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In-House Genetics: Creating Your Brand Legacy

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Pink Jesus Sonoma Hills Farm mg Magazine
Photo: Sonoma Hills Farm

The cannabis marketplace is becoming increasingly crowded. In the absence of many traditional marketing channels, brands must think outside the box to appeal to their target audience and build customer loyalty.

Proprietary, in-house genetics are one such strategy. It’s a high-risk, high-reward situation—pheno hunting, betting big on a plant with potential by bringing it to production, and marketing the new strain to the masses all take time and money.

“I didn’t realize how important it was at first to have my own strains on the market but quickly saw it was a game-changer,” said Jason Gellman, owner of Ridgeline Farms and creator of the award-winning LANTZ strain. “You could compete with every other brand growing the same strains, or you could set yourself apart growing your own unique strains. That is exactly what I did and continue to do.”

LANTZ cannabis strain
LANTZ by Ridgeline Farms.

Varieties like GSC (formerly Girl Scout Cookies), Blueberry Muffin, and Whitethorn Rose are synonymous with cannabis culture and, in turn, the brands behind them that loaded the bases, took a big swing, and hit a grand slam.

“Real quality strains will rise above and persevere if given wide enough accessibility,” said Ted Lidie, founder of Alien Labs. “The overall quality is so good, and the effects are so appealing that over time, word of mouth will elevate a strain into the mainstream. Strains like Sour Diesel, OG Kush, Biscotti, and Grand Daddy Purple have become legendary not merely through marketing but because their quality has earned them a permanent status—cementing their legacy in the culture. Through the years, they have been immortalized as some of the greatest strains of all time.”

But in a market driven by the hype engine, how exactly do companies create the next big thing in weed and ensure it goes the distance?

Searching for something new

Cannabis fans may have their all-time favorites, but when something innovative hits the scene, the buzz can be explosive. For many brands, that means getting ahead of the curve.

Cookies, arguably one of the most recognizable cannabis brands in the world, has created several game-changing genetics over the years that continue to appeal to consumers. From GSC to Cereal Milk, the hits keep on coming. But when it’s time to introduce new varieties to the market, the team strives to stay on the cutting edge.

“We look for breeding gaps in the market in terms of flavor and uniqueness, and create cultivars to fill those gaps and meet that consumer demand,” said London Van Der Kamp, director of product development and innovation at Cookies. “We put our Cookies micro-batch research and development program into the market for our consumers to be able to tell us straight up what they want to buy. Then we analyze those buying trends and make decisions on what products to make more permanent in our lineup.”

Creating something new and exciting is front of mind for breeders, seedbanks, and brands. If they sense something unusual in all the right ways during their research and development process, it’s a sign of a possible slam dunk. Such was the case of Pink Jesus, a particularly unique and popular cannabis strain from Sonoma Hills Farm.

Pink Jesus strain by Sonoma Hills Farms-1
Pink Jesus by Sonoma Hills Farm.

“Our co-founder Sam Magruder knew immediately that the look, scent, and high of his new strain was unique,” said Sonoma Hills Farm Chief Operating Officer Joyce Cenali. “While many breeders are working hard to create strains that smell just like lemons or cherries, Pink Jesus is harder to categorize and more open to interpretation. Her terpene profile and bouquet are myrcene and lavender dominant, but each smell adds more nuance, new notes, and complexity.” 

Hunting for a winner

There’s no doubt that producing an entirely new cannabis strain takes a decent amount of work. Many brands, whether it’s due to licensing or lack of resources, will simply white-label a product and call it their own. But those who wish to make the biggest impact will create it themselves. To do so, it all starts with breeding.

Typically, companies will start by identifying genetics that already have desired traits. Breeders will take female plants of one such strain and pollinate using pollen from male plants of another, generating seeds. Those seeds are then planted in something called a pheno hunt. Of the plants that are grown, usually only a few winners are selected for production.

Nathaniel Pennington & Halle Pennington - 2024 California Phenotype Megahunt at Burr's Place - photo credit - Zak Powers-
Nathaniel Pennington and Halle Pennington, 2024 California phenotype megahunt at Burr’s Place by Zak Powers.

Humboldt Seed Company (HSC), a large-scale producer of cannabis genetics, encourages brands to take pheno hunting seriously. The Northern California breeders are known for their massive hunts spanning multiple farms, allowing the team to see how strains perform in different growing conditions using proprietary metrics.

