Irish Mike’s Weed Pop-Up: A Masterclass in Branding

Disclaimer: This piece contains a narrative about drug use. In the early ‘90s, as a student at Glassboro State College (soon to be named Rowan University), I drank alcohol and smoked marijuana recreationally. In fact, drinking and smoking were the unofficial double-minor of 87% of the student body at the time.

This is a story from that period of my life, and the part pertaining to marijuana comprises a mere framework to make a more important point about good branding. Please do not take this writing as a celebration of, or advocation for, illegal drug use. Thanks in advance.

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One of the best and most unlikely brands I ever encountered was created by a South Philly weed dealer.

The year was 1991. I couldn’t tell you what the guy’s real name was, but he went by Irish Mike. Nobody seemed to know him. But each of his customers knew someone who knew someone who knew him.

Here’s how his operation worked:

Irish Mike only sold dime bags and only once a day, during a very short window of time: between 7:30 and 8:00pm (though you never knew exactly when), at a location to be named just ahead of time. From a random pay phone, Mike would send a page to his very small number of contacts about a half hour before showtime. When they called him back, he would disclose the location for that night (e.g., 10th and Wolf) and hang up. That was it. Then, his contacts would reach out to their contacts—people like me—and spread the word.

(Keep in mind, this was the early ‘90s. Weed was illegal. Technology was crude. And cops would patrol their beats looking for kids making quick-palm exchanges. You had to be careful.)

After all the phone calls were made, a crowd of people flocked to the spot … and waited for Irish Mike to arrive. Someone would always spot him first—“Over there!”—then everyone would bum rush him.

The exchanges were quick. The rules were clear: no more than two dimes each, $10 apiece, cash only. Mike would sell out within minutes. And, that was it. His pop-up store, such as it was, wouldn’t open again for roughly 24 hours.

(I did a head count one night: There were about 50 buyers out. If half of them bought one dime and half bought two, that’s $750 cash. If Irish Mike was marking up triple, which feels about right, he was making $500 every night — in ten minutes’ time. He worked six nights a week, so, $500 x 6 = $3,000 a week. In 1991. The kid was maybe 25 years old. Not bad. At the time, I was working at an Acme supermarket, putting in 24 hours a week to clear $120 in take-home pay.)

Right now you may be thinking: “Wait, I clicked on a marketing blog and somehow I’m reading a deleted scene from New Jack City. What the hell is going on here?” Fair enough. Let’s get down to business:

As I said at the top, Irish Mike—a weed dealer from 2-Street—had cultivated one of the most powerful brands I’ve ever seen. And he did it on three core tenets:

1. Exclusivity
Not that many people knew about him. And, even if you heard rumors, you had to know someone to get in on it. Being “in” on something special makes us feel special. So does being an advocate for a something you know is great. (Most people love the opportunity to give an in-the-know recommendation to a friend or colleague.) Marketers are inclined to shout their brand’s name from the rooftops, to get the word out to as many as possible. But great brands whisper instead of shout … because they know people will lean in to hear what they have to say.

2. Value
Mike’s dimes were stuffed to 50% over standard volume. Every other dealer gave you the lightest bag they could get away with. And Mike’s quality was good; no seeds, stems or shake; it burned smooth and delivered a nice mellow high. (That’s all I’ll say about that, but you feel me.) The lesson here is that great margins aren’t everything. Know what matters most to your customers, then over-deliver on their expectations. Doing so, and doing it reliably, builds happiness and trust—which, in turn, generates recurring business and brand advocacy.

3. Customer Experience
When we think of CX, we generally think of convenience—but that’s only one kind of great experience. If you want cheap and fast, sure, Amazon has the best CX available. But for luxury brick-and-mortar brands like Nordstrom, Apple and Whole Foods, experience means something else altogether. Customers are willing to make a reasonable drive because of how they feel walking through the store. Irish Mike didn’t offer luxury, per se; but he did offer an experience, tied to the exclusivity of his brand, that set him apart from all other weed slingers.

Okay, so:

What can a marketing executive in 2024, dealing with an entirely legal and morally stalwart brand, take from this? Quite a lot, actually.

A brand building exercise—even done by some of the finest agencies—tends to focus on what makes one’s brand different and better than its competitors. And, yes, these are things you need to determine as part of the process. But these are ME-centric questions. Great brands are built less on what they say about their company or product line, and more on what they provide to the customer.

Start with questions about you. But then ask twice as many questions about THEM.

Think about your flagship product or service. Now, think about customers using that kind of product or service (both yours and your competitors’). Ask yourself:

What do they like about it? What do they hate about it? What would they change if they had a magic wand?

Then ask harder questions:

What could we do, by contrast, that would make people feel special? What would get them excited, get them talking (on our behalf)?

Go further:

In what ways have our competitors gotten lazy … and, by extension, how could we take a ho-hum expectation that our audiences have settled into and flip it on its head?

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Now, don’t get me wrong. Irish Mike’s was a terrible business model. Not easily scalable. Way too much risk. Legal and ethical issues galore. Etc. But his brand, by any measure, was superlative.

I don’t know what happened to Irish Mike. One day his operation just stopped. But every once in a while, I think back on it. In a microcosm where everybody did things the same way, Mike created his own thing entirely. And it made all the difference.

And while you may not love the what of the story, you have to admire the how.

If you’re in an industry where everyone is zigging and you need to figure out how to zag, think about what Irish Mike built … and let your brain wander.

 

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