Cannabis has always had it tough when it comes to marketing. Part of it is simple logistics. A DTC playbook, heavily contingent on growing a brand’s audience and pushing folks to purchase products through digital marketing, isn’t a possibility for them. Despite its mainstream acceptance, most large ad platforms like Facebook and Instagram won’t touch it because of its tenuous legality. Banner ads don’t convert and only end up on specific platforms like Pornhub or Weedmaps anyway.
And because the legal status changes on a state-by-state basis, it’s extremely difficult for a brand to span across multiple markets. Just think: why would someone living in Florida care about a cool cannabis brand in Detroit if they weren’t in that industry or have ties to that state? This also makes influencer marketing tough because people aren’t finding the coolest people in their respective states to follow. They’re just finding people they think are interesting.
That leaves budtenders – point of sale experts – that hold a huge position of educating and steering folks towards products. Most folks are newer to cannabis – or cannabis has grown up a ton since their past casual experience with it. Budtenders offer an informative, hyper-local solution with extremely limited reach to a narrow market.
But the future shows promise. A new wave of platform marketing has emerged with new formats and lots of room to cultivate and grow for cannabis brands. With a little understanding of what’s driving the success of social media newcomers and evolving mainstays, cannabis companies can potentially find new avenues for marketing and brand-building success.
There’s currently a lot of opportunity through the larger cannabis retail and native ordering apps – ones like Weedmaps, Leafly and others that have widespread brand recognition within the cannabis community and a growing array of social media-like features. These are places that already segment according to markets, with a built-in, educated audience open to creative approaches to branding and marketing.
These types of apps are also becoming the norm more and more. Especially since the pandemic, dispensaries are doing most of their volume through online orders and pickup. As a result, making sure you show up, look great and convey your unique position on these platforms is incredibly important.
Listening and Learning
Whether it’s Clubhouse or other upcoming rivals on the horizon, audio platforms are great because they can serve as a means to have an honest, direct and enlightening conversation about cannabis. This is great news for budtenders who can help a brand expand their reach by facilitating these sorts of conversational consumer relationships. As the cannabis market matures rapidly, people will need a safe place to normalize consumption, talk about dosage or about how normal consumers (not just stereotypical potheads, but every day, “constructive members of society”), are able to use cannabis effectively in their day-to-day lives.
A lot of other visually-based platforms are about curation or presentation of an ideal life and less about learning or sharing – a place where audio platforms can shine.
Old is New
In some cases, it’s not about just using new platforms but finding better ways to utilize old ones. For example, legal or not, a lot of folks are about discretion when it comes to their cannabis. They want to get questions answered and learn about brands and products via peers and experts, but they don’t want their bosses or grandparents knowing that they’re hitting a pen between meetings or before brunch.
That’s why time-based content platforms – Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and others – that offer individuals and brands some measure of safety, as well as controlled messaging, will help continue to normalize cannabis.
Another non-cannabis example worth emulating is Psilodelic, a psilocybin gummy brand that’s super low-dose and decently branded, using Instagram in a creative way. Purposefully making their accounts private and going without a public hub, the only way to buy the product is to follow and DM them. “Hacking” the platform in this way means they have to shut down and open up new accounts all the time, but they’ve done an amazing job offering a product that, similarly to cannabis, is sometimes inaccessible, and have done it in a way that’s simple and feels more elite. That’s creative entrepreneurship.
In the end, using these changing platforms means approaching them as tools to foster a better relationship with people. The brands that succeed will have dead-simple instructions and information that really helps to empower folks to look at cannabis in a different way. Then, as we finally reach legalization, these brands will find themselves better equipped to step into the mainstream, confident in the meaningful relationships they’ve already cultivated.
Cannabis hit major milestones in the first half of 2021. Adult use cannabis is legal in five more states, bringing the total to 16 plus Washington D.C. In addition, two pieces of federal cannabis legislation were recently revived by Congress. Even with these developments, the cannabis industry faces an uphill climb to navigate state and local regulations levied on its sales, operations, taxes and advertising.
Advertising regulations present big hurdles for cannabis businesses to overcome. With cannabis illegal at the federal level, traditional advertising avenues like broadcast and radio are limited to the states where it is legal. Still, many networks won’t touch cannabis ads. Major tech companies like Google, YouTube and Facebook largely bar cannabis businesses from online marketing. With cannabis advertising laws that vary state to state, companies face a hodgepodge of regulations with little consistency.
So, how are brands working within this messy regulatory framework? They’re turning to out-of-home (OOH) advertising. Here’s what to know about legally advertising cannabis products and brands through outdoor media.
A state-by-state patchwork of regulations
Medicinal cannabis has been legal in California for more than two decades, and adult use cannabis is going on five years. Yet, debate rages on over how visible cannabis advertisements should be in daily life. This isn’t just happening in The Golden State. Other states like Colorado and Oregon with established legal cannabis industries continue to grapple with how to regulate cannabis advertising in print and outdoor formats. Not to mention that states just getting into the legalization arena are playing catch up to get rules and regulations in place.
