That’s why it’s high time Forbes toasted the industry with a cover story on its marquee mogul: Cookies CEO and founder Berner.
“Extremely humbled and blessed to be one of the faces for federal legalization in our country !” Berner wrote on Twitter, while linking to the new article, yesterday. “This is the definition of life goal shit!” he added on Instagram.
The Forbes write-up called for the end of federal prohibition, and criticized how politicians have handled the issue to date. The title of the story is ”Weed vs. Greed: How America Botched Legalizing Pot.”
On the cover, Forbes dubs Berner a $150 million cannabis king and quotes his admission that ”It’s hard to sell legal weed.”
Whether you think that greed is good for the weed game or not, Berner, born Gilbert Anthony Milam Jr, has officially separated himself as the Gordon Gekko of the current green rush.
Here’s why it had to be Berner
Berner’s rare presence at the intersection of boardrooms, courtrooms, and living rooms puts him in the driver’s seat of America’s hottest industry.
His Cookies brand is multi-national, with locations spreading from San Francisco to Thailand, and market penetration everywhere in between.
He could have cashed out years ago, if money were his only motive. Instead, he’s kept control of his operation, and used it to empower others, while pushing the limits of the industry at every turn.
His family tree includes Yung LB (Chief marketer of Leafly 2020 Strain of the Year Runtz), Wiz Khalifa (whose Khalifa Kush brand was originally backed by Berner), and NYC legacy operator Branson (who is currently working with Berner to get licensed in The Big Apple).
But he’s not just paying dues or helping his homies. With ventures like Cookies U, Berner is planting seeds that should yield huge returns whether the feds take Forbes’ advice and end prohibition, or not.
More game from industry giants
The Recession-proof plant
As we enter Recession territory, the Forbes endorsement shows that weed is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries.
After a decade of limited legal markets, and decades more of underground activity, many major corporations are no longer ashamed to embrace or exploit cannabis publicly. Yet, there are still many more lobbying against legalization behind the scenes.
The anecdotal proof is in Cookies’ rise from a collective of Bay Area breeders to an institution of the culture. Along the way the team’s adapted to both written and unwritten laws that have evolved to govern the current market.
To learn how to lead the charge, Berner wore many hats over the years. From clothing designer, to independent artist, to employee at dispensaries during the early days of medical marijuana. He’s stayed close to the plant and now its paying off in more ways than even Forbes can count.
It’s only up from here
Cookies was also named by Ad Age as one of 2021’s hottest brands in any industry—the first cannabis brand to make the list. 2022 has arguably been Cookies’ best year to date.
But Berner’s biggest win this year was over colon cancer. He was diagnosed last fall but has since shared that he’s in remission, and stated he wants to raise cancer awareness while making medical resources more accessible.
In select studies, celebrity endorsements have produced an average 4% sales increase. At this time, it appears that isn’t the case in the US cannabis market.
To date, most celebrity cannabis brands, whether endorsed or owned, leave some questioning their market impact. The unease appears warranted when considering how various celebrities have failed to live up to critical metrics, toplined by sales, market saturation and product quality.
Few Success Stories So Far
Success stories are scant at this time.
As reported in Kate Robertson’s One Weed Please newsletter, one celebrity brand, Seth Rogen’s Houseplant, cracked California’s top 100 sellers of 2021, coming in at 91 with $9.3 million sold. Brands like Marley Natural (approximately $4.3 million), B-Real‘s Insane ($3.6 million) and Jay-Z‘s Monogram ($700,000) did not make the list.
Data compiled across 11 hybrid and medical-only markets provided by BDSA highlighted two cannabis brands making headway in Q1 2022:
Willie’s Reserve: Founded in 2015, the Willie Nelson-backed brand is sold in Arizona, California, Colorado and Nevada and was a top-50 seller in the Colorado market. The venture is a partnership with Holistic Industries.
Cann: The brand had the top-selling THC-infused beverage in California is backed by a bevy of celebrity investors. They include Gwyneth Paltrow, Baron Davis, Rebel Wilson, Ruby Rose, Darren Criss, Casey Niestat, Tove Lo, and Bre-Z.
Considering More Than Financial Reports
Various respondents, including Roy Bingham, BDSA co-founder and CEO, noted that sales and business metrics are just some qualitative and quantitative points worth assessing.
“While brand awareness and brand loyalty are emerging among the cannabis consumer base, celebrity brand status is less important to consumers…than product attributes such as price point, cannabinoid content, and flavor,” said Bingham.
The celebrity’s connection with cannabis and its consumers is essential. If buyers sense inauthenticity, then sales may be hard to come by.
“Simply placing a name on a product to attract that person’s fanbase may generate some initial excitement, but if the connection doesn’t make sense, the excitement will not last,” said Erika Salgado, CMO for PharmaCann. Their celebrity brands include The Allman Brothers’ Chocolate Chunk strain, sold in Illinois.
