Jacqueline Rosales: How Market Research Drives Decision-Making for Cannabis Brands

Jacqueline Rosales is a career market researcher and President of ISA Corp, which offers high-impact custom research solutions across a variety of specialized industries.

Continued after the jump.

For as long as it has existed, market research has powered the biggest and smartest business moves across nearly every industry. Insight into the current market is the only way to reliably predict the market’s future—and this is nearly always the most efficient path to success.

We recently caught up with Jacqueline Rosales to discuss why she pursued a career in market research and to learn how ISA Corp works to serve and benefit its cannabis industry clients. This interview covers their launching of The Green Time (the world’s first cannabis consumer panel), the immense value of targeted market research for companies of any size, Jacqueline’s advice for aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs, and more!

Find the full interview below.

Ganjapreneur: When did you start your career in market research? What makes you passionate about this space?

Jacqueline Rosales: I’m one of the few people who went into the insights industry intentionally. I started in college and when I graduated, my mentor made me a guarantee that if I went into this industry, I would be bored within five years. Now, 25 years later I’m here talking to you.

What I find fascinating is the opportunity to make an impact and solve specific business challenges. I love studying individuals and what makes them tick. During my time in research, I’ve had the opportunity to explore many different industries, emerging trends, technological advancements, societal changes, and market disruptions. The most extreme behavioral shifts I’ve seen in my 25-year career have happened in the last 2 years – first with the rapid adoption and acceptance of cannabis, and then with COVID. When these dramatic shifts occurred simultaneously, we saw an opportunity to dig deep to understand the interplay and look at what was happening within subsets of the population.

One thing we found is that workplace culture has evolved significantly in terms of business leaders being “out of closet” about their cannabis consumption. Today, 73% of working professionals (upper management all the way to the C-suite) say they are comfortable discussing their cannabis use with colleagues. It’s amazing to see, from a research standpoint, and from a personal standpoint, how society is changing.

Not many people plan to go into the insights industry. Typically, people just fall into it, unless you’re me. As a result, you end up with a lot of people from diverse backgrounds – from statisticians to sociologists to psychologists. That diversity of thought leads to a better understanding of consumer behavior, which is what drives my passion for the industry. I’m driven by a passion for understanding what makes people tick.

True passion is real, and volatile and emotional. Occasionally, you get labeled “crazy,” but passion is also extremely helpful.

Jacqueline and her dog Auggie at work in the office. Photo credit: ISA Corp

ISA Corp was founded in 1982, but when did the firm begin researching the cannabis industry? How did you spearhead this new area of study?

From my perspective, it was really a perfect storm situation. Professionally, our mainstream clients in grocery, CPG and entertainment were approaching us saying: “What’s happening with the cannabis space? What does this mean for our business? When is the right time for us to jump in, and how are our customers going to feel about this?” When other Market Research companies were unwilling to explore these questions due to legal concerns, we saw an opportunity to help build an emerging industry and provide startups with the tools to grow their businesses and become successful by understanding their customers and market trends.

Personally, I was involved in a horrific, head-on car collision in 2015 that resulted in chronic, on-going medical conditions and dozens of surgeries. The doctors filled me full of prescriptions for years. Eventually, I was paired with an excellent pain management doctor and together we learned how powerful the cannabis plant can be in treating my conditions. Today I leverage the plant for all the various parts of my day; to help with pain, anxiety, motivation, creativity, and sleep. It has become a part of my health routine.

In what ways have your decades of market research experience helped to create a sector of ISA specifically for cannabis businesses?

ISA was already sought after for our work in academic research, public policy, emerging industries, and health and wellness – so our experience lent itself naturally to the questions people were asking about cannabis. After being over-prescribed highly addictive and harmful medications and then having a personal experience with the benefits of cannabis, I felt even more passionate about helping brands understand how complex and layered the consumers are in this market. Having that perspective helped our teams deliver that “ah-ha” learning to our clients.

How did traditional data collection methods from ISA Corp, and the data you’ve already accumulated from other industries, inform your development of cannabis market research methods?

Having been around since 1982, ISA has been studying human decision-making, measuring emerging markets, and analyzing political and societal shifts for a very long time.

Traditional methodologies still work in the cannabis space. Our specialty is finding the right people to answer business questions and we have multiple ways to do that – online, in-person, telephonically, or using online insight communities. ISA was the first research company to use an insight community to study cannabis. The tools are basically the same, but the habits, norms, and behaviors we’re studying are new.

What are some of the market research tools you have developed to specifically serve the cannabis industry?

Back in 2016, when we got started, we knew that cannabis brands might not have the budget for custom research, and we knew how critical that information could be for a new business. So, we started by talking to cannabis consumers, collecting data and self-funding research, which we then shared back with the industry. Clients started asking us for more and we realized the benefit of launching a low-barrier-to-entry research product for companies looking for quick, directional feedback. That product was the CANNApinion poll. By gathering a quick pulse of cannabis consumers every two weeks, we’re able to understand the trends, behaviors, usage occasions and desired experiences that are really driving the industry.

This initiative evolved into launching the world’s first cannabis consumer panel – The Green Time, composed of thousands of consumers and industry professionals across the U.S. This community is ready and willing to step in and give their feedback at a moment’s notice to help brands develop better products and services.

