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.
Public relations has a role to play in every industry, providing value for companies looking to promote their services, announce a recent fund raise or want to plant a flag in their domain as a leader or subject matter expert. Some industries, however, are writing a new playbook for the way PR is done. The cannabis space is a prime example of how PR can – and has – evolved in such a short amount of time. This industry has been a part of N6A’s DNA since 2017 when we created a cannabis-specific client service group. Since then we’ve seen the ups and downs, rapid changes and overall growth in an industry that, at the time, very few took seriously. We knew the potential was there, but we couldn’t be prepared for how foreign this would be compared to our other specialties like tech, cybersecurity and professional services.
We had to forget what we knew as media professionals and develop new plays and strategies for an industry in its infancy – all while bearing in mind the plant’s polarizing past and ambiguous future. With so many lessons learned about the way the cannabis and communications industries operate together, here are just a few key takeaways that have shaped our approach and operations in the marketplace.
Build Relationships Across the Board
It’s often said “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” and in cannabis this couldn’t be more true. While the industry is growing rapidly, it’s still considered a tight-knit community where everyone talks to each other, and leaders lean on one another for expertise and guidance. A competitive nature is inherent in any business environment, but what I’ve noticed about those working in cannabis is that everyone is striving for the same goal: to further legitimize an industry plagued with stigma. Whether it’s developing media contacts or a new business prospect, the foundation lies in building relationships with the key players in the space.
From a PR perspective, this includes working closely with the reporters dedicated to the cannabis beat, whether they write for a trade or mainstream publication. Journalists are shifting between jobs faster than ever before, and this beat favors industry veterans. One day your “friendly” at an obscure cannabis outlet will suddenly be spearheading coverage at The New York Times, Rolling Stone or other iconic publications. For the sake of clients and their desired business outcomes, communications professionals should foster ongoing conversations with any reporter interested in covering cannabis; you never know where it could lead.
Understand the Limitations
Both public relations and advertising have proven to be instrumental in normalizing cannabis businesses within the mainstream media. However, communication in the space can be a compliance minefield due to strict state and federal regulations. While the industry’s growth is nothing short of explosive, opportunities for advertising are extremely limited as the largest digital platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have banned cannabis ads, forcing companies to look for other options.
Paid media has its time and place in every industry, but with so much red tape in cannabis advertising, it provides an opportunity for earned media to take the stage. Aside from a few key trades we all know well, journalists across business, lifestyle, finance and retail verticals are covering the space. Depending on what a business is looking to gain from PR, these initiatives are a great way to get directly in front of the audiences they want to reach without the risk of violating certain advertising guidelines. Companies that are ancillary, and therefore not selling a particular cannabis product, also have a bit more flexibility when it comes to advertising, especially on social media channels. As the industry sophisticates, the demographic of consumers does as well.
Evolve with the Industry
The cannabis marketplace as it stands today is vastly different than when we began to service clients years ago. For decades, this industry operated in the shadows and outside of the law, but as legalization spreads across the globe, the way that businesses position and talk about their brand has had to change.
Gone are the days of reefer madness as consumers begin to see cannabis as medicine or a wellness supplement. With this comes a significant reduction in the use of words such as “weed,” “stoner,” and even “marijuana,” while words like “cannabis,” “medicinal” and “patients” step into the forefront. Both communications professionals and businesses must be hyper-aware of the verbiage we use if we want to professionalize the industry and fuel worldwide adoption.
As the industry sophisticates, the demographic of consumers does as well. What was once reserved for a younger, male population has now been growing in popularity amongst women, baby boomers, and the elderly. Cannabis businesses are now forced to diversify their messaging to appeal to the masses which often includes taking a minimalistic approach to branding and packaging.
Consumers are no longer looking for the lowest prices, but a brand that they know and trust. Recognition, whether it be locally or nationally, can be gained through a strong communication plan and will become increasingly imperative for long-term success.
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.
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