It’s probably no surprise that, since the pandemic started, online sales of CBD products have seen a significant uptick. CBD already passed the billion-dollar mark in 2018, but the onset of Covid-19 has led some brands to report web-based transactions surging by triple digits.
A quick tutorial for the uninitiated: CBD is shorthand for cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive compound in the Cannabis sativa plant. Unlike THC—the other compound from the cannabis plant—CBD doesn’t get you high. But adherents claim it has many health and wellness benefits, from reducing pain to curbing anxiety and helping with insomnia.
Sound good? To Americans who are out of work, not sleeping and freaked out about the future, it sure does. And millions of them are reaching for CBD. “We are seeing ecommerce sales spike among some of the largest CBD companies,” read a recent report from the market research firm Brightfield Group, which also found that 39% of existing CBD users said they were upping their doses during the pandemic, with a particular tendency among millennials and Gen-Z consumers to squeeze that extract dropper a little harder.
But a receptive audience that’s desperate for good news can easily open the door to advertising claims that cross a line. And it’s not hard to find sellers suggesting that CBD is a miracle remedy that works on everything from common ailments like acne and muscle pain all the way up to serious conditions like drug addiction and heart disease. Last year, the FTC sent warning letters to three companies over advertising claims that included the suggestion that CBD-infused gummy candies were just the thing for treating cancer.
In response to this state of affairs, Bluebird Botanicals decided to try a new kind of marketing tactic. Rather than join the pack of companies floating too-good-to-be-true advertising copy, it decided on a more sober approach. It latest crop of online ads not only refrain from feel-good language, they come clean with the fact that CBD doesn’t always work, and even go so far as to tell consumers that, if they happen to be feeling down these days, it’s OK to just own that.
“We saw this opportunity, based on all these companies sharing their version of the truth, to be able to build a campaign around truth itself,” Bluebird senior director of marketing Jason Nelson told Adweek.
For example, Bluebird’s advertising now includes the admission “CBD doesn’t work for everyone.” It also advises consumers that “It’s okay to not be okay,” a salve that runs contrary to the industry’s tendency to suggest that just a few drops of CBD can chase the blues away.
Bluebird’s campaign also takes more of a direct swipe at the murky efficacy claims other brands are making by charging that “Buying CBD should not be a leap of faith” and advertising Bluebird’s products as: “Simply CBD. No BS.”
Founded in 2012, Bluebird is now one of the gray-whiskered brands in a very young industry. In the early days, Nelson said, there was far less competition for customers. But with the explosion of the cannabis industry, “three companies is now 3,000,” all of them competing for a finite pool of buyers. The competitive climate has not only led to advertising language that ventures further out on the limb, Nelson said, but “it’s still the wild Wild West when it comes to industry regulations.”
While enforcement of the industry is a shared duty of the FDA and FTC—with the former concerning itself mostly with labeling and the latter keeping an eye out over advertising content—there’s still a lot of gray area when it comes to where and how brands can advertise. Most major online platforms (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram) technically don’t permit CBD ads, but there’s wiggle room. “Different platforms allow you to say one thing and not the other thing,” Nelson said. “Facebook and Google technically don’t allow CBD advertising, but they give you a wink and a nod if you don’t say CBD.”
With competition fierce, Nelson acknowledged that this campaign’s warts-and-all frankness is unorthodox. “We knew that there was going to be a little bit of risk involved with putting out a message like ‘CBD doesn’t work for everyone,’” he said. But the hope is that Bluebird will achieve a secondary benefit of being seen not only as selling a reliable product, but also being a reliable source of information about that product’s uses and shortcomings.
“We’re not coming out there and saying we’re the CBD brand that is the truth,” he said. “But we’re at least out there trying to provide the right education.”