How cannabis brands can create an experiential marketing strategy
If necessity is the mother of invention, no industry is quite as well-positioned to innovate new marketing strategies as cannabis.
Legalization has brought swift change to perceptions, stigma and financials. In 2012, the first U.S. states legalized cannabis for recreational use, and by 2018 it was a $10.4 billion industry — with predictions of growth to nearly $30 billion by 2025, according to data by New Frontier.
But regulations around promoting cannabis products are stringent, ever-changing and vary drastically depending on location. As creatives, we have an opportunity to craft messages that both reach and resonate with audiences. My company specializes in experiential marketing, and I believe developing an experiential marketing strategy is key in creating those connections.
I'll show you why, but first, here's a little context:
The U.S. and Cannabis: A Complicated History
When you consider alcohol prohibition, the scheduling of drugs under the 1971 Controlled Substances Act and the fluctuating decriminalization of cannabis, you'll see that the U.S. has been no stranger to changes in substance legality.
Now, much like alcohol in 1933, cannabis finds itself on the other side of a complex history. It's an industry in its legal infancy, crawling out from under years of social stigma and criminalization while remaining popular across broad demographics. It has been estimated that in the mid-1800s, over 500 hashish parlors popped up in New York City alone — with The New York Times referring to it in an 1854 article as "a fashionable narcotic."
Although it was illegal in several states by the 1930s, 1937 marked the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act, which regulated the "importation, cultivation, possession and/or distribution of marijuana," according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Seventy-five years later, states began legalizing cannabis for recreational use. However, federal constraints persist, and cannabis remains classified as a Schedule I drug. These regulations make product marketing complicated.
The continuing federal ban precludes a national marketing strategy, so state rules run the gambit. For example, Colorado has strict sign regulations on when and where ads can be placed, whereas New York allows a single black-and-white sign outside of a cannabis business. Online, social media regulations can be just as tricky. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, for example, all ban the promotion of cannabis. Cannabis brands have worked around these rules with influencer marketing, but influencers can be wary lest their accounts get suspended or deleted.
With so many channels restricted or outright banned, what's a marketer to do? As an executive in the experiential marketing space, I believe that localized, in-person interaction is key, and experiential marketing is a proven approach for lasting brand affinity.
Experiential marketing has long been a friend to highly regulated industries. In health care, government and life sciences, for example, we are able to see how experiential marketing allows brands to engage directly with their customers. Curious cannabis consumers face an array of new choices. Face-to-face interactions allow brands to help them understand what products work best for them.
According to the American Marketing Association, "Educating consumers will be key in marketing cannabis responsibly." Marketers should consider using experiential marketing to educate consumers and connect their brand directly to their audience in memorable ways. Beyond education, creating an experiential marketing strategy will stimulate consumers through a fully immersive sensory experience, which can help create a level of connection that goes deeper than just understanding what the product is.
Creating an Experiential Marketing Strategy: A Quick Guide
So, how can you get started? Whether you are a cannabis brand marketer or simply interested in incorporating experiential marketing into your broader program, there are foundational questions to consider as you begin to strategize:
• What's the point? What are the results you're hoping to achieve? Whether your goal is social media buzz, meetings with big customers, on-site sales or literally anything else, experiential marketing can set the stage for you. Define your goals, then build an experience around them.
• What does your brand look like? If you have brand guidelines, start there. Think about the story your packaging tells and how it relates to a physical environment. If your brand is more modern, design a minimalist space with clean lines and sophisticated decor. If your brand focuses on the health benefits of your product, opt for wood finishes and pops of natural color. Studies have shown that color affects consumers' perception of both brand and product. Incorporate hues thoughtfully, and customers will enjoy the curated experience you intended.
• Where are your customers? Don't ask visitors to go out of their way to find you. Meet them exactly where they are. Cannabis brands facing channel restrictions are already getting creative with this experiential tactic. For example, strict signage regulations in Colorado inspired one brand to build two retail stores inside revamped gas stations with working pumps, which makes it convenient to buy products while filling up. To promote a more educational experience, 2019 Outside Lands created "Grass Lands," an area where attendees could interact with budtenders while learning about different strains. Determine how your customers move, then build an experience that seamlessly incorporates itself into what they're already doing.
• What do your customers care about? Experiential marketing offers a unique opportunity to provide empathetic support directly to the people who use your products. Act upon what you imagine would make each of your customers feel comfortable and supported while interacting with you in person. Understand and meet their individual needs, and they'll be more open to what you have to say.
Now, exhale. Although it's complicated, cannabis is breaking new ground through experiential marketing — and we're only seeing the beginning of what's next. There's no telling how long the industry will continue its sharp rise or what more inspired marketing experiences we will see. But whatever it brings, the journey is sure to be a trip.