With the right partner, cannabis companies can navigate the nation’s mélange of advertising regulations to share their products, services and marketplaces. The best online OOH buying platforms are even equipped with cannabis filters that seamlessly identify cannabis-compliant OOH ad inventory.
Growing and innovating with out-of-home advertising
While it’s the oldest form of advertising, OOH is a far cry from an old-fashioned advertising avenue. It’s a hot, dynamic form of communication that is poised for big growth alongside the cannabis industry. Sure, OOH includes more traditional highway-side billboards. But it also spans eye-catching digital billboards, taxi-top advertisements, building wallscapes, and digital vehicle charging stations – all of which are accessible through OOH buying platforms.
Such platforms make it easy for cannabis brands to effectively target consumers compliantly. Brands like Cookies, Eaze, MedMen and MONOGRAM have launched laugh-inducing, Instagrammable, and thought-provoking campaigns to build brand awareness. The Northern-California brand Cookies has mastered the art of cross-product branding, building an entire clothing line around its brand. Real California Milk even got in on the fun with a dispensary-inspired pop up and an OOH media buy. With OOH, cannabis businesses have effectively connected adult consumers with their latest products, promotional offers and physical storefronts, but also sparked conversations about cannabis legalization and decriminalization.
What to consider when leveraging OOH for cannabis advertising
If you work in the cannabis industry, are an agency partner or a small-business owner managing the advertising process, here are some things to keep in mind when planning your OOH ads.
Know the rules of where you plan to advertise. This is a fast-moving space. New markets are coming online. Regulations are being established and challenged. It’s crucial to find industry partners who provide reliable, up-to-date information on the status of advertising rules in the markets you’re in so you stay compliant and don’t jeopardize your business license.
Get into the practicalities. What do local cannabis advertising rules mean for your brand? Are there regulations that impact more than the location of an OOH campaign? Rules on creative artwork or words that are banned? A guide to regulations is likely laid out at the state level (see the states of Illinois and Massachusetts), but will ultimately be governed by local municipalities (see the City of San Diego). There are workarounds here. Just because you can’t show people engaging in cannabis consumption, cannabis leaves or products, it doesn’t mean your creativity is limited. Look no further than Weedmaps. The company launched its Weed Facts campaign across hundreds of billboards in half a dozen or more markets to highlight the many benefits of cannabis. One read: “States that legalized marijuana had 25% fewer opioid deaths.”
Determine specific goals for your campaign. What do you want to achieve with an OOH campaign? Are you looking to build brand awareness? Share a new product? Drive foot traffic to a physical location or prompt customers to visit your website? Are you advocating for change? Laying out your goals will drive your creative and the locations in which you launch your campaign. Speaking of launching, with OOH – especially digital outdoor ads – your creative can be up and running in 48 hours. Outdoor ads are customizable and with location tools, verbiage and design, can be directed to a specific cross-section of the market.
Measure Success. Barring state and local regulations, the OOH possibilities for furthering and promoting your brand are almost endless. Once your campaign is launched, the right OOH buying platform will enable you to track goals and success. With the ability to track and isolate OOH, you’ll be able to attribute conversions, measure your return on investment, compare performance by unit and optimize your campaign.
As regulations at the local, state and federal levels change and evolve, OOH advertising will remain the tried-and-true standard for cannabis companies to get word out about their brand, market their products and drive traffic to their websites and storefronts.
As more nations across the globe embrace the benefits of legal cannabis, to say the business is booming is an understatement. But with cannabis going corporate in a big way and marketing standards still hit or miss, the reality of unethical marketing practices that manipulate consumers and run roughshod over small businesses threatens to do harm if not brought under control.
Enter Cresco Labs, a major player in the international cannabis industry. Contrary to what you might expect, and bringing in a breath of fresh air, this giant is pushing to install marketing standards that protect the ethical interests of all cannabis businesses.
In this article, we will take a look at some key elements of ethical advertising in the cannabis industry and explore the Cresco Labs proposal.
The Power of Advertising
Advertising is a powerful medium for rebranding and influencing public perception. The messages conveyed by ads reflect the changing moral, ethical, and consumer opinions of society – and often create them in the first place. For cannabis, an industry rife with stereotypes, ads present a strong opportunity to change the popular face and perception of cannabis as nothing more than a vehicle to get high.
Today’s numbers tell a different story with a full 19% using it for pain relief and another 37% to relax. Even one successful ad campaign can change the mind of a skeptical consumer. So how to ethically harness this power?
Cannabis rebranding generally works best when it draws on four main elements:
Emphasize health and wellness benefits. Most new customers who are interested in cannabis these days are attracted by the inspiring health and wellness possibilities that cannabis products present. By redefining cannabis as a medical product suitable for families, the elderly and patients suffering from various ailments, and not simply as a way to get high, cannabis companies can target the audiences that will most benefit from their products.
