1. The Industry is New, But Cannabis Has History
If you want to stand out from the crowd—in a great way—you’ve got to grasp what’s at stake with your branding aesthetic.
Cannabis marketing has inherited a weird balancing act of medical and recreational imagery. Outdated “head shop” aesthetics can carry old stigmas to your brand, but not every cannabusiness wants to be seen like a hospital or medical dispensary either—a competing theme that arose when medical marijuana first began to emerge in the ’90s and ’00s.
On the one hand, the industry knows it wants to be fun. That’s seen in the tie-dye, swirls, and psychedelic design elements that dominated the 60’s. You could continue with these traditional styles, but your brand will also carry forward any associations the public happens to have with cannabis culture from that era.
Your cannabusiness might turn off potential customers if they don’t identify with the subculture evoked by smoke rings, Bob Marley, and rainbow colors. Many of today’s newer cannabis businesses are breaking away from that identity and pursuing a more “mainstream” aesthetic—one that appeals to first-time consumers who have never participated in the cannabis economy.
At the other extreme, cannapreneurs hope to capture and legitimize medical interest in the plant. This style of branding evokes the sterile look of pharmaceutical products.
Medical marijuana dispensaries began to embrace a no-frills, no-nonsense product design more reminiscent of an Apple store than an old-school smoke shop. Simple, clean, minimalist...lots of white and glass. No hint of marijuana’s past cultural identity. The message? This isn’t something to be consumed at a party but during recovery from an operation.
Both of these approaches have left the plant with a visual history—and effective, contemporary cannabis marketing is ready to write the next chapter. There is a successful “third way” emerging:
Embrace the “All-Natural” Branding Trend
The 2010s ushered in an era of unprecedented success for eco-friendly, natural, health-conscious brands like juice bars and organic grocery stores. There is deep consumer interest in body-and-mind wellness and a simultaneous desire for brands that can be both professional and fun. Relatable, but trustworthy—and committed to outstanding, personalized customer service.
Your cannabusiness can harness this trend with marketing messaging that:
- Touts health and wellness benefits
- Emphasizes community-focused or environmentally conscious practices
- Cultivates a personable but polished image
- Matches the tone of contemporary, mainstream consumer brands
Many dispensaries would like to be seen in the same way consumers view an artisanal coffee shop or health-food cafe. Your brand will have to find its place in the spectrum, but the trend is toward wholesome, holistic, welcoming, and fresh.
Stand Out from the Crowd
Many cannabis business aesthetics are built around the color green. It makes sense, but you can’t go the same route everyone else is going, or your marketing messages will blend in with the rest. In fact, a color that stands out amid a sea of green can work heavily in your favor (due to a psychology principle known as The Isolation Effect).
So, consider color psychology as you weigh your options—but be mindful. There’s a lot of misinformation and pseudo-scientific generalization spread around about color theory, and the specific emotions each color creates in your audience. The reality is that personal preference, experiences, upbringing, cultural differences, and context have a lot more to do with our reactions to colors than some universal biological response.
What’s most important is that the colors you choose are perceived to “fit” the personality and context of your product. Color psychology research has shown that color appropriateness in relation to the product is much more important than the color itself. Green can mean go, money, nature, mint, or sickness, depending on context and purpose. But if you use green on a product that you want to be spicy, passionate, or feminine, you’ll just confuse your consumer.
Pick a color palette for your cannabusiness that will stand out, but also match your brand identity, and then be consistent with it.
2. Your Best Bets Are On Location and On the Web
Federally, cannabis is still classified as a “Schedule 1” drug (as of December 2019). This pretty much rules out nationwide mass media channels for marketing and advertising.
But cannabis is a super hot topic in legal markets. Your audience is lining up to come to you, either in person or online. The most powerful marketing channels for a cannabusiness are:
- Point of Sale: Give serious thought to creating eye-catching product displays that express a clear, cohesive, modern brand identity with your core message distilled into a glance. If you’re a B2B cannabusiness, it’s critical to have killer sales decks, demo videos, and other one-on-one collateral your sales team can use
- Trade Shows and Conventions: This is another perfect place for sales enablement content—sell sheets, handouts, swag, and promotional or sample material.
- Your Website: The three pillars of a rockstar cannabusiness website are SEO (so you’ll be found in search), mobile responsive design (a huge slice of your market will access your site via smartphone), and streamlined navigation (easy access to company info, product pages, and other relevant material).
- Social Media: This is a great channel for showcasing company culture, curating your brand voice, and directly engaging customers from afar. Social media has become a critical customer service channel, and it’s a perfect place to link back to your website—where you can better control the context of the interaction.
- Email: Use all four of the other channels to capture email addresses for nurturing, then distribute your marketing content through automated, personalized, segmented email campaigns. This is your best bet for “outbound” marketing in the cannabis space.