When did you start developing The Green Time? Who did you survey to develop this data pool?

Personally, I’ve experienced building research communities since 1999. Some are as big as millions of people and some as small as 50, really specialized folks who clients want to talk to. It’s important to have a diverse group of individuals and therefore we use a combination of methods to reach them. We were able to tap into our existing panel of consumers (MySoapBox), leverage relationships with cannabis media publications, and partner with organizations (both cannabis and non-cannabis) to build our Green Time community.

At what point in a business’ lifespan is targeted market research most important?

It’s important at every stage to have a continuous pulse on the market and understand your target audience. What we see commonly are needs like concept testing, package testing, ad testing, name testing, flavor preference testing. We do a lot of work with usage and mapping the customer journey. We even put products in people’s homes and ask them to share feedback with us at multiple stages of experiencing a cannabis product – measuring the effects, duration, and aftermath. ISA was the first research company to do an in-home usage test with products containing THC.

We’ve done dyad interviews with couples who told us about their experiences gifting and consuming cannabis products as part of their Valentine’s Day celebration. My favorite was a woman who received a box of cannabis infused chocolate-covered strawberries. There weren’t many in the box; she decided not to share any with her husband.

Through talking to consumers, we learned that the opportunity for brands with gifting is enormous. Over 60% of cannabis consumers in California have given a cannabis product as a gift. The top gifting occasion for cannabis is birthdays, followed by 4/20. People who work outside of cannabis are always surprised to hear this stat – that the 4/20 holiday is now a gifting occasion for a large number of consumers.

How does working with ISA Corp help cannabis producers with product development and expansion into new markets?

As we all know, consumer experiences with cannabis are affected by the patchwork of state regulations that vary widely from state to state. Dispensaries who operate in multiple state markets are now looking to tailor their offerings to the local communities they serve. We call this “conscious expansion” and Trulieve is a prime example of this. Rather than duplicating a single customer experience, they partnered with us to understand what is unique about the individual markets they serve, so they could customize the product mix and Trulieve experience for the local consumer.

As for product development, with new formulations that incorporate next generation cannabinoids coming to market daily, there’s almost no limit to what consumers can experience. Within that diversity of experience, there is a greater need to take a step back, and say wait, are these products doing what we designed them to do? Is this the right combination? Our CEO and CMO may have tested it with their friends and family, but does that group represent all our potential customers? When THC and CBD were the only options, it was easier for product developers to rely on guts and guesses. When there are dozens of active ingredients, it becomes much more complex.

What research and education do you and your team undergo to stay informed on new, expanding, and changing markets as the industry develops?

The cannabis market literally changes by the minute, and it takes daily effort to stay on top of developments. It’s our job to know what’s going on, and the bulk of our knowledge comes through becoming intimately acquainted with our clients’ specific needs. In addition to what we learn through being “on the ground”, and talking to consumers every day, we also speak at industry events and run webinars and sponsor research engagements for cannabis media outlets. We believe in hiring team members who have expertise not just in research, but in other categories and this extends to cannabis as well. I try to build a staff of people who are naturally curious. My new obsession with Clubhouse means I’m learning all day and all night on this new social media platform and those learnings then get incorporated into our corporate strategy.

Additionally, I think what sets us apart is our commitment to legal compliance. In addition to our dedicated in-house legal counsel, we also have partnered with UCLA Law to develop a set of guidelines specific to cannabis and cannabis research.

You have spearheaded the founding and growth of multiple companies and projects. Do you have advice on how to both build and motivate staff in such a way that leads to company growth and success?

My advice is this: be passionate and believe in what you’re doing. Having a way to display your passion is extremely helpful for leaders. Some people will disagree with me on this next one, but I think it’s important to be a regular person. People will flock to those they can relate to and identify with. When it comes to building a team, I always look for the diamonds in the rough – people who may typically be overlooked. A diverse staff that brings multiple perspectives to the table is key.

Are you optimistic about the prospect of federal policy changes related to cannabis? What do you think that might look like when it happens?

I’m optimistic that it will happen, although I wouldn’t make a prediction on the timeline. We know for a fact that Fortune 500 brands have been working on this in the background and when legalization does happen, they’ll be ready. Product development and fragmentation of the market will happen much more quickly than people realize. People should be worried about the big brands – they have the budgets to do the development and advertising and smaller legacy brands could get pushed out. I believe that there will always be a place for artisanal, small-batch and locally sourced products, but only so many brands can fill this niche. To survive after federal legalization, companies will not have the luxury of bringing products to market with a “one-size-fits-all” marketing approach. They will need to have a crystal-clear idea of exactly who their target audience is, and they will need to present hard data to retailers, to back up why they deserve a piece of limited shelf space. New products are launching every day, with new delivery methods and technologies. Without an “always on” approach to research, the market can quickly evolve beyond today’s understanding of it.

Thank you, Jacqueline, for answering our questions! To learn more, visit ISACorp.com


Recent Interviews

View all interviews

New to Cannabis? Start Here.

The Ganjapreneur beginner's guide to all things cannabis.

Website & branding by the Ganjapreneur in-house agency:

Blue Dream - Uplifted cannabis industry branding & marketing.

Uplifted cannabis industry branding & marketing.