Replace typical “juvenile” imagery with sophisticated graphic design approaches. With so many options for how to use and consume cannabis these days, it is no wonder that brands are embracing trendy, sophisticated, contemporary design techniques. Logos featuring minimalist and elegant fonts more accurately express the narrative behind products such as cannabis teas, cannabis-infused oils and edibles.
Highlight the science behind the products. For those naysayers still determined to limit cannabis to its recreational usages only, to the exclusion of its many health benefits, exploring the science is vital. By citing legitimate research studies and findings, and explaining the scientific processes at play when using cannabis, ads can debunk false myths while educating the public.
Tell a compelling, relatable story. Like all good advertising, the narrative is key to engaging audiences. Framing cannabis within the powerful context of a compelling story is a strong approach to making a memorable impact on consumers.
Wild West Advertising
Because cannabis is such a new industry, only recently becoming legal in many states (and countries), advertising agencies have been reticent to sign on with these companies. The lack of regular advertising standards means that cannabis advertising has been compared to the “wild west,” where anything goes. While some companies struggle to promote a more wholesome, consumer-friendly image of cannabis, marketing to broad audiences, other companies embrace stoner stereotypes and industry myths, often resulting in ads that depict unethical content.
Unofficial social media ads may target underage customers, with slogans featuring symbols like Santa Clause, or presenting underage people in their ads next to cannabis products, as in a recent Instagram ad from one brand, Dogwalkers. The ad shows a person holding a pre-rolled joint on the beach with a caption that reads “let the good times (pre) roll.” The image also features young-looking surfers in the background, an implied invitation to underage consumers to sample these products.
Without regulation, businesses are also free to create advertisements rife with false claims. Vulnerable people, patients with chronic illnesses, senior citizens and others may be susceptible to the claims presented in these ads. The FDA has recently begun to crack down on this spread of misinformation, but putting in place industry-wide advertising standards would also have a strong effect.
Operating in nine states in the U.S., Cresco Labs is a vertically integrated, publicly traded company that has recently released a proposal for establishing marketing rules for the cannabis industry. The proposal, entitled “Responsible Advertising and Marketing Standards for the U.S. Cannabis Industry” outlines a vision to hold the U.S. cannabis industry to a higher professional and ethical standard than is the current norm, thus legitimizing the industry.
Some specific rules in the proposal stipulate that ads depicting over-consumption as a fun or desirable outcome should violate industry standards. Additionally, the widespread adoption of this proposal would ban any marketing approaches that target underage consumers, ensuring that companies are better able to enforce legal age restrictions.
The company, alongside other large cannabis organizations, has released this proposal as part of an attempt to normalize the industry, allowing it to bring in top ad companies to help promote their brands. While cannabis retains the pop culture imagery of stoner culture and its associations with reckless behavior and teenage cannabis usage, regular advertising sources will remain skeptical about getting involved.
As the industry continues to evolve and expand, more regulation will be useful in terms of establishing dominant narratives to help redefine how cannabis appears in the popular imagination and what kind of clientele is attracted to cannabis products. But by redefining the acceptable standards of advertising, there is also a risk that cannabis will lose some of the intrigue and novelty that currently makes it a popular, trending topic.
Still, if rebranding campaigns can shift the story so that cannabis appeals to the masses, then everyone in the cannabis industry ultimately benefits.
With the death of Facebook arbitrage, direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketers are forced to look for new ways to drive sales more quickly than ever before. Enter TV. Once seen primarily as a branding medium, DTC brands are now using television to drive online and in-store sales. The continued growth and sophistication of attribution modeling in television has allowed marketers and their agency partners to more directly measure television’s impact on KPIs.
But what if you are a brand that can’t be on Facebook or Google due to ad restrictions? Or your potential customer base is spread across multiple demographics? TV is a great, if not the only, way to reach CBD customers on a mass scale. CBD brands face the same challenges that all DTC brands face with the added bonus of additional restrictions due to product perception, and can also vary drastically state-by-state around the country. These restrictions however, also create a huge opportunity for the savvy marketer to dive in and own share of voice in the CBD market. With Facebook off the table, CBD brands are spared the expense of learning that Facebook arbitrage no longer exists. The opportunity to scale an emerging CBD brand on TV has never been more accessible.
The acceptance of CBD brands on television still faces restrictions as each network group has their own standards and practices. However, the number of networks accepting CBD products grows by the day. As education and understanding around the efficacy of CBD increase, so are the networks’ willingness to accept advertising. Remember, there once was a time when liquor brands couldn’t advertise on TV!
Looking at other media platforms for reaching potential CBD customers through advertising, terrestrial radio also provides very strict guidelines, if allowed at all; the same can be said for digital options and satellite radio. Whereas podcasts are a popular option due to regulations mostly being decided upon by the podcast’s producers, it’s hard to compare the reach to consumers of podcasts vs. television.
The nuances of navigating the media landscape for CBD brands remains complex. The opportunity to capture market share through TV is wide open. The CBD brand who recognizes this and acts most quickly has the chance to become the undisputed brand leader in a market that projects to exceed $45 billion by the year 2024.