Salgado said consumer connections to The Allman Brothers were a prime reason for the partnership.
“Fans can reminisce about their favorite concert moment or listen to their favorite music from the band while they enjoy the product,” she said.
Holistic’s Barich expanded on the importance of connecting beyond a famous person’s fanbase. He said product quality is key to doing so.
“A celebrity brand ultimately needs to reach cannabis consumers and enthusiasts beyond the celebrity’s fans, appealing to anyone who loves high-quality, craft cannabis,” he said.
Joshua Horn, the head of the cannabis law group at Fox Rothschild, said the right partner is critical.
“You need the right celebrity whom the public equates with enjoying cannabis and having that celebrity tied with the right company who operates at scale and can get the word,” Horn said.
Quality And Authenticity Are Key
Successful celebrity brands don’t necessarily need backing from household celebrities. Some of the top names to emerge could come from cannabis community celebrities.
The perfect example may be Cookies, a brand that combines celebrity, cannabis legacy, highly rated products and world views that align with the consumer base.
Headed up by hip-hop artist and entrepreneur Berner, Cookies owns retail stores across 14 states and Israel. In 2020, Cookies stores were one of many brands looted. Rather than call for criminal charges on those involved, Berner earned public praise by highlighting the importance of social justice.
Cookies is often considered one of the more consistent high-quality producers and lifestyle brands. Backed by a notable light blue background, Cookies bags can be found in legal and illicit markets across the United States – with many illegal sellers passing off products as Cookies.
Inside each bag are some of the industry’s more well-respected plant strains–something many celeb brands fail to deliver by either growing suboptimal products or white labeling a well-known cannabis brand’s strains.
“Berner has essentially become a celebrity through the growth of his cannabis and fashion brand,” said Brandon Dorsky, Fruit Slabs CEO and an attorney.
Dorsky also highlighted 22Red from System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadijian for its quality products and lifestyle brand.
In 2020, 22Red partnered with Curaleaf to expand product availability across the California medical market. The company’s products are currently available in various Nevada and Arizona dispensaries.
Chad Bronstein, president and chairman of Mike Tyson’s Tyson 2.0 brand, acknowledged Berner’s record label boss, Wiz Khalifa for achieving similar success in cannabis with his brand Khalifa Kush and through advocacy. The brand is available across several western US markets and Michigan.
“Wiz is a long-time cannabis advocate whose brand is backed by a seasoned leadership team with deep expertise in product quality, marketing and innovation,” said Bronstein. In Feb 2022, the artist announced an exclusive production deal with Trulieve Cannabis Corp, making the MSO its partner in Florida and northeast US markets.
Just over a decade ago, Berner was best known for making independent music with pot culture icons like Wiz Khalifa. But after building Cookies into an international brand, he’s now one of the biggest legacy players in the entire legal weed industry.
“Cookies outgrew me,” Berner said proudly when asked about his multi-state operation on The Bootleg Kev Podcast last year.
But he still remembers when it was the other way around. Before he was fielding billion-dollar offers for his company, Berner was an independent rapper who loved weed so much that he got a day job at a dispensary. He stayed close to the plant, grew an organic network, and applied his prolific work effort to both music and marijuana throughout the 2010s.
On his way to the billionaire buds club, he’s introduced the world to iconic strains like GSC via his music connections, and set up friends like Rick Ross with their own legal weed operations. And with over 40 independent albums and enough genetics to plan strain drops through 2080, he’s still got much more to teach the world about growing green on your own terms.
For all of the budtenders, breeders, and sellers following the trail Berner blazed to legitimate generational wealth, we rolled his journey into 28 quick hits of game that you can carry with you on your way to the top.
1. Plant solid roots
Berner was raised in San Francisco and moved to Arizona as a teen before returning to the Bay to focus on music. But even as Cookies blossoms into a global entity, Berner remains rooted to his native soil.
Northern California’s Emerald Triangle is known to yield some of the best bud in the world, and the neighboring Bay Area has a rich history of producing self-owned rap pioneers like Too $hort and E-40. With ownership of both his weed and music ventures, Berner’s biggest moves hold deeply true to his NorCal roots.
2. Grow from the ground up
After leaving school and returning to The Bay, Berner dove head first into the blooming medical marijuana field around 2001. Then he spent the next half decade working his way up to manager at Hemp Center in San Francisco. “That’s when I really fell in love with the shit,” he remembers. “I got hired as an intake person, checking doctor’s notes, then budtender, then buyer.”
3. Study the game
Berner stresses that aspiring owners must eventually learn all levels of their business if they want to be successful. His years of experience with customers, suppliers, and branding planted the seeds for his generational vision for Cookies.
