Marketing in Regulated Categories with Kim Lawton

Award-winning marketer and entrepreneur Kim Lawton discusses marketing in regulated categories like alcohol and cannabis, highlighting state-specific regulations and compliance challenges. Kim describes the operational differences she faces as Chief Possibilities Officer at Inspira and CEO at Enthuse, focusing on marketing operations plus integrating technology and AI. We also discuss Kim’s work in philanthropy through the Enthuse Foundation, aiding women entrepreneurs.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS,

Kim Lawton: A clear strategy is very important, so it’s the why; why we’re doing this, why we’re putting this work out. And the communication of that why so that it’s understood amongst all of the different teams.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on marketing and advertising produced weekly by Bigeye, a strategy-led, full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. In the United States, the regulation of many consumer products differs significantly from state to state. For example, pharmaceutical drugs and dietary supplements see state-specific regulation in areas like pharmacy practice and food labeling. But states also differ in their approach to pesticides, herbicides, and even cosmetics, often imposing stricter requirements than federal guidelines. States also exercise their authority in different ways, with some having strict controls over the sale and use of alcohol and tobacco. The regulation of cannabis products is particularly complex, with differences in legality across states. Not surprisingly, brand owners and agencies can struggle to create media plans and assets that take into account differing state-level regulations. Our guest today is an expert in navigating the unique challenges and opportunities of working in regulated consumer categories. Kim Lawton is an award-winning marketer and serial entrepreneur developing strategies that help brands build awareness and connect with consumers. She’s a partner and the Chief Possibilities Officer at Inspira, a purpose-driven brand activation agency, as well as the Chief Executive Officer at Enthuse, an experiential marketing consultancy. Kim focuses on well-executed, practical, and budget-conscious marketing strategies for clients that get results, earning her the nickname Kim Possible. To discuss the role of marketing operations and the challenges of navigating regulated markets, Kim is joining us today from her office in Norwalk, Connecticut. Kim, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Kim Lawton: Thank you. I’m very excited to be here.

Adrian Tennant: Kim, what first led you to a career in marketing?

Kim Lawton: Well, it’s a very funny story. It was not intended and I actually aspired to be a criminal law attorney. And that’s what was my passion. I wanted to go to school. It was the days of the John Grisham thrillers, and I was so intently excited about all of the things that went on in those books and movies that I studied and said, “I’m going to be a criminal lawyer,” and that was my vision. I hated it. It was a lot of research. It was detrimental to my college experience. And I sat down with a college advisor and he started asking me questions. And he understood that I was fascinated with behavior and understanding people and he suggested I go the marketing route and I was like, “Marketing? What’s that?” And that’s how I ended up studying marketing and just getting really excited about it because it was my curiosity of people and how people behaved versus wanting to be a lawyer.

Adrian Tennant: Today you’re a successful serial entrepreneur, but what motivated you to start your very first venture?

Kim Lawton: Also very, interesting, it was when I was actually 14 years old. I don’t know if it was, out of fear, or just not having the wherewithal because I was 14, to go to my dad and tell him he was running his business wrong. I suggested that he do a lot of changes in his pizza shop to get more customers and change how he was staffing and just how he operated his business. And he said, “Okay, if you think you can do it better …” He gave me the keys to his pizza shop. However, I had to operate it and run it with my two older brothers. So I was brave to make that statement, but it also gave me this interesting experience. And when my brothers were older, and when I turned 18 and headed off to my college career, we sold the pizza shop and it paid for my college. So I didn’t really know I was an entrepreneur when I was.

Adrian Tennant: You’re the Chief Possibilities Officer at Inspira and the Chief Executive Officer at Enthuse. So could you explain the core activities of each agency and maybe the differences between them?