For a long time, cannabis marketing didn’t exist. Then suddenly, it did. Fast forward a few years, and this nascent vertical within the modern marketing sphere remains a unique tangle of federal restrictions, state regulations, platform-specific policies and gray-area confusion, complicated by the sudden classification of businesses within it as “essential.”
So, how do today’s cannabis business owners create a marketing strategy that works in 2020? Below, we take a look at how cannabis marketing has evolved over the last few months before diving into one example of a Seattle-area cannabis retailer that’s risen to the challenge, evolving their marketing strategy quickly and successfully to capture an influx of new customers during COVID-19.
Welcome to the Cannabis Industry’s New Normal
The fact that COVID-19 has fully dominated marketing news, along with every other form of coverage, since its inception goes to show just how much it’s changed things. Multinational corporations have paused their entire ad spends; contracts have been backed out of; multi-year marketing plans have been torn up and rewritten, sometimes more than once. Those who were hoping to get back to their previous initiatives within a month or two have seen the error of their ways—and we’re still (though it doesn’t feel like it) less than half a year in.
The biggest change brought on by COVID has been a shift en masse to all things digital. Whereas before most companies met in person, they now meet over Zoom. Thousand-person conferences have become webinars and virtual networking events, while brand activations are now free trial promo codes. Along the way, traditional marketing methods have increasingly been replaced by their digital counterparts. Today, marketers need to meet consumers where they are, and where they are is at home and online.
In most industries, this shift to digital has been happening for many years already. Digital marketing and advertising methods are highly measurable, instantly adjustable and capable of reaching target audiences more directly and efficiently than traditional media. Even before the pandemic hit, cannabis was already playing marketing catchup: For example, while most industries have been using billboards since closer to their inception in the 1830s, the first cannabis billboards post-legalization only cropped up in 2014.
The shift to digital advertising in the cannabis industry has long been stalled by Facebook and Google, both of which reject all cannabis ads and even most CBD ads regardless of the location and legality of the products. Therefore, cannabis brands have evolved their own unique non-digital marketing playbooks. In addition to the prevalence of print ads, physical billboards, sponsored events and in-person pop-ups, many cannabis brands have come to rely heavily on a tactic unique to the industry: budtender education. In the meantime, most cannabis marketers haven’t been leveraging their digital options in full (or, frequently, at all).
Due in large part to COVID-19, the need for this to change has come into sharp relief. In addition to decreased reach for print publications and out-of-home ad space with fewer people spending time in public, events are no longer feasible, and customers are no longer having leisurely chats with their budtenders as they weigh the benefits and drawbacks of different products for sale. Most cannabis stores are minimizing their in-store visitors as well as offering online ordering, curbside pickup services or cannabis delivery. In April Margaret Jackson, a journalist at Marijuana Business Daily, reported on this trend:
“Many marijuana brands have relied on in-store pop-ups and educating budtenders about their products to reach consumers. But as cannabis customers increasingly order products online for delivery or pickup—and with the expectation that these habits will persist after the coronavirus pandemic is under control—marijuana brands should consider more direct ways to reach their audience to ensure sales stay strong, according to industry officials.”
Marketing Isn’t the Budtender’s Job
We don’t know how long COVID-19 may continue unchecked, but as Jackson notes, these shifts in behavior are likely to outlive the circumstances that first necessitated them. Since online shopping, pickup and delivery have quickly become standard in 2020 cannabis sales, a huge marketing gap has been left between consumers—including an influx of new ones—and the brands they’d probably be buying if those brands had been marketing to them before the pandemic.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that the brands we work with need to start marketing themselves directly to consumers,” says Anna Shreeve, managing partner at The Bakeréé. “It’s not the budtender’s job to do that legwork.”
The Bakeréé operates two retail locations in Seattle, one on the north end of the city and the other on the south. Since opening their first store, the team has focused on sourcing products of the highest possible quality at every price point, as well as emphasizing a wide variety of high-CBD options. Shreeve says the store has worked hard over the years to build a knowledgeable clientele that comes in specifically to find new and interesting products. Still, she notes that many customers go directly to the budtenders for suggestions.
Steve Schechterle, director of marketing at Washington’s Fairwinds, which sells both cannabis and CBD products, recently noted the company’s focus on budtender outreach and training in a webinar hosted by the Cannabis Marketing Association. “It’s where we’ve seen the biggest payoff by far,” said Schechterle. “Since we first noticed this, we’ve created an entire program around training Fairwinds-certified budtenders.”
Fairwinds isn’t alone: Many companies come in to meet dispensary employees, offer swag, answer questionsand show off their newest products. That way, when a customer comes in looking for a recommendation, those products are top of mind. For now, that option is largely gone, and Fairwinds (along with a few other early adopters of digital advertising in the industry) has begun advertising online to drive increased consumer demand and avoid having to rely primarily on budtenders in the long term.
