policy Alliance and NORML in Oregon and California because those states had done the most in terms of including legislation that addressed the impact of drug convictions on Black and brown people. We’ve been going to jail for this for a very long time and now it’s time to create generational wealth in this industry.
To learn more about Carmen and her work at Aclara Research, visit aclararesearch.com.