The cannabis industry is quickly growing with the chance of sales tripling to $30 billion by 2023. With many rules and regulations that business owners must follow, marketing your cannabis business can be a challenge. While many may not know where to start with marketing, there are organic and simple tactics that owners can implement that can help drive more traffic to your website, resulting in more leads and sales.
Digital marketing is the most effective way to improve your brand’s online presence, reach your target audiences, rank higher on Google searches and ultimately drive more sales. Today, 81% of people turn to the internet before making a purchasing decision, but determining what digital marketing efforts are most valuable can be a daunting task for business owners. When looking to implement digital marketing strategies, businesses should leverage the 80/20 rule—focusing efforts on the 20% of the digital marketing tactics that yield 80% of the most impactful results. With this in mind, some of the key digital marketing tactics to implement today include:
Keep up with Reputation Management
Having positive reviews for your company is key to having customers come back, and for new customers to try your business out. With 72% of customers not making a buying decision until they’ve read reviews, companies should prioritize soliciting for reviews from customers and stay up to date on the reviews that are coming in. Businesses should respond to all reviews, whether good or bad, as this shows to customers that the brand cares and values the customers opinion and feedback and wants to continue creating a positive experience for everyone. Reviews should be shown prominently on the business’s website for customers to clearly read and can also be used in emails or social media posts.
Make Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Top of Mind
Focusing on developing a solid SEO strategy ensures that customers can find your company on Google when they are searching. In оrdеr to rank well in search engine results, websites need search engine optimization (SEO), which is a powerful tool and a must if your company wants to be found online by customers. With Google processing 12.18 billion search queries in July 2020 alone and 93% of all online experiences beginning with a search engine, making sure your business can be clearly found and seen online is imperative for your cannabis business’ success. Keeping your website and basic information—such as hours, contact information and prices—up to date will keep your SEO high.
Gathering customer emails is KEY and your business should have a solid plan on how to capture them, whether that’s an incentive for providing an email when they enter the site or one at checkout in the retail shop. Businesses should have the customer’s name, phone and email as a baseline to use to email or text blast out the latest promotions. From there, companies can also create a loyalty program for customers in order to give them an incentive to keep purchasing from your business. By creating targeted and personal messaging to customers with the help of CRM tools, loyalty is created to the brand, which can increase purchasing power and the amount spent.
Embrace Social Media
Social media is a part of almost everyone’s life and it’s the perfect opportunity to give customers an inside view into your company, the products you sell and any promotions or specials going on. Utilizing Facebook, Instagram and Twitter is essential for directly reaching your customer base with visually appealing and timely content. Social media is an opportunity to get personal with your brand and build relationships with your customers for them to see what kind of brand you are. Social pages should remain up to date and should be keeping up with the comments that followers are saying.
As more dispensaries and cannabis businesses pop up across the country, marketing your business may seem like a challenge for business owners, but simple and useful digital marketing tools can be incorporated into the business plan to create more quality leads and sales. Ensuring you have a strong digital presence for customers to find you and learn about your business online is the key to success.
By Seth Mailhot, Steve Levine, Emily Lyons, Leah Kaiser, Marshall Custer No Comments
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued warning letters this month to two companies concerning the marketing and sale of over-the-counter (OTC) drug products containing cannabidiol (CBD) as an inactive ingredient. The letters allege violations of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act related to current good manufacturing practice requirements and marketing of new drugs without FDA approval.
At issue: labeling, NDAs and active ingredients
The companies subject to the warning letters market OTC drug products that contain CBD as an inactive ingredient. In the warning letters, the FDA states that it has not approved any OTC drugs containing CBD. According to the FDA, an approved new drug application (NDA) is required to legally market nonprescription or OTC drug products containing CBD, regardless of whether the CBD is an active or inactive ingredient. The FDA notes that CBD has known pharmacological effects and demonstrated risks, and that CBD has not been shown to be safe and suitable for use, even as an inactive ingredient. As a result, the FDA states that CBD cannot be marketed in OTC drug products.