Pivoting a Dispensary to Digital Ads
In the past, The Bakeréé—like many retailers in adult-use states—leaned heavily on event-based marketing, including New Years parties, in-store artist showcases, festival sponsorships and more. While they have used digital advertising for their own business, ad campaigns have primarily supported in-person events, such as through ticket sales for the New Years parties. This year, Shreeve had planned to go big on marketing for 4/20, putting together her own concert lineup that included up-and-coming hip-hop names from across the US. She was about to start promoting that concert with digital ads when the pandemic hit.
By early April, it had become clear that the 4/20 concert was not happening. Shreeve had already lost $20,000 in deposits on artists and the venue, which reduced the budget available for alternate marketing ideas. She decided to run a digital advertising campaign with a single display ad: The goal was to promote online ordering for curbside pickup.
While display ads are not generally known for their conversion rates, they’re a common place to start advertising cannabis due to their price point (impressions generally cost fractions of a cent) and ease of creation. Display ads can be run using programmatic ad tech, the current standard in digital advertising, which accounts for 70% of ads bought and sold in 2020. In most other industries, search and social ads through Google and Facebook are the go-to methods for digital advertising, but since both are closed to cannabis brands, programmatic is the best way for cannabis businesses to advertise digitally.
Starting with one display ad concept, and then adding a second, The Bakeréé ran their ads on a wide variety of mainstream websites, using demographic and geographic targeting to reach potential customers within a specific radius of each store. They also advertised to customers living near the closest competing dispensaries. The ads themselves focused primarily on promoting the ease of curbside pickup as well as offering a 10% discount on all online orders. Sales began to rise almost immediately.
Though April’s increase may have been due in part to 4/20’s impact on sales and a widespread stock-up mindset in the first month of the pandemic, The Bakeréé saw back-to-back-to-back months of YOY revenue growth at both their locations in April, May and June. From display ads on desktop they added mobile to the campaign, and in June added two 30-second video ads to build on the momentum generated by display.
Overall, The Bakeréé has seen a 13-fold return on ad spend, driving $153,000 in revenue from digital ads in the campaign’s first 90 days. The display ads have generated widespread use of the online ordering system, increased basket size to an average of $95.47, and grown online ordering revenue by 389%.
In the second half of the year, Shreeve says she hopes to expand the campaign to include connected TV and digital audio ads, particularly to support the launch of a new website with updated online ordering capabilities in Q3. And she still hopes to see more of the cannabis brands sold by The Bakeréé start advertising on their own, too: To that end, Shreeve is considering working with vendors to run co-branded advertisements that may help them adopt their own digital marketing initiatives sooner and drive more sales for everyone involved.
Advertising your cannabis brand isn’t as easy as it should be—but then again, neither are most things about working in the modern cannabis industry. Here’s the good news: Today there are more avenues available for compliantly advertising your cannabis brand than ever before, particularly online.
So why don’t more cannabis brands run compliant digital ads? Generally speaking, it’s an issue of awareness. Since cannabis brands are currently disallowed from running their advertising campaigns through the modern digital advertising mainstays of Facebook, Instagram, and Google, most business owners believe that digital advertising as a whole is not allowed, and thus most cannabis companies are either underutilizing or completely overlooking their digital ad options.
In fact, the rules barring cannabis brands from advertising with Google and Facebook are specific to those platforms. While Facebook and Google—together known as “the Duopoly”—currently account for approximately half of digital advertising dollars spent in the U.S., the other half of the digital advertising pool—including sites like ESPN, HuffPost, Newsweek, Politico, Barstool Sports, and USA Today—is increasingly open to accepting ad buys from compliant digital cannabis and CBD advertisers. More publishers are opening their doors to cannabis ads every day, and many advertising professionals speculate that the COVID-19 pandemic may speed up the process, as publishers begin to look for new streams of ad revenue in order to weather the economic storm.
Where Can Cannabis Be Advertised?
Today, cannabis industry advertisers can easily run ads across hundreds of mainstream websites using programmatic advertising technology. This is true for both cannabis brands and CBD brands, though they use different programmatic platforms to do so: CBD brands (which we’ll address in more detail later) can use mainstream “demand-side platforms” (such as The Trade Desk) to run their ad campaigns, while cannabis brands can use new cannabis-specific platforms (such as Safe-Reach) created to address the unique compliance needs of the legal cannabis industry.
For those unfamiliar with the term, programmatic advertising refers to the automated buying and selling of online ad space using programmatic technology. In a nutshell, advertisers and their ad agencies use demand-side platforms (DSPs) to set the parameters of “bids” for certain ad impressions based on relevant attributes of the ad space and the viewer who will see it. Publishers put their ad space up for auction via supply-side platforms (SSPs), and ad exchanges play matchmaker to sell the ad impression to highest bidder in the time it takes the web page in question to load.
Cannabis-specific DSPs work with other cannabis industry leaders to develop sets of data relevant to cannabis advertisers; they then open these data sets within their platforms to help cannabis advertisers reach known cannabis consumers. These known consumers may be, for example, people who’ve downloaded apps like Leafly on their phones.
