What the Evolving Cannabis Culture Means for CBD and Marijuana Marketing

Cannabis is becoming more popular, but marketers still face many challenges.

Until recently, cannabis brands have not needed to market their products to anyone other than the stereotypical cannabis enthusiast. Now, as recreational use of marijuana is legal in 15 states and becoming more accepted by society, brands are adjusting their marketing strategies to reach new and more diverse segments of consumers.

Lisa Buffo, the founder and CEO of the Cannabis Marketing Association, said that lately she has seen brands getting more specific with their products, targeting the "canna-curious" crowd, which is mostly made up of women and Baby Boomers. This is a big change from five years ago when, according to Buffo, cannabis brands only targeted men in their twenties.

Could cannabis be the new cabernet?

The way people see cannabis is changing quickly. There are more and more women who are trying CBD and cannabis products for the first time. These women are looking for ways to relax after a long day. The market for these products is getting more specific and targeted each day.

Buffo has seen some brands change their entire look and feel in order to appeal to a wider range of consumers. Some brands have even started from scratch in order to appeal to women and the wellness crowd specifically.

Peiti Feng, the chief marketing officer at MyRemede, a CBD brand, said that as the cannabis market becomes more mature and people better understand the science behind it, brands will focus on talking to people who have health concerns or wellness needs instead of just those who are looking for the intoxicating effects of cannabis.

Feng identified "soccer moms" as a key group of people that cannabis marketers should target. She believes that these women are looking for new ways to care for themselves, and they are also often responsible for taking care of their aging parents. As it turns out, those aging parents are also getting into cannabis.

"The senior crowd is, in my opinion, the largest source of growth," she added. "However, that is also the hardest one to market to, because they're not necessarily online."

However, their middle-aged children are.

Cannabis marketing still poses legal questions

Feng predicts that social media influencers will play an increasingly important role in reaching cannabis-curious consumers. They can use their platforms to communicate the availability of various cannabis products.

However, marketing cannabis products remains a challenge due to the potential legal risks involved.

Even though many states have legalized marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes, the federal government still sees it as illegal. This is why tech giants like Facebook and Google don't allow cannabis companies to market their products on their platforms. Additionally, interstate shipping of cannabis is illegal, so e-commerce is not an option for THC-infused products.

How do cannabis brands reach consumers? Mostly through talking to them.

Pre-pandemic, Buffo said, the most effective way for cannabis brands to differentiate themselves and drive awareness in the minds of consumers was by educating people. They would build relationships with budtenders—the people behind the glass counters at physical retail stores—arming them with knowledge about their products that they could then pass on to customers.

Cannabis dispensaries are one of the few remaining retail environments where customers are not allowed to touch or read the product before they buy it. This means that the customer has to rely on the dispensary employees to provide them with accurate information about the product.

These brands would also invest heavily in experiential marketing, establishing one-to-one connections with curious consumers through installations and events.

Since the science and application of cannabis is still so novel for many consumers, and the stigma is still being shaken off, a large percentage of them are looking for brands to help them understand the product ingredients and what they can do for them.

Almost every company nowadays has to become a media company, according to Buffo. This means creating and sharing valuable content that resonates with their audience.

Virtual events have come to cannabis marketing too

Some cannabis brands have had to resort to virtual events because they cannot foster face-to-face interactions. In a recent taste test with a CBD brand, Buffo participated in a virtual event where participants received products and walked attendants through it via a group Zoom call. With social distancing measures in place, brands are working more to connect personally with their customers through relationship-building via social media, email, and text message marketing.

CBD brands, like MyRemede, where Feng works, are allowed to have less strict advertising regulations than their THC counterparts. They are also allowed to sell and ship their products through online storefronts. However, digital advertising is still a legal challenge for them too. Brands in this space can't present their products as having medical benefits in their ads because more research is needed to back up these claims. So they are limited in what they can say (or risk being removed from social media platforms).

"You are leaving it up to the consumer to decide," she said. "And the conversion process ... is a lot longer, and more expensive, if you want to do it correctly."

That means giving consumers as much information as possible. Doing so helps establish brands as experts in a space where so many entrants are new and brand loyalty, so far, does not factor into purchasing decisions very much.

People in the CBD space often rely on affiliate marketing programs. This is where you get other people to promote your product, and then you give them a cut of what you make. For example, the women's CBD brand House of Wise recently launched with an aggressive affiliate program. On their website, they say that if you join their community of powerful women, you can make money on your own schedule.

Leading players seek to reboot the narrative

Some brands are hoping that, if they keep behaving well, internet platforms will eventually get comfortable enough to let them run ads.

Cresco Labs, a major cannabis company, recently published a proposal for marketing and advertising standards that it’s encouraging others in the industry to adopt.

"It is important that we present ourselves in a positive way to the public," wrote CEO Charlie Bachtell in the proposal's introductory remarks. "This effort is part of setting the right tone for the future. We encourage all operators to join us in following these marketing and advertising standards as we build a responsible cannabis industry together."

Some strict rules have been set for cannabis advertising. Ads must not feature people who look impaired or intoxicated from using cannabis, and they cannot appeal to underage people or make exaggerated health claims about the drug.

Cresco is hoping that by following these rules, the industry will become more normal and accepted by society. This will then make it easier for them to buy advertising space in the future.

For now, cannabis brands need to be very creative. The laws around cannabis are changing all the time, so brands need to be able to change quickly too.

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