Further, the warning letters noted the marketing of several CBD products that highlighted the benefits of CBD for a range of conditions in such a manner that, according to the FDA, “misleadingly suggests that [their] . . . products are approved or endorsed by FDA in some way when this is not true.” The FDA also took issue with the way products were labeled, which included callouts on the front label regarding the CBD content of the product (a requirement under most state laws that permit CBD as an ingredient). Similarly, the FDA also noted that some of the products advertised CBD as an active ingredient in a topical pain reliever product. According to the FDA, no company may legally market such a product, since there are no OTC monographs or NDAs that allow the use of CBD in an OTC drug.
What this means for you
These warning letters highlight the FDA’s vigilance regarding OTC CBD products. Regardless of whether the CBD is labeled as an active or inactive ingredient, the FDA has taken the position that nonprescription CBD drugs are in violation of the FD&C Act. Companies marketing CBD products should be careful to ensure their marketing practices, as well as their product formulations, do not present a heightened risk of FDA enforcement.
The Brand Marketing Byte showcases highlights from Pioneer Intelligence’s Cannabis Brand Marketing Snapshots, featuring data-led case studies covering marketing and business development activities of U.S. licensed cannabis companies.
Here is a data-led, shallow dive on Aster Farms:
Aster Farms is based in Lake County, California and operates with an ethos of environmental sustainability. They call themselves the “cleanest, meanest and greenest around” and produce sungrown cannabis with “good genetics, clean cultivation and the power of nature.”
According to Pioneer Intelligence, Aster Farms is showing increased strength in each of the pillars they track: social media, earned media and web-related activities. The reason for such an improvement in performance? It starts with a number of earned media placements driving greater awareness for the brand, like this piece in SFWeekly or this one on Benzinga.
Engagement rates for Aster’s Instagram account have been growing for about two months and received a recent boost in the form of a sweepstakes giveaway. Their web activity performance improved as a result of keyword growth on their site.
All of these factors helped Aster Farms get on Pioneer’s list of Top 100 hottest U.S. cannabis brands for October, coming in at Number 60.
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.
Communicating with consumers through the telephone—either by text messages or by calls—is a great way to engage with them. Indeed, a recent analysis of text messaging trends reveals that most consumers check their cell phones more than 20 times a day, with almost 20% saying they check it more than 50 times.1 Text messages have a nearly five-times higher open rate than email, and the average consumer has 96 unread emails in his inbox compared to about one unread text message at any given time.2 In short, used properly, text messaging is an effective medium to reach consumers. And cannabis companies have embraced texting with open arms, especially given that other forms of advertising currently are off limits to the industry.
But with the utility of text messaging consumers comes substantial risk. Cannabis companies are frequent targets of private litigation arising out of their texting practices. Over the past two years, dozens of class action lawsuits alleging unlawful text messages have been filed against cannabis companies, including well-known multistate operators and less recognizable ones. Most of these cases are ongoing and may rightfully be considered “bet the company” litigations. For example, a pending case against cannabis delivery company Eaze Solutions, Inc. alleges that unsolicited text messages were sent to 52,104 individuals.3 Assuming each putative class member received just one text from Eaze, the statutory damages exposure ranges between $26 million and $78 million. The court twice has rejected proposed class settlements of $1.75 million and, later, $3.5 million as being too low. Given the potential exposure, before cannabis companies click the send button on a text message, they need to ensure that they’re abiding by the law.
