When it comes to mastering the art of cannabranding and consumer marketing, pot entrepreneur Gilbert ‘Berner’ Milam Jr. is the quintessential cannabis mogul.
The number of artists, athletes, entertainers and tastemakers getting their feel for the cannabis industry is growing exponentially, making the weed business one of America’s most popular economy’s on the rise. No other genre has advocated, embraced or voiced support for the sticky-icky more than the hip-hop community and rappers.
From checking IDs at the age of 18 while working at a Bay Area dispensary, to eventually passing up an $800 million offer that still haunts him today, Berner has single-handedly changed cannabiz dynamics with his lifestyle brand. He takes a studied, hands-on approach with his business. Not in order to maximize profit margins, but for the love of the game: he lives for a good challenge. With Couch Locked Network, Berner is playing by his own rules, or as he states, “This is a complete passion play for me.”
While brand collaborations have presented the opportunity for some of the music industry’s biggest names to partake in the leafy economic boom, there is still a big discrepancy between consumerism and out-right ownership. However, in Berner’s case, he doesn’t just own the product he’s pushing, he designs the packaging too. “I sit there and art direct all of those [logos] – draw lil’ shady sketches on paper and actually have my people see it through.”
The historical context behind weed and rap’s intimate relationship is intrinsic. All things considered, everything is better when you’re high, especially good-humored raillery. After one complete year of quarantine and isolation, I think the world deserves to laugh again, and Berner agrees.
Tickets for tomorrow’s event are available for purchase here. But for now, check out our full conversation below, lightly edited for context and clarity.
Talk to me about your first couch locked moment.
I think it would be when I first smoked weed to be honest with you. The first time I smoked bud, I laid down in that motherfucker and I was not moving. I watched Master P’s I’m Bout It and it was the funniest shit ever to me. Even though it was a dope movie I just couldn’t stop laughing and I couldn’t get up off that couch. When I thought about doing a network and rolling out comedy, I just wanted to emphasize that vibe and let people know that you will be locked in for sure if you’re fuckin with us.
You’ve already mastered the art of consumer marketing and branding in real-time. What prompted you to go digital?
I like challenges man. When I got into music, they said it was the hardest industry in the world and I would fail, and I did it. When I got into clothing they said it would never work because it’s a weed brand and what is Cookies, why would anyone wear that: it’s probably one of the biggest streetwear brands out now. When I got into the legal cannabis market, people told us the big money guys are going to push us out the way: we’re still standing on top. I think going digital, and with comedy in general, it’s something that’s been calling my name for a long time. I was ready for the challenge. After I launched Vibes rolling papers – that’s another one they said was a big monopoly, around the paper market, there’s one guy that runs the whole show – when I broke through that area, it was like aight, now it’s time for me to do what I wanna do. This is a complete passion play for me.
It seems like you naturally embrace being challenged.
Oh yeah, for sure. I love to be the underdog. It’s a certain type of hunger when you come from nothing and you build something like this. You don’t forget when you come from. The hunger and motivation to keep challenging yourself, keep evolving as an entrepreneur, keep doing things that people say aren’t possible. It’s definitely a high for sure.
The “Couch Locked” comedy show is set to premiere this month. From Michael Blackson co-hosting to Bob Saget’s involvement, I can only imagine the extent of relationships you’ve managed to build over time. How did you hand-select who would participate?
Carla came through for me a lot with who was available. This was my first time actually doing a comedy event. I got friends ya know, shoutout to the big homie Mike Epps, Lil Duval, I got other friends that are comedians as well – but I thought we’d lay out who was available and pick the ones that stand out the most to me. Jeff Ross is hilarious, I hope he clowns the shit out of me. We just picked who was available and who is ready for this concept. The concept of a live pay-per-view comedy event is not easy. I’ll be the first to admit now, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, selling pay-per-view tickets. Maybe they’ll be a last-minute surge, but this was fucking hard. The comedians that were down for the concept were the ones we ultimately rolled with and if it hits – which I hope it does, and it’s received well – I think it’ll be a lot easier in the future to have people on deck.
You’re easily regarded as one of the most successful people in the cannabis industry, professionally. What is your thought process behind brand collaborations? I can imagine everyone wants their own strain at some point.