4. Have a plan
Your goal shouldn’t just be: ‘Get into the legal weed game.’ Find a practical way to add value from day one that you enjoy. Berner lists some of the dozens of entry points that exist for those who don’t have their vision fully mapped out yet in many of his interviews.
So how would you answer if you met Berner tomorrow and he asked: “Do you want to be a designer? A grower? A store operator? Do you want to build a brand?” Be prepared to answer, whether you meet him or not. Because your ultimate goal will inform the steps you take along the way.
5. Expand organically
Berner’s status as Cookies CEO still doesn’t overshadow his impressive catalog of music. His 2021 Spotify wrapped reported 8.2 million fans enjoying almost 100 millions streams. And he hit those numbers without chasing the charts artificially. “I don’t wanna go big. I don’t wanna be on the fucking radio, bro,” he explains.
6. Diversify your buds
Berner’s diverse approach to both weed and music have helped all of his ventures grow rapidly. But he admits that “It’s kind of spooky sometimes,” reflecting on all of the cookie jars he has his hands in. “There’s a crazy ecosystem of very valuable companies,” he told Bootleg Kev in a hushed tone. “Cookies (clothing) is on path to do $50-55 million in 2021 on just clothing. Up from $32 million last year.” Remember, that’s not the weed, just the clothing.”
And that’s not counting his music money, or businesses he forgot to mention like Hemp2O, Exoticz… I could honestly live and raise my family off (my) music.” He knows that people say, “Oh he’s just the weed guy.” But he prefers it that way.
7. Play chess not checkers
Federal prohibition and the SAFE Banking Act still make it difficult for legitimate cannabis businesses to operate. Another reason Berner’s music is such a valuable part of his empire.
8. Use your genetics
Berner is aware of the traits he got naturally from his parents, and does his best to use them. He credits his prolific work ethic to his dad, a Mexican chef. And he blames his social charm on his Italian mother, an officer worker who taught him, “You have to be a good conversationalist.”
“I’ve never met Berner’s team, I always talk to Berner directly, ” observed DJ Envy in an interview earlier this year. Berner explained, “I got it from my mom… If you’re not hands on, you’ll be misrepresented.” He also saves money on paying managers and middlemen to handle his business for him.
9. Don’t quit your day job
Even as his independent rap career took off, Berner didn’t stop showing up to work. He saw the value of continuing to network with vendors and learning the industry. But he also knew when it was time to let go and grow.
10. Stay grounded
After Cookies on Melrose was raided and damaged in spring of 2020, Berner took to Instagram to show his support for the people over property. While many CEOs prioritized their expenses, Berner showed solidarity with the outcry that boiled over after George Floyd’s death.
“It’s extremely unfortunate what happened to our store tonight on Melrose. But as a human living in the world we’re living in today, I cannot expect anything less until justice is served,” he said in the video posted to his 1.8 million Instagram followers. “We can rebuild our store, but you cannot bring someone back to life.” The Melrose location reportedly makes $450,000 per day.
11. Equity over easy money
Berner has a warning for those who are rushing for cannabis entrepreneurs who are rushing for a quick payday. Consider doubling down on yourself before giving away a piece of your pot.
12. Stay close to the plant
In the words of Leafly California Bureau Chief David Downs, “always stay close to the plant.”
13. Curate your environment
As medical cannabis expanded in the 2000s, Berner built an eco-system that suited his goals perfectly. By 2012, he was running a club that served as a safe space for cannabis users and creatives. And when stoner icon Wiz Khalifa visited, they instantly clicked.
14. Document the process
15. Give the OGs their flowers
Berner took his music game to the next level by collaborating with Bay Area legends Equipto and The Jacka early on. The OGs showed him how to produce high quality music on his own terms and he took the flame and ran with it.
Berner also gained the confidence of music industry heavyweight Steve Lobel who became an early investor. “When you have close friends like Steve Loble to call up, you pretty much can get any feature you want,” says Berner. He even got an official co-sign from the estate of elusive Mob boss John Gotti. Gotti Jr. gave Berner clearance to use the family Gotti name, image, and unreleased tapes from the Teflon Don’s real life RICO cases.
16. Collaborate constantly
Working with rap superstars like B-Real and Rick Ross is a no brainer, but Berner’s also got a talent for turning underground greats into valuable partners. He’s released more joint albums with other rappers than we count with two hands, but also uses his current powers to give back to the pioneers who paved the way.
“The first person I partnered with was Branson. (He’s) been an O.G. for a long time. So that was the first person I wanted to do a deal with… We’ve been showing him what the rec game looks like. And his mind’s been blown by it.” – Berner
In addition to working with NYC weed trailblazer like Branson, he’s also helping Chris Webber bring legal cannabis access and opportunities to Detroit via Cookies U.