At the federal level, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) regulates all types of text messages, telemarketing and transactional/informational alike. Generally speaking, the TCPA governs how text messages are sent (i.e., manually versus automatically dialed), and how calls are conducted and voicemail messages delivered (live representative versus “artificial or prerecorded voice”).4 The TCPA also contains do not call rules applicable to marketing messages. The TCPA is enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and, notably, through private lawsuits, including class actions. Under the TCPA, a private plaintiff can seek statutory damages of $500 for each unsolicited autodialed text message (or unsolicited call that utilizes an artificial or prerecorded voice or delivers a prerecorded message). If a solicitation text is sent to a telephone number registered on the National Do Not Call Registry or the cannabis seller’s own internal do not call list, the statutory damages are “up to” $500 per call or text. In all cases, statutory damages may be trebled to $1,500 if the TCPA violation was committed either knowingly or willfully.
These rules fit atop myriad state telemarketing and do-not-call laws, which may be more restrictive than the TCPA.
While I could fill up this entire website with the various calling and texting issues with which sellers generally struggle under the TCPA—such as the use of artificial or prerecorded voices and prerecorded messages, how to handle reassigned numbers, revocation of consent issues, etc.—this article focuses on the basic rules governing how cannabis companies can text consumers, and what types of consent they need to do so under the Act.
Overview of TCPA’s Consent Rules
Under the TCPA, a seller is required to have a consumer’s “prior express consent” in order to send an autodialed non-marketing text message to a cell phone; The consent rule for autodialed marketing text messages to cell phones are different in that they require “prior express written consent” (EWC). No consent is needed in order to manually send a text message (and note that “manually” does not necessarily mean that an individual must dial all ten digits and click send from a standard smartphone).
“Prior express consent” is a lower level form of consent and generally exists where a consumer voluntarily has provided her telephone number to the seller.
“Prior express written consent,” on the other hand, is a heightened consent standard requiring a written agreement bearing (1) the signature of the person called (either traditional “wet” signature or an electronic/digital one) that clearly authorizes the seller to deliver or cause to be delivered to the consumer telemarketing messages; and (2) the telephone number to which the signatory authorizes such telemarketing messages to be delivered. If the seller utilizes an autodialer to send a marketing text message to a cell phone, then the written agreement with the consumer must also clearly and conspicuously disclose both that (a) the text may be sent using an autodialer, and (b) the consumer is not required to provide his consent as a condition of purchasing any goods or services. This EWC to be contacted must have been provided by the consumer before the text is sent. Unlike the lower standard for prior express consent, the mere provision of a cell phone number to the seller does not constitute the required EWC to be contacted at that number via an autodialer marketing purposes.
Confusing enough? Don’t worry, a table summarizing the current TCPA consent rules is below:
What Type of Text Are You Sending?
Generally, the type of consumer consent that is needed to send a text message is a function of the type of text and how it is being sent. “Telephone solicitations” are subject to more restrictions than purely informational or transactional text messages. The TCPA defines “telephone solicitation” to be “the initiation of a [text] message for the purpose of encouraging the purchase or rental of, or investment in, property, goods, or services.”
On the other end of the spectrum lie pure informational or transactional text messages. These are communications designed to provide information, rather than promote products and services (in the case of informational calls), and to “facilitate, complete, or confirm a commercial transaction that the recipient has previously agreed to enter into” (in the case of transactional calls). For example, customer satisfaction survey texts and texts to confirm orders and deliveries are informational and transactional, respectively.
Finally, the TCPA also covers a third category of text messages—“dual purpose” texts. These are texts with either a customer service or informational component as well as a marketing one. Because courts and the FCC take an expansive view of what constitutes telemarketing, dual purpose texts are treated as pure marketing messages and subject to the more rigorous standards to obtain the requisite level of consumer consent.
Common examples of texts that cannabis companies send and the corresponding level of consent needed are as follows:
Autodialed Text Messages: Under the TCPA, an autodialer is defined to be equipment, which has the capacity to store or produce telephone numbers to be called using a random or sequential number generator, and to dial such numbers without a requisite level of human involvement. However, there currently is a “significant fog of uncertainty” as to what is and is not an autodialer, with different courts reaching conflicting decisions as to, for example, whether simply dialing from a curated list of targeted telephone numbers constitutes autodialing, or whether the numbers on that list must have been randomly or sequentially generated in order for a platform to constitute an autodialer.