A key thing to note is that the cannabis ads themselves no longer need to be shown exclusively on these endemic cannabis sites and apps. In the past, digital cannabis advertisers were generally restricted to buying space on industry-specific sites like Leafly, High Times, and Weedmaps, which pushed prices up due to inventory limits and ran through ad budgets quickly. Ad networks like Mantis attempted to compile this inventory to make the buying process more scalable, but because cannabis has been (and remains) the fastest-growing industry in the United States since 2015, it’s no surprise that endemic cannabis ad inventory has been insufficient to meet demand.
Now, the data sets available through programmatic advertising technology allow ads to be shown to the same cannabis enthusiasts across any website, endemic or not. This makes digital advertising far more affordable for cannabis marketers, and allows for more advanced advertising techniques like building look-alike audiences, cross-device advertising, first-party data onboarding, and ad retargeting. These techniques can be used across all modern digital ad formats, including display, mobile, native, video and digital audio.
Still, even those marketers who are already aware that they can advertise digitally outside of Facebook, Google and endemic cannabis sites may struggle with knowing what they can say and show in their digital ads, particularly if they intend to run those ads in multiple locations or across multiple channels. The broadly applicable rules for running compliant digital cannabis ads are what we’ll discuss now.
Rules for Cannabis Ad Compliance
Thanks to cannabis’s continued federal classification as a Schedule I drug, current digital advertising regulations are governed by state cannabis laws, so they vary depending on where your business operates. This can become particularly confusing if you want to run digital advertisements visible to customers across multiple states (which some states allow—for those who don’t, cannabis ad tech will let you keep your ads within state or local borders too).
Luckily, most cannabis bills are crafted to resemble those that have been passed successfully before them, which means that state laws can be boiled down to a handful of broadly applicable guidelines no matter where you intend to show your ads. The current best practices for advertising cannabis are as follow:
No claims of health or medical benefits
No elements that could appeal to children (cartoon characters, etc.)
No false or misleading statements, including those made about competitors’ products
No testimonials or endorsements (e.g. recommendations from doctors)
No depiction of product consumption
No pricing information, potency statements, or promotional offers
Ads for infused products must state “For Adult Use Only”
Using these guidelines, cannabis marketers can more easily create ads to be approved for use in a variety of settings. A few states have their own additional rules: In Florida, a state approval process for ad creative also applies. In Alaska, Arkansas, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon and Washington, additional state-specific copy is required in the ad creative.
Note that it’s always important to double-check your state’s most recent requirements, as local rules may change over time. If you’re working with an advertising agency that specializes in the cannabis industry, they can help you with this process; cannabis-specific programmatic platforms like Safe-Reach will also check your ad creative against local requirements as part of their approval process.
Why Advertise Cannabis Digitally?
Prior to the advent of modern, cannabis-specific digital advertising technology, cannabis marketers were light years behind their mainstream industry counterparts in terms of the advertising channels they leveraged to get their message out. Traditional advertising tactics like billboards and print ad buys were popular among cannabis businesses early on due to the lack of digital ad publishers willing to work with them.
The problem with these traditional tactics is one of targeting, measurement, and reporting: It’s impossible to know who has seen your ads, how many of those viewers went to your website or dispensary after seeing them, and what your return on ad spend (ROAS) was. The fact that you can neither know nor control who will see your ad in a print newspaper or on a billboard is why most states have treaded cautiously with their advertising restrictions to avoid ads being seen by minors. In Washington state, for instance, no advertisement is allowed “within one thousand feet of the perimeter of a school grounds, playground, recreation center or facility, child care center, public park, library, or a game arcade admission to which it is not restricted to persons aged twenty-one years or older; on or in a public transit vehicle or public transit shelter; or on or in a publicly owned or operated property.”
With programmatic advertising, digital identity data allows advertisers to show their ads exclusively to an appropriate audience—for instance, adults ages 21 and over who live within state borders. Digital advertising also addresses the issues of measurement and reporting, which is why mainstream brands have already shifted en masse to choosing digital over physical ads: You can learn, down to the cent, the return on your digital ad investment, which makes the choice of continuing to advertise an easy one as long as ROAS remains positive. As of 2019, digital ad spending surpassed traditional (TV, radio, print, etc.) for the first time in history, and in 2020, eMarketer estimates that $151 billion will be spent on digital marketing versus $107 billion on traditional. By 2021, 70 percent of all digital ads—and 88 percent of display ads—will be bought and sold using programmatic technology.
As the fastest-growing industry in the United States, cannabis should also be one of the fastest-growing segments in digital advertising, but so far cannabis advertising efforts have been far off pace with the industry’s progress as a whole. However, that is beginning to change as savvy cannabis brands begin to understand and leverage their digital marketing options.
What About CBD Advertising?
The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp-derived CBD products in the United States, but did not offer guidance on selling, marketing or advertising them. Most CBD products are thus sold and marketed in a legal gray area, which is only made more confusing by Facebook’s and Google’s policies of rejecting these as “illegal drug” ads (a policy both platforms enforce irregularly). Although CBD brands should still try for approval, and some ads (especially those for hemp-derived CBD topicals) may be approved, CBD advertisers cannot rely on Facebook and Google for ongoing traffic, and ads may be taken down after initial approval regardless of legality.