I just wanna do something with someone that brings value and good energy to the table. Everybody and their mother have reached out: every artist, every athlete, actor, influencer, every friend. I just pick special ones. Snoop [Dogg] was the most obvious thing because I grew up on his music and I always wanted to do something with him. Being given the opportunity to work with Dogg, it’s like aight, we gotta do something iconic. That’s why we created the mini cereal boxes and got a crazy campaign going for it. We’re fired up on it. Collaboration is all about energy really. If someone has the right energy and it compliments what we’re doing then I’ll be open to it.
With being regarded as the brains behind the business for quite some time now, in terms of branding, are you taking the Cookies approach to build out Couch Locked Network or is the strategy a bit different this time around?
Nah I’ma take the same approach. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Obviously there’s going to be new tactics and I have to learn the game. With the rolling paper business, it took me a while to learn the game in general and how to break through it. I think this first show is a learning experience for me. I wanna learn exactly how it works. I wanna learn when we sold tickets, how we sold tickets etc. I feel like I’ma take the same approach with Cookies, with being hands-on, passionate and dedicated to it, just not giving up on it. Say for instance, if we don’t sell a thousand tickets the first time around, if only 700 people bought the tickets and they love it – I’ma keep pushing it. Like I said, it’s not a money play for me, it’s a passion play. I’ma get it right till it gets right, that’s what I did with Cookies. I took a lot of hits to the chin with Cookies. I had the idea about Couch Locked Network four or five years ago and I told myself one day I’ma do something with this and I just held it. If you look at my Instagram, I’m pushing that thing like a pregnant lady in labor, I’m pushing hard right now. People know I really care about this. A lot of artists do things where they act like something is theirs and endorse shit, but this is actually mine. We’re about to pop it off.
It’s evident that you’re very hands-on with your business. Did the onset of COVID-19 pose a threat to future brand activations? If so, how have you adapted to the new normal?
COVID-19 put a dagger in everyone’s bag. It was tough to do things, especially if people want to feel your energy. I got operators all around the world building my vision out, so when they can’t see me and touch me – not literally, but be next to me – they can’t catch a vibe of why they’re doing it. So, the way we adapted is really getting ready for when we can come back out. I hit L.A running last week: been the studio with everyone, pulled up on all my stores in L.A., I worked with the design team super hard through Zoom and stuff like. Usually, we sit in a room, we get real high, we put on some Jazz, get some good food and start designing. A lot of people don’t know, all the logos we have under the Cookies brand, I create those. I sit there and art director all of those – draw lil’ shady sketches on paper and actually have my people see it through. So yeah, it’s been a lil’ different but that’s the thing about business in general, if you can’t adapt with change you’re fucked. Shit went from medical, from 215 with recreational – there were a lot of changes and a lot of people couldn’t adapt with it. I think the one thing I did differently was try to get my health right. The weird thing is that our growth in business during COVID-19 has been really wild, everything grew: the clothing, the weed, the papers, it all blew up.
Outside of Cookies’ cultural impact on hip-hop, the brand is also big on creating social impact within marginalized communities. Why do feel that it’s so important to create impact through empowering others?
That’s what the world is about. I love to work with other people. I love to embrace people’s talent and take someone’s vision and put it to work. I love to find a top class operator in another state that just needs that juice, just need those genetics, that vibe, that ping on their building, and just empower them. Everything from bringing people from their traditional market into the legal game to finding people that just need that extra push by collaboration. In every business idea you’ll see networking. For the weed business, you’ll see a lot of collabs and co-partnerships with brands. I like to work with people, that’s why I do what I do. Bringing people together is my thing man. That’s what weed does, it unifies people. I just wanna work with people man. COVID kind of shut that off in a physical way, but that shit feels great.
When it’s all said and done, what do you hope fans take away from the 420 Comedy Show?
Everyone needed to laugh a lot after the year we’ve been through, it’s been fucked up. A lot of people have lost their jobs, family members, people haven’t seen each other or interacted with one another. I hope people take away that we really needed this laugh. I hope it puts a smile on people’s faces and I hope they know we aren’t gonna stop. We’re gonna bring good vibes to the table over-and-over again.