While proceedings are ongoing at the FCC to clarify the autodialer definition, the Supreme Court recently agreed to decide the autodialer issue during its next term in a TCPA case filed against Facebook; a decision is expected by May or June 2021. Notably, in mid-September 2020, the Department of Justice filed a “friend of the court” brief taking the industry-favorable position that a platform itself must randomly or sequentially generate the telephone numbers that it texts to be considered an autodialer under the statute.
Texts sent by autodialer (whether the autodialing functionality is actually used to send the text or not) require consent from the recipient. Note that this rule generally applies to both individual and business cell phone numbers. As long as the text is not a solicitation message, then consent may be obtained orally. Alternatively, if a consumer provides his cellular telephone number to you via an online lead form or during the checkout process, then this should be sufficient to constitute “prior express consent” to receive autodialed non-solicitation texts, such as order confirmations or delivery updates. The key to obtaining prior express consent, however, is that the consumer provide you with his telephone number voluntarily.
However, EWC is required to send a text for marketing purposes using an autodialer. The EWC requirements are described above and examples of EWC are below.
Note that, under the TCPA, the seller has the burden of demonstrating that it had the requisite level of consent to send the text in question. Thus, cannabis companies should maintain records evidencing such consent. A good rule of thumb is to maintain such records for a period of five years from the date of text, which covers the TCPA’s statute of limitations and the limitations periods under most state telemarketing laws.
Manually-Dialed Text Messages: If a cannabis company manually sends text messages—e., using a device that does not have the capacity to autodial—then no special consent is needed. However, even for manually-dialed texts, applicable do not call lists must be checked.
Texts to Numbers on Do Not Call Lists: The TCPA also prohibits companies from sending marketing texts to consumers whose telephone numbers are registered on either the National Do Not Call Registry or the seller’s own internal do not call list, unless an exemption applies, such as calls with the consumer’s EWC or to consumers with whom the seller has an “established business relationship.”5 The TCPA’s do not call rules are agnostic to how a telephone number is dialed, whether it be manually or by automated means. Be sure to scrub against relevant do not call lists.
Best Practices for Obtaining Proper Consent
As noted above, for autodialed non-marketing text messages to cell phones, the lower level of simple “prior express consent” is required. Prior express consent is deemed to exist by virtue of a consumer having provided his telephone number to a cannabis company, either orally or in writing.
EWC for autodialed solicitation text messages, however, requires more. First, specific disclosures must be made “clearly and conspicuously” to the consumer. Specifically, a consumer should be advised and agree that, by providing his telephone number to the cannabis company, he is agreeing (1) to receive potentially autodialed (2) marketing text messages, and (3) that he is not required to provide his consent as a condition of making a purchase. This disclosure should not be placed beneath a submission button on a lead form or checkout page (unless an unchecked check box is utilized to demonstrate that the consumer has reviewed and accepted the disclosure); it needs to be unavoidable. The disclosure should be presented in readable, crisp font, both in size and in color, that contrasts against its background. For example, the following disclosures likely would pass muster to demonstrate EWC:
As you may now appreciate, the TCPA is a minefield (and this article just scratches the surface). However, with planning and a good compliance program, the law can be navigated to minimize risk while, at the same time, allowing for communications with cannabis consumers. Remember, an ounce of compliance now can lead to a pound of litigation prevention later.
Disclaimer: Using, distributing, possessing, and/or selling marijuana is illegal under existing federal law. Compliance with state law does not guarantee or constitute compliance with federal law. This informational overview is not intended to provide any legal advice or any guidance or assistance in violating federal law.
Zipwhip, 2020 State of Texting, at 4 (2020).
Id. at 11.
See Lloyd v. Eaze Solutions, Inc., No. 3:18-cv-05176 (N.D. Cal.).
