The Green Rush Will Be Won by Cannabis Brands That Take Marketing Seriously—Right Now

It's about embracing the modern marketing playbook and thinking like a CPG brand

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From a legalization standpoint, the cannabis industry is undergoing a sea change, as state after state moves forward with legalization and decriminalization efforts. Seemingly every day, new cannabis players emerge on the scene, all vying for their plot of land in the so-called “green rush.”

But here’s the thing: Nearly every cannabis company today is already a step behind where they need to be at this point in the industry’s evolution. Whether they realize it or not, the competitive landscape for the coming decades is being established as we speak. Those companies that don’t shift out of a fringe industry mentality and fire up modern marketing engines are going to get left behind in short order.

Granted, there are a lot of distractions for cannabis companies today. For those who have been in the game awhile, the need to legitimize the industry—often by focusing on the medical benefits of cannabis as a treatment—can feel almost compulsive.

Then, of course, there’s the heavy and highly variable regulatory nature of the space, as restrictions and requirements vary greatly state by state and county by county. It’s understandable that the fundamental steps of becoming licensed, establishing supply and opening for business can seem daunting enough for today’s green entrepreneurs.

But unfortunately, these basic steps aren’t going to be enough to survive for long. Let’s take a look at what a mature marketing effort needs to look like in today’s cannabis space—and why it’s ultimately going to be what establishes category leaders in the coming years.

More confident branding

Everyone loves bright psychedelic patterns and silly puns. They’ve been a hallmark of the budding cannabis industry, and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. But what cannabis brands really need to be doing right now is focusing less on cartoony names for new strains and more on branding that establishes trust.

We need to keep in mind that the cannabis industry is a formerly illicit black market that’s rightfully stepping into the sunshine at last. Now is not the time for tongue-in-cheek underground references to 1970s rock albums. It’s time for confident and professional branding, clear and consistent packaging and compelling product differentiation.

Pantry Food Co. out of California has the right idea with its clean, simple, consistent design and branding. The company also leads with clear, precise dosage and nutritional information, instilling trust through a sense of consistency and control.

Reading the room(s)

The cannabis customer base of five years ago is not the cannabis customer base of today—nor is today’s customer base the one we’ll see five years down the line. As more U.S. markets embrace full legalization, the customer base for cannabis is going to grow precipitously. And it’s also going to fragment.

There will be medical users and recreational users, yes. But within both groups, we’re going to see members of every generation, ethnicity, political affiliation, belief system—you name it. If a cannabis brand isn’t thinking about its audiences in a segmented way, they stand to alienate large swaths of potential customers.

Take Curaleaf, for example. The moment you enter the brand’s site, the company takes the opportunity to learn more about your needs—medical or recreational—as well as your birth month, state of residence and communication preferences. This initial intake form provides the basis for better audience segmentation for Curaleaf and better communication relevance for its customers.

In this regard, cannabis brands need to be hiring marketing teams and agency partners who not only understand the cannabis landscape, but who also understand the segmentation and targeting best practices of the modern marketing landscape. There is no room for one-size-fits-all marketing and advertising in an industry as massive as cannabis.

Contributing meaningfully to the consumer’s world

Across all industries today, customers are expecting the brands they support to do more than sell them products. They expect brands to operate with a higher sense of purpose—a reason to exist that transcends the desire to drive profits. Why should we think they’ll expect anything less of their cannabis brands?

Many of today’s cannabis players have positioned education on the medical benefits of cannabis at the heart of their messaging—but that’s not enough to carry them into a purpose-driven future. Now is the time for cannabis players to be elevating their brands in the minds of consumers, and a key part of that will be establishing themselves as forces for good within their communities and society at large.

Wyld represents a good example of purpose in action, as evidenced by its site page, “the Why in Wyld.” On this page, and through other messaging, the company highlights not only the health and wellness benefits of cannabis, but also its many initiatives that support social and racial justice, environmental sustainability and more.

Full national legalization of cannabis is now a question of when, not if. A lot of today’s cannabis businesses are looking toward that moment as a sort of floodgate opening. But in reality, the gates are already open.

What’s being decided right now is which businesses will own the future of cannabis in the U.S. In that regard, one thing is certain: It will be the companies that are already thinking like modern-day CPG brands.