Can cannabis-related businesses use advertising to overcome old stereotypes? The answer is yes – if you know how to play the game.
Cannabis-related businesses are not just limited to dispensaries. The diverse industry now includes smoking accessories, clothing lines, manufacturing equipment producers, packaging designers, delivery services, and even laboratory testing services. All of them are serious businesses with the serious goal of making money and helping customers. So why is it that they have such a hard time being taken seriously?
To be fair, the government knows how to use propaganda to influence its citizens. From bond buying campaigns to supporting our troops, it knows how to promote an image effectively, and make it stick. Unfortunately for cannabis, the propaganda machine of prohibition did its job very well. It managed to ingrain even in the positive cannabis culture certain images that are still touted today. Even the name marijuana is a product of negative advertising.
To change how we are viewed, as consumers and an industry, we have to change our vocabulary. Referring to cannabis as dope, grass, green, ganja, reefer, doobage, sticky icky, and wacky tobaccy makes the product sound immature and brings to mind the negative images that prohibition has associated with them.
When it comes time to share with customers how a product will make them feel, phrases like getting stoned, baked, ripped, toking up, blazing, burning one, and of course wasted also turn many people off of the experience.
Marc Shepard, associate publisher at Dig Boston and co-founder of the New England Cannabis Conventions (a hub for New England’s medical marijuana industry), says that the best marketers in the business:
“Resist the temptation to converse in the vernacular terms and jokes used to describe recreational marijuana use. It sounds simple, but it’s important.”
While the above statements pertain to medical customer bases, not recreational, he adds:
“There’s always going to be market crossover between medical and recreational use. Marketing to both can hurt your brand and the medical marijuana industry as a whole. The most successful MMJ (medical marijuana) companies I’ve seen never forget that that their product is medicine and their customers are patients.”
Take a look at the advertisements put out by the pharmaceutical industry. Rarely will you ever see the product. Instead, the ad is meant to invoke feelings of happiness, acceptance, and a life lived without a medical problem. Sell the lifestyle, not the product.
When it comes to recreational customer bases, cannabis-related businesses would do well to mimic the successful strategies employed by craft beer and small local shop boutiques. Stressing business values over business product emphasizes the “community feel” over the personal experience.
The billboard above, for example, has one noticeable thing missing from its advertisement: the marijuana itself. Dàmà put up the first cannabis billboard advertisement in the state of Washington, and possibly the country. Distancing a business from the green leaf and the “stoner” image of the past is important to attracting new customers.
Leo Stone, CEO & Chief Breeder at Aficionado Seeds, Inc., a high-end producer in northern California says:
“Our family has a saying, ‘We’re not in the cannabis business, we’re in the quality business. Most people within our community scoff at the label of ‘dope-grower,’ whereas locals prefer to label themselves as craftsmen and artists. And it’s important for us to share this reality with the rest of the world.”
By portraying an active, natural lifestyle free of the imagery commonly associated with the culture, it broadens its appeal and brings sophistication to the perception of both the plant and its users while avoiding negative reactions. It especially helps with the concerns of those who want to keep the visual impact of marijuana away from the eyes of children.
At the federal level, it is still technically illegal to advertise cannabis-related businesses. Laws at the state level vary by location. Online social media is fickle at best and outright censored at worst. Google, Facebook, Instagram, and even Apple store have come down hard on advertising and cannabis-related content.
Even email traffic, considered a vital way to stay in touch with customers and share information about discounts and promotions, has seen censorship in the state of Rhode Island last year after the attorney general took issue with it.
With so many restrictions, how can cannabis-related businesses, or the industry as a whole get the good word out? Get creative. From sponsoring charity events and sports tournaments to concerts and conventions, there are ways of not only advertising well, but improving your image in the public eye in the process. One company, Native Roots is even bidding to rename the Denver Bronchos stadium after their current sponsor recently declared bankruptcy.
No matter what your company, the industry is only getting bigger. Some fear that opening it up will incur some stiff competition from crossover industries like Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol. Those fears, though practical, are largely without merit.
Tobacco industries have kept an eye on marijuana over the years, even developing plans to market their own lines should laws change. With the lack of tax deductions, prohibitions on interstate travel, and advertising bans, however, the losses far outweigh the gains. Don’t expect any market bullies any time soon.
What you can look forward to is a product that is versatile beyond any other, and the diversification that that opportunity entails. Cannabis can be smoked in papers (flavored, designed, tobacco, hemp), pipes and bongs of all shapes and sizes, vaporizers galore, hookahs and more.
It can be natural or extracted into concentrates of multiple strengths and textures. It can be processed into any food or drink imaginable, body creams, patches, pills, spa products, and more. New ways to package cannabis are popping up every day.
“Without a doubt, cannabis is one of the most flexible and diverse products imaginable. As we find with alcohol and tobacco, there are innumerable levels of quality within these realms and therefore there’s limitless possibilities when it comes to the marketing potential of cannabis.
“Like alcohol and tobacco, cannabis has an incredibly diverse spectrum of both qualitative and experiential values. In light of this phenomenon, I’m convinced that in the near future, cannabis distribution channels will parallel the likes of cigarettes, beer, wine, premium cigars, and craft spirits.” – Leo Stone
Do you have a cannabis business experimenting with the idea of branching out into a new product line? Where do you see cannabis-related businesses in 5 years? Share your visions of the future on social media or in the comments below.