17. Swim with the sharks
There are already a handful of billionaires in the legal and illicit cannabis industries. But few in or within reach of the billionaire buds club hold the clout that Berner’s name carries from both farms to boardrooms. His double-barrel clout was on display in a meeting with 7-11 executives. He used Instagram Live to send 40,000 comments to the company’s page in minutes, right before their eyes. That’s a level of power that can’t be bought overnight.
18. Do what you love
He’s had independent distribution with Empire since 2006. As one of the first clients for the label that now serves many of the biggest indie artists in music, he’s maintained a long and healthy relationship between his music and marijuana endeavors. He said he feels bad when he learns that fellow artists “don’t make any money off their music,” or “they can’t drop their music when they want.”
He explains that “Music is therapy, it’s like a journal. So how could I not drop it when I want to drop it when I want to drop it? If I decided to put down Cookies today or stopped doing anything else, I could live off my music.” That’s why when he was offered traditional record deal recently, he replied: “Why would I do that?”
19. Prioritize your health
Berner’s life may have been saved by his decision to get an early cancer screening at the advice of his doctor. He was told that another six months without detection would have killed him. “1 in 3, will be diagnosed with cancer in their lives and 71 percent are getting cancers that aren’t commonly screened,” he said on The Breakfast Club. “
He is recovering from a recent surgery and is sharing the fight with his fans on IG, a decision that would be difficult for many.
He is now an outspoken advocate for the early screening technology that saved his life, hoping it can save many others. Berner channeled his emotions about the diagnosis into the Gotti album, which had an unlimited production budget and a deadline of his surgery day.
20. Stand out from the crowd
Cookies’ signature blue is one of the most distinct marks in the game. Many start-up brands are tracing his outline instead of forging their own path.
Dozens of artists have name-checked the designer brand as a status symbol, including Migos and Young Thug. In 2018, Berner said he spent two hours every morning preparing gift bags for the influencers he would see throughout the day. Considering Cookies’ current social media reach and impact, it was time well spent.
21. Take big shots
In 2012, he premiered the iconic Cookies blue hue in a music video he shot with Chris Brown and Wiz Khalifa video on a $500 budget. “When I did that song, I ran into Chris Brown in the studio,” he told Bootleg Kev. “Management approved the record, but (said) we can’t do any video.” That didn’t stop Berner from finessing a a professional quality video with a 16-wheeler, 5-figure race track location, and two of the biggest artists in music as features.
22. Don’t sell yourself short
When asked if he ever turned down a near-billion dollar offer when Cookies was still baking up. He said, “Yea, we get crazy offers all the time. I know next time we raise money for Cookies, it’s gonna be in the multiple billions.”
“Fuck major labels. They never understood me. They never wanted to take the time. That’s probably their biggest mistake, because they probably would have had a piece of everything I’m doing now.”
23. Plan for the next generation
“I want to be a hundred-year brand,” says Berner. He’s already planning strains that will drop in 2080, along with marketing and messaging to customers to explain his vision even if he’s no longer around to lead the company in 60 years.
“We’re menu planning out for a hundred years. Not just right now. I got so (many) genetics in my hands right now form all the breeders that we have in-house and the ones we collaborated with. I kind of treat it like (collecting) beats. I pick A, B, C, D, E, F, G, keep ’em, (then) release a couple a year.” – Berner
24. Understand IP
Berner popularized the strain formerly known as Girl Scout Cookies, then seamlessly rebranded it as just Cookies to avoid legal issues because, “We knew we were gonna get sued.” Protect your intellectual property as fiercly as your physical property, and respect the laws governing other peoples’ IP.
25. Keep a clear mind
Berner famously doesn’t drink alcohol. He had a wild streak from 18 to 23, “bartending and doing coke.” But it’s been 15 years since he drank heavily or did substances other than cannabis.
26. Make grassroots investments
Berner thinks that big money players should invest in the growers at the ground level before trying to raise more funds. Here’s how he build his multi-state network:
27. There is no competition
“I’ve seen weed unite people all around the world. That’s why I do it. (And) I love weed. I’m obsessed with it… I’m passionate about this shit. When you’re passionate about something and you really live it, and you understand why you’re doing, I don’t think you can even worry about no one else. So I welcome everyone getting in the game with open arms.” – Berner
28. Own your own story
These days, it’s important to own your narrative. And the steps we just outlined couldn’t tell the half of what Berner went through on his path. That’s why he’s teaming with a co-creator of Snowfall to tell his life story in his own words. We can’t wait.
28.5. Exit plan
An ounce is really 28.3495 grams. So, here’s an extra nug:
If you don’t have an exit plan for every situation you’re in, you’re not playing the game, you’re playing yourself.
It could be retirement down the road, freedom now, or wealth for your children’s children. But whether the party goes on all night, or ends early, you need to have your exit mapped out from the moment you enter.