But as the economy surges in the cannabis industry, it’s also important to make sure an endorser or celebrity entrepreneur aligns their wallet with purpose. “I get a lot of phone calls from celebrities who want to build a cannabis brand,” said Troy Datcher, CEO of the Parent Company, which owns the Jay-Z-backed weed brand Monogram.
“The first question I asked them is what's their connection to the industry, what's their connection to the plant or to the work that we find important as we are helping to shape the industry,” said Datcher. “And when someone leads with the fact that they want to make more money or start with, ‘It's a new revenue stream,’ that's a quick conversation. For me, when it's born in authenticity, it becomes a part of the cultural conversation.”
Mark Flores, director of brand engagement at weed-focused agency Receptor Brands, said the key to growing and maintaining brand loyalty with marijuana consumers is to “have a soul.”
“Have a brand identity that connects with people, not necessarily the pharmaceutical route, which is more transaction-based” said Flores, noting that mindset can be common in newly legalized states. “We see brands that really do care about their consumers and try to engage with them as often as they can. And when I say having a soul, I mean caring about the communities that you're serving goes a long way in differentiating yourself from brands that don't necessarily do that.”
Many may jump to the idea that federal cannabis legalization is the final hurdle to solving these issues, especially as the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act was approved in the House of Representatives earlier this month and progresses to a vote in the Senate. Flores doesn’t think it’s that simple.
While federal legalization would have major implications allowing companies to localize the production process before shipping product across state lines, its effect on marketing and branding would resemble more of an umbrella effect, or have the potential to influence state regulations without necessarily unifying them.
“Bureaucracies are always going to get in the way, but there are organizations—and I'll give you an example: the National Cannabis Industry Association, where I sit on the state regulations committee. Harmonizing some of these laws is one of our goals in order to make federal legalization easier if and once it comes into fruition,” said Flores. “As you have more multi-state operators that are lobbying on [states’] behalf to make those laws a little bit more consistent, it's going to happen. It's just an uphill battle and it'll take time, but the industry is growing fast. The money behind some of those efforts to make laws consistent is there and we'll get there.”
When asked if he believes legalization hopefuls should get excited about the current round of legislation, Flores added, “We should be very excited because at the end of the day, it's getting us closer and closer to normalizing the conversation about cannabis because now it is making national headlines on a daily basis. And that is exciting.”
Subscribe to Ad Age now for the latest industry news and analysis.
Many political conversations around cannabis legalization center around racial justice. For example, New York’s licensing process, which is considered one of the most progressive, inherently favors local operations, especially those previously affected by marijuana laws.
“We had the opportunity to see what other states did and how they succeeded or failed, and especially as they tried to implement what they call equity programs, which is really that effort to get licenses into the hands of those impacted by the disproportionate enforcement,” said Freeman Klopott, a representative from New York State’s Office of Cannabis Management. As the state begins licensing sellers, which it claims will be allowed to operate by the end of 2022, its emphasis is on serving largely communities of color that have been disproportionately oppressed by cannabis laws.
But as governments incorporate social equity into their legislation, not all brands are as eager to broach the topic. Flores’s advice as new states open their recreational markets is to join the conversation head-on. He said that brands outside of the cannabis industry have taken a large role in providing a financial avenue for “social equity applicants to get into the industry without having to be plant-touching. That's great for now, but that doesn't answer the social equity question of how cannabis as an industry should be giving back to the communities that cannabis has affected historically.”
Last year, Monogram posted a series of out-of-home ads pointing out the hypocrisy of cannabis laws in the U.S. “There’s a state in America where cannibalism is technically legal and cannabis isn’t” reads one. Another states, “The war on drugs worked, if systemic racism was the goal.”
“That was a really courageous place for a brand to start communicating as it’s trying to build awareness, but it's also at the center of who monogram is,” said Datcher. “It's reflective of the community we are serving and so, for us, that allows us to have conversations.”