Cannabis and Instagram: A Love Story
Cannabis law specialist Ryan Kocot has said, “Instagram is essential to a cannabis business building an online presence.” Not every cannabis company prefers Instagram or sees the best results from that platform, but there’s no question that legal cannabis culture has gravitated towards it en masse.
Three factors are behind Instagram’s claim to the throne of “favorite social platform” for cannabusinesses:
- Emphasis on beautiful visuals
- An influencer-driven culture
- Demographics that align well with cannabis market trends
Insta-worthy cannabis imagery has done a lot to rehabilitate the cultural perception of cannabis. Since sales content is still expressly forbidden by social sites, content must focus on cannabis lifestyle and education. Carefully curated and captioned photo galleries are perfect for this purpose.
Some B2B cannabusinesses balk at the time investment it takes to craft worthy visual content on a social account that may be shut down unceremoniously and with little warning. The longer sales cycle and the lower overall number of leads in the B2B space mean increased risks when content is lost.
Nonetheless, the key to social media for cannabis is to acknowledge that accounts are “easy come, easy go.” Cannabis earns the most value from social media when it inspires people to look up your company website (or follow links back to it), where you have more control of the conversation.
3. It’s Easy to Get Into Regulatory Trouble—So Be Careful
Crossed wires between state and federal governments make for unpredictable and often contradictory legal situations. It’s easy to fall afoul of current cannabis regulations if you don’t take care and do your homework.
Social media is a great example. The guide rails on the relationship between cannabis and social media have been blurry at best. Facebook finally lifted its ban on cannabis pages in late 2018, but the platform still bans any content that promotes the use or sale of cannabis...creating a very grey area for your page. Study up on the guidelines for each social platform you intend to use, and try to follow the lead of other cannabis brands in how these (sometimes vague) rules should be interpreted:
- Facebook Community Standards
- Instagram Community Guidelines
- The Twitter Rules
- LinkedIn Professional Community Policies
- Pinterest Community Guidelines
- Snapchat Community Guidelines
- TikTok Community Guidelines
Posting pricing information, sales promotions, or messages that encourage users to contact you for purchase information are more or less unilaterally disallowed across all platforms. In other words, paid/promoted ads on social media aren’t really possible.
Cannabis advertising is tricky in general, even in legal markets. For example, ads generally can’t be placed where minors (or at least a significant percentage of minors) will likely be exposed to them. TV and radio are out, for that reason. Google currently doesn’t allow ads or paid search keywords related to cannabis either, due to federal law.
You’ll have to earn your traffic organically, and it’s got to be through non-sales content. For the most part, you can:
- Educate the public about the effects of cannabis
- Share images that include cannabis, but don’t promote sale or consumption
- Discuss lifestyle topics related to subcultures in your audience (without encouraging cannabis use or purchase)
- Relay news about the legal status of cannabis, or the regulations that affect it.
Always seek clarification on compliance rules before pursuing a theme or campaign on any channel. It will save you a lot of headaches in the long run.
4. Cannabis Customers Want More than a Product
The sweeping legalization of cannabis is a watershed moment for our culture—a sign of evolving values and a wide expansion of interest in the plant. The influx of new customers carries with it a few unique marketing needs:
- Consumers Want to Learn: New markets don’t usually blow up this quickly, all while decades of misinformation are muddying the waters for first-time customers. Cannabis has become much more widely consumed in a very short period, but many potential customers are afraid of old stigmas. It’s up to marketing to educate the public—clearly, concisely, and with authority—on the truth about cannabis.
- We Like Our Brands Socially Conscious: Millenials and Gen Z are all about companies that showcase an authentic social mission. Consider Ben & Jerry’s, Tom’s Shoes, and Honest Tea. The products these companies sell come packaged with a promise—that by purchasing them, you’re contributing to a mission to make the world a better place. Cannabis marketing can harness this hunger for humanitarian causes by aligning your brand with a purpose, whether it’s mental health, a plant-based lifestyle, pain management, local agriculture, or something else.
- Cannabis Needs a Third Place: Starbucks has always sought to be a “third place” in your life (work, home, Starbucks). Sure, they sell coffee, but the coffee shop also strives to be a place to relax, socialize, and spend free time outside the home. Cannabis is still subject to a lot of limitations on public consumption, which makes this concept really compelling. If you can curate a comfortable spot for legal, on-site consumption (and market your business as such), the “third place” mentality could become a huge differentiator for your cannabusiness.
This is all to say that cannabis marketing is about much more than promoting awareness and generating interest in your cannabis product or service. Your audience is in search of information, authenticity, and opportunities to participate more broadly in cannabis culture. Legal limitations may have narrowed the ability of cannabusinesses to focus on sales content, but that just means you’ll have more room for marketing these other aspects of the business.
Careful leverage of in-person and online cannabis advertising and marketing opportunities can differentiate your brand, grow your audience, and keep you on the right side of federal regulations.
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