That said, CBD business owners already have an even more extensive range of digital advertising options available outside of search and social than cannabis brands do. Some websites that do not yet accept cannabis ads will accept CBD ads, and mainstream ad tech platforms like The Trade Desk allow CBD ad buys as long as ad creative meets their internal guidelines for approval. Thus, the de-facto rules and regulations governing CBD advertising today are made by the platforms and publishers running their advertisements. To ensure ad approval on programmatic platforms like The Trade Desk, CBD brands should follow the same guidelines listed for cannabis brands above.
To sum up the current state of digital advertising compliance in the cannabis industry, cannabis and CBD brands should know that there are far more digital advertising options out there than most people realize, and that creating compliant ads is relatively straightforward as detailed above. That said, brands considering an investment in digital advertising should also keep in mind that the current window of opportunity for getting a head start on the competition is already closing day by day as brands begin to realize all the ways they can run compliant cannabis digital ads.
Programmatic Advertising: A Close Look at Cannabis (IAB)
People talk a lot about consistency when it comes to branding; after all, it’s a feature of the world’s most lucrative consumer brands (just ask Apple, Nike and Starbucks). As a result, companies will spend buckets of money on ensuring that their look and sensibility are uniform when marketing materials are out in the wild.
This consistency makes it easier for customers to recognize your brand. But the most important effect of consistent branding isn’t just that customers will recognize you– it’s that they’ll trust you.
Trust is the product of familiarity and consistency, and it’s far easier to be consistent across platforms when you have a strong sense of who you are as a brand. Strong branding helps you stick out in a crowd, and repeated viewing reinforces who you are to consumers. By extension, a consumer’s ability to quickly recognize you means that when they see your brand in public, they’re more focused on your message than picking you out of the crowd. And one way for consumers to recognize you is through archetypes.
What a Character!
Archetypes are typical examples of a person or concept that appear across different fields of literature, art and behavior; in other words, archetypes are familiar concepts that appear in storytelling. An outlaw is an example of an archetype. If an outlaw appears in a story, you may find yourself immediately drawing conclusions about that character’s motivations and sensibility and imagining how the outlaw fits into the story.
This demonstrates how archetypes can serve as a kind of shorthand when you’re telling your own brand story. We’ve created 16 archetypes–brand characters, if you will–for the cannabis industry, such as the Activist, the Doctor and the Stoner, among others. These archetypes all have a specific look and tone that you can use in your communications to keep your messaging consistent and effective so that people are focusing on your message rather than sussing out who you are and what you stand for.
For one thing, this makes your marketing efforts easier on you because you’ll be able to tell what makes sense in the context of your archetype. For example, the Doctor Archetype wouldn’t be sharing a 4/20 playlist, and an Activist Archetype wouldn’t be arguing the merits of different CBD bath bombs. You don’t want consumers scratching their heads, and having an archetype helps to determine what kind of behavior is appropriate for your brand.
Moreover, it helps to establish consistent behavior that your consumers see. Consistency helps to build trust because it helps customers build expectations. When you build expectations and you act in a way that immediately feels familiar to them, they’ll feel more comfortable with you. Imagine your closest friends; you have a strong sense of who they are. You know that your friend will refuse to order their own fries and then pick at your own. But there’s some comfort in this because when a person acts exactly as you expect, it makes you feel as though you know them deeply. And when there aren’t any mysteries, you can focus on what lies ahead in your friendship.
Brands operate the same way. When you see an Apple ad, you don’t have to rack your brains for context before you absorb their message. You know that Apple stands for sleek design and innovation, so when you see an Apple ad, Apple doesn’t have to keep reintroducing those values. Instead, you can focus on the new product or idea being featured, knowing that the sleek design and innovation are already baked in– and it’s because Apple has done decades of legwork making sure that that’s the case.
Archetypes make that legwork even more efficient by giving you those values as part of a character. If you think of your brand as a character, it immediately makes your communication more human. For instance, like Apple, the Scientist Archetype also values innovation. But when you write social posts as a Scientist Archetype rather than a brand, it makes it easier to connect with folks because you’re writing from a particular person’s perspective rather than a bulleted list of company values.
It also grants you more structure in your brand strategy because it allows you to envision a whole person. When you’re writing a post, for example, you can ask yourself, “Would the Scientist say this?” You can envision this Archetype’s mannerisms and sensibility, and being able to do that makes it far easier to know what will feel real to consumers– and by extension, trustworthy.
That ability to build trust is what will ultimately decide how successful your brand is in this burgeoning industry. You’ll be facing more competition than ever and you may eventually find yourself facing companies selling near-identical products. The brands that will win out will be the ones that know how to build trust with consumers with a cohesive brand strategy. With the right strategy, that could be you.