Although the TCPA utilizes the term “calls,” courts have found the statute applies with the same force to text messages. This article focuses on text messaging but most of the principles extend to calls as well.
There are two types of “established business relationships” (EBRs) under the TCPA: (1) inquiry EBRs and (2) transactional EBRs. Pursuant to a transactional EBR, a seller may text a consumer whose telephone number is listed on the National Do Not Call Registry for up to 18 months after the consumer’s last purchase, delivery, or payment—i.e., from the date of the seller’s last transaction with the former customer—unless the consumer asks the seller to stop calling him. In that case, the seller must honor the do not call request by placing the consumer’s telephone number on its own internal do not call list. Under an inquiry EBR, the seller may text a consumer who has inquired about its products or services, but only for up to three months. Again, if the consumer asks the seller to stop calling within that three-month timeframe, it must honor the request and add the consumer’s telephone number to its internal do not call list. Telephone numbers on the seller’s internal do not call list should remain on that list indefinitely or until the consumer subsequently provides her prior express written consent (or explicitly asks to be removed from the internal do not call list); a new EBR will not override an internal do not call request. Indeed, as to the latter, the Federal Trade Commission and several state attorneys general made this point clear in their briefing in a recent TCPA and Telemarketing Sales Rule litigation then-pending in Illinois federal court; the practical reason for the rule is that a consumer may wish to do business with a seller yet not receive telemarketing calls.
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.
Gen Z is currently at about 40% of consumers, and this segment will be rapidly growing in the coming years. Most researchers and media define this generation as those who were born between the mid to late 1990s and early 2010s. In the United States alone, Gen Z consumers have an estimated $143 billion in buying power. Businesses that aren’t putting enough marketing strategies toward Gen Z need to reevaluate and switch gears, stat! Start laying the groundwork for your company’s success in the coming years. Kickstart your targeted Gen Z marketing strategies now. Every industry is different, but there are a few key do’s and don’ts to follow when communicating with Gen Z buyers. In the cannabis field, it is especially important to only market to those who can legally indulge.
Do Make Genuine Connections Online
Gen Z is our first truly digital generation. They’ve grown up using social media and the internet. As digital natives, they’re quick to recognize inauthentic communication methods. Whether it’s unnatural comments or trying to cover up negative testimonials, the younger crowd can always spot brands trying to be something they are not. Instead, practice total transparency with followers and friends to ensure that there is never a lack of brand accountability and authenticity. Within the cannabis industry, businesses can use their social media platforms to educate, build relationships and easily refute longstanding cannabis stereotypes that are so common in older generations.
Don’t Try Too Hard to Be Relatable
One way to make genuine connections is to engage with, create and share memes and other trends on social media. Although this is an excellent method for increased interactions, there is also plenty of room for error, so caution is the guiding principle. If not executed correctly, a post about a meme could easily make brands look unprofessional, or behind the times as they’ve missed the actual joke. These techniques can make business accounts seem like they are trying too hard to fit in, and will ultimately cause Gen Z to hit the “unfollow” button. Instead, focus on topics that closely align with the brand’s image and find creative ways to make content relate to exciting and funny trending ideas about cannabis.
Do Care About Social Issues and Responsibility
Focus on creating high quality, exciting videos and vibrant pictures that highlight cannabisResearch has shown that Gen Z sincerely cares about social issues and responsibilities. These beliefs don’t only apply just to their personal lives, but also to their buying habits and which businesses they want to support. These beliefs provide an excellent opportunity for brands to stake out common ground with Gen Z and support a variety of causes at the same time. Many of these consumers seem to care about topics like the environment, equality, hunger and homelessness. Do note that it’s essential to review and analyze these issues before making statements or posting about them on social media. For the cannabis industry, many businesses tend to raise awareness about medical matters, social equity and community-oriented programs.
