We can thank the Reefer Madness era for stigmatizing the cannabis plant. This powerful bit of propaganda paired with the efforts of big players in cotton, tobacco and pharmaceuticals aimed to keep cannabis from thriving and becoming a competitive force.
But the film was also made during a time when the known applications for cannabis were dramatically limited. We could never have imagined the amazing medical uses that now exist for the plant, and it’s these discoveries that have helped change the overall perception.
Here in 2020, cannabis is legal for medical use in almost every state, and quite a few states have also legalized adult recreational use. The challenge lies in how to market it. The industry players and other cultural forces that stood in opposition to cannabis in the 1930s still hold plenty of lobbying power today, and regulation is slow to evolve.
Colorado and California are the two states where production, distribution and advertising are most advanced. Scores of other states have plenty of brick-and-mortar distribution, but in branding and advertising, these states are far behind the curve. Legalization far outpaces the rate at which marketing laws are being created and modified, with each state having a different approach.
What’s in a name?
In the not-so-distant past, the true marketing of the product was the strain itself. There was a certain cachet to knowing names like Bubba Kush or Pineapple Express, and you’d call up your dealer and buy a bag. Today, it’s not just the strain name that drives demand but who’s producing it, where they’re doing it, how and why it’s being cultivated and the brand associated with it.
With a larger, varied consumer base and a more competitive cannabis market, you have a more discerning crowd of consumers. Brand awareness is more important than ever. Even as brands strengthen their identity, they cannot ship products over state lines and are forced to create partnerships with other companies as a result. It’s hard to duplicate and ensure product quality in such a regulated market, so maintaining brand equity from state to state is quite a task.
Like alcohol, cannabis is not allowed to advertise unless you can prove the vast majority of the audience is over the age of 21—roughly 70%, though exact percentages vary state by state. You cannot appeal directly to children (i.e., no cartoons in your adverts), and you cannot make medical claims.
Cannabis brands have found gray areas in outdoor advertising, handouts or direct mail and events that center around consumption. And some license holders are willing to take more risks than others.
California is clearly the most lenient state. At vape company Stiiizy in downtown Los Angeles, it’s safe to say that models in its advertising don’t look a day over 21. That’s a risk, but it’s also one of the most incredible dispensaries I’ve visited during my seven-year tenure in cannabis advertising. In this industry, risk-taking often goes hand in hand with great brand building.
How do you stand out?
You have to create trust and loyalty for your brand. You get there with transparency.
It’s really hard to build trust when you can’t promote case studies of patients or consumers and make any sort of claims. The solution is to find a third party—be it a nonprofit, a foundation devoted to health issues like PTSD or Alzheimer’s or a well-respected outlet for scientific study—and lean on them as a way to validate your efforts and better resonate with different target audiences.
You have to educate over and over again.
Cannabis brands have been going all-in on lifestyle messaging due to severe limitations on what they can and cannot say. But as they carve out a more comfortable space in CPG, lifestyle alone won’t do the trick.
One of the most effective trends to emerge is cause-based branding when companies throw their weight behind certain demographics and health conditions. Ergo Hemp is a CBD company founded by a survivor of Lyme disease, Meghan Ward, who is deeply invested in sharing her healing remedies with others on a sustainable level. Pebble CBD in Texas targets parents of children with ailments such as epilepsy, creating an approachable platform that empowers parents to advocate for their kids.
For now, education may be the most powerful strategy there is.