“Every year, we do a large-scale pheno hunt where we evaluate ten new crosses at 1,000 plants each,” HSC founder and CEO Nathaniel Pennington said. “We have a phenotype rating sheet available on our website that can be downloaded and used to score observable traits in the field. A respectable number to assess to get an idea of the potential of a seed batch would be around 30 individuals.” 

So what constitutes a first-place finisher in a pheno hunt? When the Cookies team is developing new strains, a potential pick must have it all.

“Our cultivars must meet all the most important factors: appearance, aroma, flavor, and experience. We call this full package herb,” said Van Der Kamp.

Johnny Casali, owner of Huckleberry Hills Farm and creator of white-hot strain Whitethorn Rose, also leads with his nose in the pheno hunting process.

“I don’t know if we’re looking for anything particular. But when you smell it, you know that’s the one,” he said. Casali also said plants must produce high yields without any signs of powdery mildew to make the cut.

Making a splash

Once a brand has determined it may have a potential hit strain, it’s time to let the world know. It’s one thing to create a cool label and educate retail staff on the product, but going the extra mile is necessary to make a real splash. For example, the Cookies apparel line transcends subcultures, gaining fans even where cannabis is still illegal. Other brands opt to partner with mainstream brands to widen appeal. These moves create demand outside the cannabis industry and help brands gain fans in more ways than one—ultimately leading to increased visibility.

Sonoma Hills Farm has had multiple mainstream Pink Jesus collabs, from a non-infused sorbet with Bay Area ice cream icon Humphry Slocombe to an upcoming perfume line. Cenali said the projects are just another example of how the strain has made its mark.

“Pink Jesus is really more of an experience than a strain—her unique look, scent, and high has really inspired some amazing artists and craftspeople who have come to the farm,” Cenali noted. “From famed Master Sommelier Ian Cauble to Master Perfumer Johan Bergellin, Pink Jesus has captured the imagination of many people both inside and outside the cannabis community.”

The emerging cannabis tourism sector is another way for brands to showcase their signature strains. For Casali, the decision to offer farm tours led to some of the best organic marketing he’s ever had. A guest to Huckleberry Hills happened to be connected to comedian Bert “The Machine” Kreischer, who shared some of Casali’s sungrown Whitethorn Rose with the famed podcast host. Kreischer was impressed and touted the bud on multiple podcasts, at one point calling it the perfect weed.

Bert Kreischer Whitehorn Rose
Comedian Bert Kreischer with Whitethorn Rose by Huckleberry Hills Farm and LANTZ by Ridgeline Farms.

“Over 500 people reached out to me after the first mention, then he did it again,” Casali shared, adding that the endorsement brought an awareness to Whitethorn Rose that he could not have achieved on his own.

The shoutouts introduced Huckleberry Hills Farm and other Emerald Triangle growers, including Gellman’s Ridgeline Farms, to an even wider audience. The cultivators were even invited to be guests on Kreischer’s Something’s Burning podcast and hope to work with the comedian and others like him on future projects.

“It’s gone far further out into the world than I could have ever hoped for or imagined,” Casali said of Whitethorn Rose. “It’s a reminder of how important it is for craft sungrown farmers to really highlight their stories and some of their legacy strains. It’s something the consumer has been able to resonate with and attach themselves to strains not only for the taste, flavor, effect, for our story; they become part of our family.”

Some brands will license their genetics or make them available for other commercial and home cultivators in an attempt to increase awareness. But Casali cautions it can be a double-edged sword since a strain associated with your brand could become a far different and possibly subpar product on the market under a different producer. He prefers to collaborate with hashmakers and other manufacturers using his material.

Quick tips

When asked about tips and tricks for operators seeking to develop their own genetics, the general consensus was around alignment. Stakeholders should be involved early and often, and there should be agreement about what a brand wants to see.

“If brands want to craft in-house strains that embody their brand story and ethos, they need to have a heavy hand in every step of the process and not skimp out on the research and development,” Cookies’ Van Der Kamp asserted.

And much like Cookies does with its mirco menu, Casali urges brands to let their audiences be the real judges.

“Find your own strain, market and brand it as best you can, and then listen to the consumer,” Casali concluded.



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