April 20, or 4/20 -- the unofficial cannabis culture holiday -- is here, meaning that plenty of pot jokes will surely fill social media. But weed wisecracks aside, it's becoming clear that cannabis industry marketing is finally growing up.
As it navigates state-specific regulations and varying degrees of state market maturity, not only is much of the industry dedicated to raising the bar for branding, it is recognizing the need to educate consumers, and cater to demographic groups such as baby boomers or seniors interested in cannabis as a sleep aid, or yoga enthusiasts looking for a mental enhancement to their physical practice.
When Washington's Mirth Provisions licensed its Drift product -- which delivers cannabanoids directly into the bloodstream via an under-the-tongue spray -- in Arizona, the distributor there began throwing parties to promote the brand. Mirth and its agency, Sockeye, were less than thrilled. The party vibe was not how they wanted the brand positioned. Mirth is not alone in its efforts to hoist the legal cannabis industry out of its "let's get wasted" illegal past.
Andy Fraser, CEO of Portland, OR agency Sockeye calls the various characteristics defining each state market as "microclimates of activity." In the case of his client's brand distribution in Arizona, he said, "The Mirth Group said, 'Hey, we're working very hard to define a thoughtful, sophisticated brand, and we need it to feel that way." Promo parties didn't send the right message, which for Mirth's products including Legal, a line of low-sugar cannabis-infused fruit drinks, should be smarter and more nuanced.
For instance, while a video produced for the brand last year is set at a get-together, the vibe is less Spuds MacKenzie rowdiness and more middle-age weekend afternoon chilling.
"We would not frown upon the party use, but it needs to show up in a way that is intelligent and unexpected, as a guideline," said Fraser. "The challenge is making sure the branding is consistent with the mothership."
As one of the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012 along with Washington, Colorado is among the industry's most developed markets. That evolution has forced cannabis brands to "meet the market where they are," said Patrick Rea, co-founder and managing director of cannabis industry business accelerator CanopyBoulder.
From Black Market to Boomers
The highest growth category in the past year has been baby boomers, he said. "That's very different than it was the year prior, when it was still black market consumers converting over into the legal market," he said.
But it's happening elsewhere, too. Brands such as California's cannabis flower provider Canndescent speak to new market segments that may not have a background or interest in distinctions among strains. The company offers flower categorized along product lines such as Calm, Cruise and Create. The Create series, according to the company's website, is intended for "When it's time to paint, draw, code, write, jam, blog, or level up."
"The audience that doesn't care about strain names but wants a certain effect is going to gravitate towards that," said Max Simon, CEO of Green Flower Media, which produces online events, courses and training on cannabis-related health issues, cooking, growing and other topics. Even just five years ago, the industry was far more focused on trying to garner supply, he said.
"We're literally, like this year, finally beginning to see some products that take that more-niched approach," he said, adding, "Cannabis branding is just about to enter high school or maybe we're graduating middle school."
Cannabis industry brands are strictly limited in their advertising options; Facebook and Google won't accept their ads, and things like TV or radio spots or billboard ads in many cases are typically off limits because brands are restricted to media that reaches audiences comprised of no more than 30% under the age of 21.
That's where education and point-of-sale marketing come in. Budtenders – the people behind the counter at dispensaries who assist customers in choosing an appropriate marijuana strain for a pre-rolled joint or a chocolate bar best-suited to their needs – are among the most influential links between the brand and the consumer.
Dixie Elixirs, a maker of edibles including its new lines of THC-infused sour cherry, grape and lemon-flavored Fruit Tarts and Blazin' Cinnamon and Citrus Blast Dixie Gummies, spends anywhere from 50%-75% of its marketing budget on education -- particularly education aimed at budtenders, said the company's CMO Joe Hodas.
The Colorado firm goes so far as producing a Budtender Handbook, a reference guide explaining its extraction processes and product details. "It's not cheap for us to print," said Hodas, who said providing educational materials to dispensaries, holding training events and even hosting budtenders at the Dixie Elixirs production facility has become a normal part of its marketing strategy.
In addition to going in-depth about the company's production processes and products, the Budtender Handbook entices budtenders to join Dixie's Secret Society of Budtenders. "You'll get free swag, free entrance to private events, free product testing and access to exclusive information, just for being good at what you do," says the booklet.
The company has also participated in the "Start Low, Go Slow" Cannabis Business Alliance campaign intended to educate the public about edibles, which because they are ingested, have different effects on people than smoking marijuana, for example.
New Political Climate
Product education is necessary for any emerging industry. However, inherent in its dedication to ensuring that people imbibe intelligently, and its larger mission to subdue the partying-related aspects of cannabis branding, is the need to convince government of the legitimacy of legal cannabis, particularly for recreation.
It's become more of a concern under President Donald Trump's administration, with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions vocally rejecting the industry's claims about the benefits of cannabis products, and indicating his plans to enforce the federal government's laws that still deem marijuana an illegal substance. "It's not possible for the federal government, of course, to take over everything the local police used to do in a state that's legalized it," he said during a conference of state attorneys, according to a March CNBC report.
State legislators, who see legal cannabis as a job creator and tax revenue stimulator, in many cases have the industry's back. In Oregon, for example, Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Senator Ron Wyden recently introduced federal bills that if passed would regulate marijuana similarly to the way alcohol and tobacco are regulated, removing it from the list of controlled substances.
While the federal government's shift away from the Obama administration's general acceptance of state laws has caused confusion, the new political climate and potential law enforcement barriers up ahead have not prompted industry players to adjust marketing efforts or investments, according to all sources interviewed for this story.
"There's nobody slowing down for even a millisecond," said Green Flower Media's Simon.
"There's a belief and maybe a reality that there's not so much that the Trump administration could actually do to halt the industry," said CanopyBoulder's Rea. Stressing the embattled history of black market marijuana, he added, "This is an industry of people who have found a way."