Kim Lawton: Yes, absolutely. Chief Possibilities Officer is really operations. I run all of the operations and client leadership for Inspira, which is a consumer-facing agency. So we do a lot of experiential events, brand, CPG companies. We work with a lot of companies that want to get their brand in front of consumers, whether that be to trial it for the first time or launch a new campaign. And it’s really exciting to be out there in real life with people and seeing how they interact with brands. But the possibilities part comes in of seeing it from how and what you can do from a creative perspective and, knowing that, again, with my experience of human behavior and experiences, it’s all about the brand experience. Now, Enthuse is what I would call an agency that was incubated by Inspira. So we had a client, and that client wanted to do what I would call a different type of marketing with their brands, taking them into the hospitality space, really working with the trade and the buyers of their product, not necessarily the end consumer. So if you think about hospitality, a hotel, a restaurant, a bar, the buyer of that brand to have it on the shelf is really who we target with Enthuse. So it’s what we call trade marketing and brand advocacy. So we’re talking to bartenders to talk to consumers. So the two agencies are very complimentary. We do share clients sometimes, but we also have our own paths. One is very driven around consumer experiences and the other around trade advocacy.

Adrian Tennant: Hmm, that’s interesting. What challenges do you face in leading two dynamic organizations?

Kim Lawton: Every day there’s a new challenge, but I don’t think there’s one challenge that outweighs another. There’s so much going on in the agency world now with the adoption of new technology. And we all hear about artificial intelligence. It’s in the top of our minds every day. But what does that do for your agency? How does that intertwine with creativity? And where does it become a risk, right, of putting too much out there? And giving that to the world. So there’s that, innovation I guess is a way to encapsulate that. There’s talent. Agency life is very, what I would call draining. There’s expectations from clients of cheaper, faster, and putting things out there. And so that just puts a lot of strain on talent. And running an agency is very, central to like culture. If we all know, that to get motivated and inspired, you have to see people and be a part of it. And that was how things were before the pandemic. There was a unique culture of people jumping in, stepping in to help each other. And now the world of Zoom has just changed that. So I think it’s put a lot of pressure on management. It also ladders up to leadership of how do you build a culture when everybody’s around potentially the world and creating that bond with your team that can expand to your clients because the agencies and the founding principles of both Inspire Marketing and Enthuse Marketing have been a people-first organization. And if we always had this mission and the reason we started the agency to be matter of fact. We saw what other agencies were doing. It was really just pushing people to their brink. And if they quit, they were just a resource, if you will. And we call them talent. We call it our talent department, not our human resources department. And I think the biggest challenge that we have at both agencies is motivating that talent, educating that talent, and giving career paths. That is very important to us, and it’s changed. It’s not that it’s more difficult than it was before, it’s just the dynamic has changed, and the challenge is in front of us at all times to really feel that connection to the humanness of the company.

Adrian Tennant: Hmm. Yes, I’ve often heard it said that the more high-tech we become, the more high-touch we need to be in terms of our client communications.

Kim Lawton: Absolutely. I love restaurants where you are not allowed to have your cell phone at the table, or you’re forced to interact. I actually just saw something that now this new generation of up and coming adults, they’re afraid of menus. They have menu fear and anxiety if they can’t see the menu of the restaurant they’re going to, they don’t know what they’re going to order, and they don’t want that fear of “What do I order the wrong thing?” And I’m like, “Wow, those weren’t challenges we had. It was trial and error.” 

Adrian Tennant: You’ve recently been posting content on social media about marketing operations. Now, for anyone who may not have heard the term before, what is marketing operations, and why is it important?

Kim Lawton: Yes, marketing and operations is, it’s interesting because I’ve been bringing a lot of attention to it for a couple of reasons. It’s about connecting people, process, and technology into those work streams. So whether it’s a campaign for a brand that we’re running or just within the agency itself, it’s really bringing all of those things together. And I think what’s happened within the agency dynamic is there’s the digital team, there’s the creative team, there’s the account team, there’s the finance team, and there’s the performance marketing team. And yes, there are traffic managers moving things along the pace, but there’s a sense that all of those things have to connect together to actually bring it forward to a client. So marketing operations is just really connecting all of those things – people, the process, and the technology to ensure the output is hitting. And that’s where efficiency comes in. That’s where performance comes in. And that’s where you can really see the levers that you need to pull, like I said, for a campaign or for within the organization itself. So, it’s just really the connector of all the silos that exist within agencies and even for clients. So, many times clients have multiple agencies within that realm, and it’s really bringing it all together. So, their own internal sales teams, their commercial marketing, their brand marketing teams see everything as a holistic viewpoint. And it really helps. It helps teams grow and build on their success versus just being in their silo. So, I guess breaking it down into a simple response would be marketing operations is the connector of all the silos that exist.