Don’t Post the Same Content Repeatedly
After getting into the social media game, it can be tough to figure out how often to post. As much as those aspects do play an essential role in overall engagements, it’s also crucial to pay attention to the type of content that makes it into followers’ feeds. All photos and videos should be related, yet unique. Posting the same marketing content over and over is going to bore Gen Z, and make business accounts look less aesthetically pleasing. Instead, focus on creating high quality, exciting videos and vibrant pictures that highlight cannabis, and then vary your post types.
Navigating Gen Z communication and marketing tactics are going to be pivotal in just a few years, making it critical for businesses to rework their marketing strategies as soon as possible. If cannabis brands can capture the essence of authenticity and social responsibility in their communication methods, while avoiding posting repetitive content, they should be able to reach legal Gen Z-ers seamlessly.
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.
Back in late 2016, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) legalized delivery for cannabis products. Since then, dispensaries could offer a delivery option for their customers to purchase cannabis products without leaving the comfort of their home. Up until quite recently, that market was dominated by a handful of dispensaries who also conduct business at their physical location, offering delivery as an option while conducting most sales in-person.
Enter Pot Mates. Founded in 2018 by Hammond Potter, the company embarked on the long regulatory road towards licensing and beginning operations. On April 20, 2020, Pot Mates opened for business, starting their engines to take on the fledgling cannabis delivery market in Portland.
Pot Mates is a tech startup through and through. The founders are former Apple employees. Hakon Khajavei, the chief marketing officer at Pot Mates, founded Blackline Collective, a business and marketing consultancy, which is where he joined the Pot Mates team. The other co-founder of Pot Mates and chief technology officer, Jason Hinson, joined after serving in the US Navy as an electronics technician maintaining satellite communications networks.
With the sheer amount of regulations for cannabis businesses, coupled with the new delivery-based business model, Pot Mates had to focus on technology and automation from the get-go.
Not Just an Online Dispensary
For the cannabis companies already offering delivery in the Portland metro area, their websites seem to mimic the in-person dispensary experience. They offer dozens of products for each category, like concentrates, edibles and flower, making a customer pour through options, all at different price points, which can get confusing for the average consumer.
Pot Mates does things a little differently. “Our start up process was thinking through how do we make this the best experience possible, how do we get rid of the unnecessary junk and how do we do things that only an online dispensary can do,” says Khajavei. They have flat pricing across the board. In each category, almost every product is priced the same, moving away from the common tiered-pricing model. This, Khajavei says, removes the decision barriers customers often face. Instead of choosing the right price point, they can choose the delivery mechanism and effect they desire uninhibited by a difference in cost.
It all comes back to focusing on the simplest way for someone to buy cannabis. “Shopping online is just very different,” says Khajavei. “Our process focuses on the customer journey and limits the number of products we offer. We have a mood system, where we tag our products from reviews to typify moods that you experience with different products.” All of that requires a lot of back-end technology built into their website.
The Long Regulatory Road
Technology has been a strong suit for Pot Mates since they opened their doors, and well before that too. Making the decision to be an online-only delivery cannabis company pushed them to pursue a very unique business model, but regulations dictate a lot of the same requirements that one might see in dispensaries.
The same rules apply to them when Pot Mates submitted their license application. You need to have a signed lease, extreme security measures, detailed business plans, integrated seed-to-sale traceability software (Metrc in Oregon) and much more. “During the months leading up to getting our license, we were able to iron out a lot of the regulatory details ahead of time,” says Khajavei. A lot of that was about security and tracking their products, which is why technology plays such a huge role in their ongoing regulatory compliance efforts. “We built in a lot of automation in our system for regulatory compliance,” says Khajavei. “Because of our technology, we are a lot faster.”
In the end, their licensing process through the state of Oregon as well as the city of Portland took about nine months. Once they had the license, they could finally get down to business and begin the process of building their website, their POS system, their inventory and reaching out to partners, producers, distributors and growers.