Busy entrepreneurs often skip steps in their business development process, particularly in the cannabis space. Since this is a new industry, there isn’t a long history of marketing/advertising efforts to look back on; the standards are still being developed. But more often, businesses simply may not have a budget large enough to pay an agency, and they may not feel confident executing these efforts on their own.
Fortunately, you can do a lot independently to get your name out there. This three-part series will give you a quick primer on branding – what it is, why it’s important and how to do it. But first, we need to discuss the differences between branding, marketing and advertising so that you know what kind of tools you have at your disposal.
What is Branding?
Branding should be considered a prerequisite to marketing and advertising.
Branding is simply thinking about your company from the inside-out. It’s asking yourself questions about the kind of person your brand would be, down to its beliefs, personality and sense of style. Ultimately, we do this to build a deep emotional connection with potential customers. When you know who you are and put yourself out in the world, you’re signaling to them that you are a good match for each other.
When you have a brand that consistently forms emotional relationships with customers, that bond converts to both income and long-term company value, making your spending on marketing and advertising go further. It gives you a competitive advantage over companies with weak or non-existent branding (and in the U.S. cannabis industry, there are plenty of those). Moreover, it’s a key factor that venture capitalists and friendly Fortune 500s look for in potential investments.
So, what should you be asking yourself when it comes to branding? Start with exploring the fundamentals. Decide on the philosophical, emotional and visual characteristics of your brand.
As far as the philosophical questions go, it’s important to codify your mission, brand values, customer promise, core competency and future vision to build a strategic brand. Think about what you’re offering, how it will change lives, and what unique qualities will help you make it all happen.
The Four Ps: Product, Price, Place and Promotion.The philosophical characteristics help you decide who you are. Your emotional characteristics are the ones that connect you with the world. These would include your creation story, your brand personality and tone of voice. How does your brand see and respond to the world? Why? People love consistency. Having a consistent presentation makes your brand feel more authentic; in turn, people are more receptive to you.
The visual qualities are how the world should see you. These assets should include your color palette, fonts, imagery and logo. Making decisions about your brand’s appearance may feel subjective and overwhelming to people, but it doesn’t have to be. Basically, evaluate these ideas and assets in terms of how your audience is likely to respond to these elements. For example, how does your happy-go-lucky audience feel about a logo that is lime green versus corporate blue? Which color best reflects your brand sensibility? You know who you are; the visual characteristics are how you plan to show it.
As a discipline, marketing traditionally involves making strategic decisions about the four Ps: Product, Price, Place and Promotion. These decisions become significantly easier once you have defined your brand.
Essentially, marketing addresses the way your brand lives in the world. It tells potential customers what you sell, and why they should choose your brand. It involves making thoughtful decisions and having a strategy for decisions such as product names and your corporate culture.
You also need to think about your pricing strategy and how that manifests in front of customers. For example, are you a high-end product with a premium price or the Walmart of weed? What’s your customer service strategy? Are your budtenders in flannel or lab coats?By now, you know who your brand is and how you want to present it to the world. Now you need to get consumers to see it that way. That’s where advertising comes into play.
Marketing also involves decisions about collateral—namely, your product packaging, brochures, signs and trade show booths. It also impacts your brand’s in-person presence. That could include experiences like events your company attends, trade shows where you have a booth or table, sensory experiences or even AR/VR experiences with your product.
By now, you know who your brand is and how you want to present it to the world. Now you need to get consumers to see it that way. That’s where advertising comes into play.
Generally, advertising relates to paid campaigns that are carefully written and designed to tell potential customers where, when, why and how to connect with your brand and buy your products and services.
Fortunately, you have the tools to thrive by putting in the work to get to know your brand.These campaigns are often launched within the space of owned media, such as television commercials, radio and print ads and billboards. There are tons of digital and social media options. Your job is to find the ones that your customers interact with and decide what you want to say about yourself. For example, what kind of sites would you want to place ads on? What state of mind are customers in when they go to those sites? And what message do you want them to get from you in that moment?
Normally, answering these questions would be daunting. But since you’ve already decided who your brand is, you may already know what colors you want to use for this ad. You’ve already considered what your mission is. You know how your brand should appear to the world. And since you’ve unlocked these truths, you’ll be able to develop campaigns that feel genuine, unique, and memorable.
Connecting with consumers and making them remember you isn’t optional. It’s what will ultimately decide whether your business survives or not. Fortunately, you have the tools to thrive by putting in the work to get to know your brand. It’s tough, and it may not come easily at first. But we don’t start a business because it’s easy. We accept the risks and frustrations because we love what we do. Tell everyone why they should too.
Strictly Necessary Cookies
Strictly Necessary Cookie should be enabled at all times so that we can save your preferences for cookie settings.
We use tracking pixels that set your arrival time at our website, this is used as part of our anti-spam and security measures. Disabling this tracking pixel would disable some of our security measures, and is therefore considered necessary for the safe operation of the website. This tracking pixel is cleared from your system when you delete files in your history.
If you disable this cookie, we will not be able to save your preferences. This means that every time you visit this website you will need to enable or disable cookies again.