Adrian Tennant: Well, in your experience, what are the most common weaknesses in a client organization’s marketing operations, and how can brand managers assess or avoid them?

Kim Lawton: I think the biggest thing is the notion of that silo that exists or seeing it from the point of view of one particular objective. So, a clear strategy is very important. So it’s the why; the why we’re doing this, the why we’re putting this work out. And then the communication of that why so that it’s understood amongst all of the different teams. So, for example, if a brand is putting out a new advertising campaign and it’s not connected to their e-com strategy, you could have different messages. So, thinking through how that new campaign needs to be shared. Even with their sales team – as a sales team is walking in to put that brand on the shelf, understanding the why behind that campaign so they can connect and they can talk about it. And it’s not just pushing out comms. It’s actually bringing people together to see how they’re part of that bigger picture. And I think how we see it is just in larger organizations and even small brands when they’re first launching. Understanding that getting a product on a shelf is not going to do it. it’s connecting all of the dots and ensuring that the data shared with everyone and it doesn’t stay in the brand manager’s purview. because all of that is actionable in some sense. And I think it’s very helpful and it creates many efficiencies but it also drives more insights. And that’s where I get joy and, talking about my curiosity and human behavior when we’re out in a marketplace. And we see someone enjoying a Johnny Walker cocktail to share and talk to those consumers in real-time as they’re doing it, talking to the bartender who poured it and understanding what’s happening and bringing that back to the brand teams because it’s actionable. You can make changes if you can see how consumers are enjoying it and understanding it and bringing it back. I think that’s so important. We look at data all day long, and we can look at data and push information down and think that’s the consumer we want. But in those real human moments, it’s bringing that back up to say, “Yeah, this was resonating. This wasn’t.” And making those real-time changes because, with the advancements of technology, we can shift and change very fast, but we also need to know what the human side is happening and not just think that the data is real.

Adrian Tennant: I think that’s a great point. How do you foresee technology influencing marketing operations, especially AI and machine learning?

Kim Lawton: Yes, and I foresee endless possibilities, no pun intended. But AI and machine learning is fascinating, by the way, and every day we’re looking at ways and how to use it within our own organization. But one thing that excites me personally is being so connected and involved in the hospitality industry, it’s really where Consumer interactions and customer satisfaction on tailored experience is so immensely prioritized, right? When you have that personalized experience, and I think AI and machine learning can really deliver a higher level of personalized experience. And that’s really just going to make guests connect more. I mean, we’re already seeing things when you check into the hotels and it says your name and it has your past stays in, if you are watching your Netflix show, it’s showing up on your TV, and understanding where and how, what floor you want to stay on, all of that, but even just getting more personalized from amenities to local activities to restaurants and having that all curated for you when you check in. I think those are things that I see, especially from the hospitality perspective of AI, helping to really make that human connection stand out even more and feel like this experience was curated specially for you.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message. 


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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Kim Lawton, an award-winning marketer and serial entrepreneur, about the ways brands can navigate regulated consumer categories. In the introduction, I talked a bit about consumer product categories that are regulated on a state-by-state basis. Now, you have extensive experience in marketing regulated products, including alcohol and cannabis. So Kim, in what kinds of ways does marketing in these industries differ from more traditional sectors?

