Amid a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigation into the safety of vape pens, and threats by Donald Trump of a federal ban on all flavored vaping products (New York and Michigan have already taken action), national attention has turned to the cannabis industry.
Six people have died and some 380 people have contracted lung illness as of Sept. 12, according to the CDC. While investigations are ongoing at the national and state levels, most patients have reported using vaping cartridges containing THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis. In New York state, an investigation revealed that vitamin E acetate—a compound commonly found in skincare products that’s used to thicken cannabis oil and is hazardous to inhale—was found in nearly all of the THC-containing cartridges and vaping products analyzed (though the FDA hasn’t confirmed a definitive link).
Here’s the problem: Without national regulations to oversee the production and quality of marijuana products—and with varying state regulations that increase cannabis companies’ tax liabilities and operating costs—unlicensed or unscrupulous manufacturers may take shortcuts on quality, using adulterants such as vitamin E acetate to reduce costs and maximize profits. It’s unclear whether tainted cartridges were purchased on the black market or legally.
Despite the uncertainty, some Oregon retailers are preemptively removing vaping products from shelves. Brands are now fighting to keep customers coming back to one of their top-selling products.
The growing cannabis industry has come to an inflection point, and it’s up to brands to both address the health issue while still trying to market their wares.
Keeping customers in choppy waters
The tobacco industry went through the same crisis when cigarettes were first fingered as the culprit in what had become a lung-cancer epidemic in the U.S. more than 70 years ago. To win back customers’ trust, big cigarette brands turned to propaganda. Marlboro offered the miracle of never feeling “over-smoked,” while Camel positioned itself as the cigarette more doctors smoked than any other.
To counter their own crisis, cannabis brands—ones in states where the industry has been legalized and their products extensively regulated—have pledged something radical for their upcoming marketing campaigns: transparency.
“Education is a critical component of any cannabis marketing strategy,” explained Mauria Betts, founding partner of the cannabis marketing firm Potency. “Education-based marketing makes cannabis more approachable to a broad range of consumers, dispels misinformation, addresses customer concerns and builds trust. Cannabis brands are now more than ever responsible for educating consumers on the potential health risks of vaping.”
Beyond marketing rooted in education, Betts added that “cannabis vape companies should be transparent with customers about the products they manufacture.”
Taking a cue from the food industry, which puts nutritional information and ingredient lists on its labels, Betts said marijuana products should have clear labeling and highlight third-party test results, ingredients, extraction techniques and cultivation methodology. Vape hardware, meanwhile, “can be used as valuable marketing content and differentiation in a competitive market.”
More than 35 million units of THC-containing vape products were sold between Sept. 1, 2018 and Aug. 31, 2019 in California, Colorado, Nevada and Washington, according to a report from Seattle-based data analytics firm Headset, making vape cartridges the No. 2 product category in cannabis.
Building trust through science and education
Within 24 hours of vitamin E acetate first being implicated in the ongoing health crisis, Corey Mangold, co-founder and CEO of California vape product company Orchid Essentials, ordered his company’s products to be sent to third-party laboratories to test for the substance—even though he said Orchid Essentials does not use it. Findings will be released on the company’s social media and website.
“Trust with consumers comes through transparency,” Mangold said.
Chemistry, a cannabis brand that manufactures vaping products, issued an immediate statement to its customers and retail partners after the news broke, said Trevar Mazza, the company’s founder and chief marketing officer. Now, it will lean even more into its already strong retail education program, Mazza said.
Cannabis brands are severely restricted in how they can market their products, leaving in-person encounters at retail locations and promotional events as the industry’s most useful marketing tools.
Chemistry is keeping “all of our brand ambassadors and account managers informed and aligned on our official response,” Mazza said. “There are a lot of concerned consumers, and our people need to be prepared to answer tough questions.”
Green Thumb Industries, which produces Rythm vape products, has long made sure its patients and customers know its hardware and ingredients are stringently tested, said chief strategy officer Jennifer Dooley.
“But we will take amplified measures to ensure that our patient care specialists, patient communities and adult-use customers have increased access to full and transparent information for all of our products,” Dooley said. The initiative will take myriad forms, including “educational in-store materials, social media content, and website content.”
Orchid Essentials—which had previously been “keenly focused on building value with new and veteran cannabis users,” Mangold said—will now put an emphasis on education in its marketing campaigns.
“Our plan is to continue to educate consumers on the important differences in how products are made, the components used in the construction of vape hardware, and the fact that cannabis is supposed to be a health and wellness product,” he said.
He added that the company’s marketing strategy will also include a “focus on educating consumers on what a rogue dispensary is. Most consumers who shop at unlicensed retailers are likely doing so without even knowing.”