Fueled by increased legalization across the world, the cannabis market is projected to grow from $10.3 billion in 2018 to $39.4 billion by 2023. As James Higdon wrote for Politico, 2019 could be marijuana’s biggest year yet as “a green tide in Congress” shows signs that pot could be legal across the U.S. soon. New use cases for medical marijuana and products infused with cannabidiol (or CBD, which is non-psychoactive) have also aided in acceptance of the drug.
This all points to huge opportunities for cannabis companies to market themselves to new audiences.
“It isn’t often that you see an entirely new market emerge on the scene,” said Tim Calkins, Clinical Professor of Marketing at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “Cannabis will become a market dominated by strong, vibrant brands.”
Still, there are issues. In some states, cannabis is only legal in certain jurisdictions. And major social networks have prohibited advertising cannabis products. Even the first TV ad for a cannabis product, launched in 2015 by cannabis marketing agency Cannabrand, got pulled at the last minute and never aired.
Forced to tread lightly and work around these restrictions, cannabis marketers have gotten creative, providing case studies for launching innovative social strategies under pressure.
Here’s how they’re making it work and striking gold – or green – in this new Wild Wild West of cannabis marketing.
Educate, Don’t Sell
As cannabis gradually becomes legalized and socially accepted, many consumers are still in a learning curve about its benefits. This means the door is open for brands to educate audiences about their products. In fact, one study found that consumers are 131% more likely to buy after reading educational content.
“There are more new customers in the cannabis space than in any other space in recent history around product consumption,” said Danny Keith, founder of Cannabis Club TV, the first broadcasting network devoted to the cannabis industry. “Without education of product, customers are ignorant and the lack of … education is a white-hot space.”
Take Apothecanna, a company that creates cannabis-infused body care products for pain and stress relief. The brand’s Facebook page provides a running stream of health and wellness articles from third-party sites. Some are about the healing powers of cannabis, while others offer home remedies, to which Apothecanna adds their own cannabis-infused suggestions.
Try massaging Calming Oil into temples, chest, and pulse points. Breathe in the aroma for an immediate peaceful, easy feeling.
Over on Instagram, CBD wellness company Vital Leaf posts educational graphics about the benefits of CBD.
Cannabis brands can also use education to shift the narrative from the “stoner culture” stereotype to one that’s focused on lifestyle and wellness.
“Stay away from counterculture, cartoons, jokes and anything that puts a negative connotation on cannabis consumers in not only their branding and marketing strategies, but also on their social media pages,” said Cannabrand founder Olivia Mannix. “You need to be educating people, you need to be informing people, you need to be on a political level and advocating for the industry … and that all trickles back to marketing.”
Partner with Influencers
If cannabis brands feel they have their hands tied on social media, they can tap influencers to speak for them. As Mannix wrote for Adweek, “the secret to marijuana marketing lies with influencers” because they’re not under the same restrictions as companies and advertisers.
Cannabis edibles brand Kiva Confections, for example, had its Instagram page shut down eight times in three years. So it turned to influencer marketing – especially to reach consumers in states that aren’t weed-friendly yet.
Vaporizer brand Firefly also launched its Fueled by Firefly campaigns, wherein the company collaborates with artists to create high-quality social content. They tapped photographer Noah Kalina to build a photo series that showed Firefly products being used in beautiful, natural landscapes.
“Our Fueled by Firefly events and artists series reflect our unconventional product and culture and we hope to connect to our audience through this authentic journey,” Firefly CMO Baran Dilaver told The Drum. “We have an ongoing photography series at a few magazines like Cannabis Now, and we continue to organize unique events.”
On the influencer side, Bess Byers, founder of the Blaise Creative agency for cannabis brands, peppers her Instagram with posts featuring giveaways and special offers from brands like 9to5 Grinders and Hippie Butler:
This strategy isn’t foolproof, as influencers may be wary of working with cannabis brands and at risk of getting shut down themselves. Still, influencer analytics platform Traackr found that influencer marketing is on the rise in this industry, with edibles companies like Incredibles and Wana Brands increasing their use of influencers by 32% from 2017 to 2018.
Launch Your Own Events
Cannabis companies can skip the digital loopholes altogether by hosting in-person events.
In 2017, Los Angeles dispensary Alternative Herbal Health Services partnered with Netflix to promote the streaming service’s new weed-infused comedy, “Disjointed.” They transformed the store into a pop-up marijuana dispensary featuring strains inspired by a range of Netflix shows, including “Disjointed,” “Orange Is the New Black,” and “BoJack Horseman.”
Dosist, a cannabis company focused on health and healing, recently hosted a 10-day wellness retreat in Toronto, featuring workshops from the city’s fellow health and wellness brands. The goal was to help garner support for making Dosist legal in Canada, which bans access to concentrates.
Seattle-based edibles brand The Goodship Co. even hosts its own lecture series, The Goodship Academy of Higher Education. While the talks don’t often have to do with marijuana, speakers and attendees are encouraged to consume it before the events begin. “This allows us to look at the world through a difference lens, and we think that it is a fun and enlightening experiment to partner altered states with big ideas,” the website states. Last year’s lectures included “Beyond Good and Evil: The Future of Cybercrime” and “Prehistoric Sex and the Future of Modern Romance.”
“Higher Ed is the idea of getting people together, not unlike a TED Talk, to have conversations about heady topics,” said Goodship founder Jody Hall. “It’s unfortunate, but there’s still a lot of stigma around marijuana … [We’re trying to] push that dialog around pot’s potential, explore how it’s affecting our culture, our senses and our lives.”
Go High, Not Low
To distance themselves from stoner culture and appeal to mainstream or millennials audiences, some cannabis companies have built sleek, and fashion-forward brands.
Then there’s upscale vaporizer and edibles brand, Beboe, which was founded by a former fashion executive and called the Hermès of Marijuana by The New York Times.
“The company’s disposable vaporizers … come in only one color – rose gold – and would not look out of place poking from the breast pocket of a Saint Laurent suit,” Alex Williams wrote for The Times. “The packaging, too, is Instagram-worthy: white boxes festooned with elegant line drawings by [co-founder, artist Scott Campbell].”
The Gold Rush Turns Green
We’ve only seen the beginning of cannabis marketing. As marijuana legalization spreads across the US and the globe, restrictions may loosen on digital advertising. And new audiences will be drawn to cannabis products, opening doors for brands to get even more creative with their strategies.
Until then, however, cannabis companies will continue to pioneer new strategies in the Wild Wild West of marijuana marketing – finding innovative ways to educate consumers, reach niche communities, and brush off that stoner stereotype with sophisticated branding.