Kim Lawton: That’s a great question. And, yes, I started in the spirits industry, so beverage alcohol. And I was in one market in the state of Arizona, and I knew what my rules and regulations were in that state. And then I went into a national role and didn’t realize how what I was doing in the state of Arizona had to be wildly different in the state of California. Whether that was how a guest was provided a sample or how you could give away a T-shirt. All of the simple things that you see at a sponsorship event where you walk by a display and someone gives you a sample of ice cream or a tchotchke, a giveaway. All of that is very regulated, from the cost of the giveaway, the premiums, the channels of how you can advertise – even the age gating. Oftentimes we’ll have to look at IDs. Our teams will have to have signage up to say, “You must be 21 and over,” and, actually look at IDs. So, from a friction perspective of the consumer experience, there’s a lot of things that you have to, undergo, I’ll say. So that really harnesses the creative department in terms of, what they can do. So what we don’t want to do, ever, in the way that we build out campaigns or build out creativity, is limit that. So we have an on-site legal team that is allowing the creatives to build the big “What if?” scenarios and not halt their creativity or stall it in any way. And then they come back and say, “Here’s some shifts and changes,” versus a hard “no.” Saying hard nos to creative is not what we wanna do. We wanna say, “What are all the things that we could think of? And then how do we then fit and form them in the category of compliance?” But messaging over consumption has to be monitored. So if simple things like putting a liquid to lips, that’s not allowed. So, if someone’s drinking a glass of champagne, that is not allowed in an image. And understanding all of those things, and even bartenders when they’re pouring, they can’t pour straight from a bottle, they have to use a jigger. Simple things like that, it doesn’t necessarily change the image and the quality of the image, it’s just all of those things you can get fined. And our clients can get fined, so while we are the middle person between the client and the actual output of the creative, we have to act as if we are the client. So navigating these compliance challenges is specialized understanding of the landscape, and then also just a thoughtful approach of how to ensure that you intertwine that compliance layer, but not use it as a “no, no, no,” to stifle creativity. So it’s a really delicate balance of ensuring you know the laws and how do they adapt. And understanding that the laws change from the federal to the state to the municipality and sometimes even the township. So having an in-house legal team has really benefited us as an agency as we work in these environments that are very highly regulated.

Adrian Tennant: Well, we love practical examples on IN CLEAR FOCUS, so Kim, could you share a case of a brand you’ve worked with and how these considerations played out?

Kim Lawton: Yeah, absolutely. So I love this brand personally because of the things that they do in terms of generosity. So the brand is Crown Royal and it is a Canadian whiskey and they do so much from a consumer perspective of giving back, And the whole notion of being generous is their brand DNA. And one of the things that we were working with them on was how are you generous to the trade? And when I say trade, that’s the bartender or the buyer of those brands so that they’re in, the accounts but also serving up great cocktails. And they have different needs than the consumer end, right? So as we’re gifting bags that go off to the troops overseas as being a generous thing, consumers can take part in that and bartenders obviously can as well and that is generous. But from a legal perspective, we can’t just go in and leave a big tip for a bartender or do generous things, so how are those acts of generosity implemented when we want to give back? So, we developed an entire education program. A training platform for an up-and-coming bartender to get new skills, whether that’s Chopping skills, of learning how to slice and dice garnishes, and what are the top trends in garnishes and how to make better cocktails. So giving that education platform was a way to navigate the compliance end of it, but also giving that opportunity to those individuals to come learn about what’s happening in the industry, learn about trends, learn about a career path, learn even things about how to get health insurance when it’s not provided by your employer, and all of those things are helping grow that industry, but also using that foundation of a brand’s generosity, but generous to the trade. So it was just generosity in terms of trade and connecting with that unique audience.

Adrian Tennant: Well, let’s shift to cannabis, another area where products are regulated on a state by state basis. Kim, are the considerations similar to alcohol?

Kim Lawton: They are. It’s definitely the baseline of the frameworks of similar regulations. Where it changes with cannabis, and one that we’re still navigating every single day, every hour, is due to the fact that it’s not federally regulated. Every state and how they’re practicing is unique in its own, and then you’re basically breaking the laws of the federal government in anything you do. So that’s an interesting challenge, and then also with distribution. I think this is a very interesting one. So, for example, with beverage alcohol, whiskey can be produced in Kentucky and shipped to states. and go to the distributor and be sold into stores. However, in the cannabis world, a cannabis beverage, for example, it has to be made and distributed in the same state. So it can’t cross state lines, whereas a beverage alcohol can. So, we had a unique situation where our client created a mobile manufacturing site where they would go to Florida. They would go park right in the dispensary’s parking lot and make their product and then bring it in to sell and go on to the next state. But if you can imagine, it’s very much of the wild, wild west still in how, and really understanding and navigating that from a production perspective, it’s very hard to go beyond your own state.

Adrian Tennant: In practical terms, how does your in-house legal team stay current with regulations in these rapidly changing sectors?