For any cannabis company, there are a number of regulations unique to their business. “We need to report every product movement in house through Metrc,” says Khajavei. “Every time something is repackaged it needs to be reported. We focus so much on our technology and automation because these regulations force us to do so.” But delivery companies are required to report even more. Pot Mates needs to report every single movement a product makes until it reaches the customer. Before the delivery can leave the shop, it is reported to Metrc with an intended route, using turn-by-turn directions. It complicates things when you make two or more deliveries in one trip. Reporting a daisy chain of deliveries a vehicle makes with turn-by-turn directions to regulatory authorities can get very tedious.
As far as regulations go for delivery parameters, they can legally deliver anywhere inside Portland city limits. “It is our job to figure that out, not the customer’s job; so we don’t have any distance limits, as long as it is residential,” Khajavei says. “We programmed customized technology that allows us to handle really small orders.” Without a minimum order policy or a distance limit, Pot Mates can reach a much bigger group of consumers.
Launching in the Midst of a Global Pandemic
Luckily, the Pot Mates team received their license just in time. About two weeks after they submitted their application, Oregon put a moratorium on any new dispensaries.
They went forward with their launch on April 20 this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic impacting just about every business in the world, including their marketing efforts tremendously. With cannabis deemed essential by the state, they could operate business as usual, just with some extra precautions. What’s good for PotMates is that they don’t need to worry about keeping social distancing policies for customers or curbside pickup, given the lack of storefront.
Advertising Cannabis in a Pandemic is No Easy Task
“The marketing aspect is where covid-19 really hurt us,” says Khajavei. “There are so many regulations for cannabis companies advertising already. Unlike other products, we can’t just put up advertisements anywhere. We have to follow very specific rules.” So, in addition to the normal marketing woes in the cannabis industry, the team then had to deal with a pandemic.
Pot Mates had to scrap their entire marketing strategy for 2020 and redo it. “We wanted to begin with a lot of face-to-face marketing at events, but that didn’t quite work out so well.” Without any concerts, industry events or large gatherings of any kind, Pot Mates had to pivot to digital marketing entirely. They started building their SEO, growing their following on social media, producing content in the form of blogs and education around cannabis and the local laws.
On an Upward Trajectory
Obviously, the short-term problem for a new cannabis company is reaching people, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. “We have a good trajectory though, we know we are growing our business, but we still have a ways to go,” says Khajavei. It doesn’t help that social media companies have nonsensical policies regarding cannabis. Their Facebook page was recently removed too.
But the bigger issue here is kind of surprising when you first hear it: “It’s not even a matter of customer preference, a lot of people just have no idea that delivery is even legal.”
It’s pretty evident that cannabis delivery has not really gone mainstream yet. “We’ve told people about our business in the past and a common answer we get is, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know we could get cannabis delivered.’” It’s never crossed their mind that they can get cannabis delivered to their home. It’s an awareness problem. It’s a marketing problem. But it’s a good problem to have and the solution lies in outreach. Through educational content they post on social media and in their blog, Khajavei wants to spread the word: “Hey, this is a real thing, you can get cannabis delivered.”
As the market develops and as consumers begin to key in on cannabis delivery, there’s nowhere to go but up. Especially in the age of Amazon and COVID-19 where consumers can get literally anything they can dream of delivered to their front door.
Moving forward, Pot Mates has plans to expand as soon as they can. Right now, they’re limited to Portland city limits, but there’s a massive population just outside of Portland in towns like Beaverton, Tigard and Tualatin. “We are so close to these population centers but can’t deliver to them now because of the rules. We want to work with OLCC about this and hopefully change the rules to allow us to deliver outside of the city limits,” says Khajavei. In the long term, they plan to expand out of state, with Washington on their north border being first on the docket.
To the average person, one would think launching a delivery cannabis business in the midst of a global pandemic would be a walk in the park, but Pot Mates proved it’s no easy task. As the market develops and the health crisis continues, it seems the Oregon market will react positively to the nascent delivery market, but first they need to know it is even an option.
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