Kim Lawton: It’s a great question. To stay current, our team is not only partnering with trade organizations and trade, so they’re attending those trades, they’re in Washington, they’re understanding what’s going on with lobbyists, but they’re also really, really connected to those organizations and many times we see them as, “Oh, we want to stay away because they’re looking at us.” They’ll actually partner with you. And so if you can imagine the Beverage Alcohol Trade Commission, there’s the TABC is the Texas Alcohol Board and Commission. When we work in Texas, we actually call them and talk to them about what we’re doing, and they’ll advise us and say, “Oh, here’s some ways,” and oftentimes, so many brands or agencies or even clients are afraid of that organization because they’re the regulatory board that’s looking at them. And they’re just like, “Oh, if you follow the rules, we don’t have to worry about it.” But actually, if you call them and get on the phone with them, they will want to help you. They don’t want you to get in trouble. And I think that’s just a shift in mindset of these regulatory commissions and boards. They want to be helpful, and they want you to follow the rules, and they’re not gonna lead you down the path of going in the wrong direction. I think it’s super important to stay connected to them and have them on speed dial.

Adrian Tennant: Love that, very practical advice. I know you have a passion for philanthropy and mentorship. Can you tell us more about the Enthuse Foundation and its mission? 

Kim Lawton: Yes. The Enthuse Foundation has been a passion project of mine for sure. And it’s really going back to the origin story of Enthuse marketing the agency. We kicked off the agency, and like I said, the agency I was a partner in, at Inspira Marketing, incubated us and really gave us our start, accelerated us, if you will. And my business partner, she comes from the teaching background, so she was a teacher in a local high school here in Connecticut. And when we connected to start the agency, we had a personal passion to give back to women entrepreneurs because we knew that we were very fortunate to have the situation that we had. We had a client we could build an agency around, and we could really harness our expertise to create a new company and having the backbone of Inspira’s finance department, their HR department, it really, when I say accelerated us, we didn’t have to hire all of those things. We had the opportunity to quote unquote “borrow” those services to kick off the agency. But we also knew that wasn’t the way that it was for every new entrepreneur, whether women entrepreneurs were setting up an agency, building a brand, and we were looking for ways to give back. So we did what a traditional agency would do. We did a brainstorm with our team, and we were trying to uncover how and where we could give back. And there were so many opportunities for us to partner with nonprofits, whether that be in the agency world or just women entrepreneurs. There were so many starting up at that time. This was 2017, and we really felt a connection to them. But there was something missing. It didn’t feel to us in terms of it was our idea. It was kind of helping support someone else’s idea. While that wasn’t a bad thing, it just felt like we could do more. And the idea came to us to start our own non-profit. And with starting our own non-profit, we could write the rules. And the rules were We have kept it to smaller businesses. So the businesses that we support are $500,000 in revenue and below. And It’s about mentorship. It’s about community. And it’s about access to funding. So we take a portion of our profits at the agency, and we put them into a non-profit. Our non-profit is organized in the state of New York, and we have access to the entire US. And we do pitch nights, which are our version of a shark tank where we give funds. We have a grant program that’s also part of our funding. We have a mentorship program where we connect our clients and our, you know, just network of entrepreneurs to new and founding, the newcomers, we’ll call it. And then we also do feedback and that’s what the community is about. We uncovered in our research and we were so shocked, I’ll say, by the fact that all of these entrepreneurs would go pitch their business, whether it would be for funding or just their business idea, to see if it was viable. And no one would give them feedback. They’d just be like, “No.” And they would walk away not knowing. Was it their pitch? Was it their product? You know, how could they take it to the next level? And so that simple twist of feedback, we had over 300 businesses apply for our pitch night in November. And five made it to the finals, but all 300 got a form back to say what they could improve or where they could meet. And that’s very important to the mission of the foundation. So, those three principles of community, mentorship, and funding are core to everything we do.

Adrian Tennant: Kim, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners are interested in learning more about you, your work, or the Enthuse Foundation, what’s the best way to do so?

Kim Lawton: You can find the Enthuse Foundation at You can follow me at And that is my website on everything about marketing operations.

Adrian Tennant: Perfect. Kim, thank you very much for being our guest on IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Kim Lawton: Absolutely. Thank you so much. I enjoyed our time together.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, the award-winning marketer Kim Lawton of Inspira and Enthuse. As always, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation along with links to the resources we discussed on the Bigeye website at Thanks for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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