The ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB) accredited ABKO Labs, LLC, to ISO/IEC 17025. ABKO Labs is a cannabis and hemp testing laboratory based in Warren, Michigan.
According to the press release, ABKO Labs is the first startup cannabis testing lab to achieve ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation in Michigan. The state earned the accreditation in general requirements for the competence of testing labs, demonstrating competence in chemistry in microbiology.
“We are very proud of our accomplishments in the cannabis lab space in Michigan and we look forward to continuing to offer accurate and prompt results,” says Amy Brown, CEO of ABKO Labs, LLC.
According to a press release sent out this week, Cannify has added a new feature to their website, which allows users to check out more than 1,500 cannabis products available in the United States and save the ones that interest them.
Cannify’s mission is to “bring relevant cannabis science closer to the users, and vice versa, by extracting relevant data from hundreds of studies and making them easy to understand.” Dr. Linda Klumpers, one of the few clinical cannabinoid pharmacologists in the world, founded Cannify back in 2016. Cannify developed a science-based algorithm that helps patients learn which cannabis products are best suited for their personal needs. When patients take the Cannify quiz, it asks them in-depth questions and shows them relevant scientific literature in a personalized report. After that, they are given an overview showing which products match their reports best.
“Making your product database available is nothing new,” says Klumpers. “Making sure that it is actually useful, is a different story. The product list is easy to navigate, even for cannabis novices. Users can filter products by location, administration method, or compound: are they interested in THC, CBD, or both? It might sound so simple, but it turned out to be a rare feature on the market.”
This new addition to the Cannify platform aims to help enhance the overall utility and versatility of the system.
Cannify wants to collect, analyze and publish its data, which they hope will contribute to the advancement of cannabis research. In addition to the Cannify quiz and the product database features, the company also has plenty of educational materials, educational quizzes and customized cannabis courses available on their website.
The cannabis industry is booming. Just the medical segment of the industry is expected to generate $22 billion in the next four years.
Today, 36 of the 50 states allow patients to use medical cannabis with a prescription. But there’s a lot of competition in the cannabis industry. To succeed, you must stand out from the rest with custom branded packaging for your cannabis and CBD offerings.
In fact, some of the most successful companies in the industry have built multi-billion dollar businesses based on a strong brand identity, including compelling packaging design for their cannabis and CBD products.
Here’s what you should keep in mind when designing packaging for your cannabis or CBD products:
Cannabis packaging should attract your target customers
Compelling and high-quality product packaging plays a big role in a customer choosing one cannabis or CBD product over another.
But, before you can create packaging solutions for your cannabis and CBD products, you must understand your target market, your prospective customers and the experience you want to promote.
Here are a few customer profiles for you to consider:
Luxury cannabis and CBD customers
A product is considered a luxury when the brand status is elevated in the eyes of the customer.
Luxury clients expect top quality products and packaging. And, as far as most customers are concerned, if a product is perceived as better than others – it is.
To aid in this perception, packaging options for premium products should be high quality, clean and minimal or luxe, and over-the-top.
And, the packaging should always deliver on the implied promises defined by the manufacturer or dispensary. In fact, if you want to start a cannabis dispensary, you should be thinking about the overall experience for your customers and how the products and packaging offered in your dispensary will stand out from others.
When designing packaging options for customers looking for luxury cannabis and CBD products, be sure to consider:
Quality: Luxury consumers expect high-value, designer packaging that functions impeccably.
Sense: Luxury product packaging should provide a heightened, tactile user-experience.
Taste: Luxury product packaging should forgo the typical stereotypes associated with cannabis.
Millennial cannabis and CBD customers
Millennials are drawn to authenticity. They’re burnt out on traditional advertising, coercive marketing and carefully cultivated facades.
But they’re open to trendy design, and unique product uses and experiences. And, they’re generally receptive to following celebrity and influencer endorsements from people they perceive to have values that align with their own.
When designing packaging for Millennials, be sure to consider:
Simplicity: Minimal, unadorned custom branded packaging appears authentic and trustworthy. This type of packaging represents the product within, without frills or facades.
Sustainability: Millennials tend to value environmental consciousness. They value sustainable packaging that offers alternatives to plastics. You’ll get extra points if the packaging is made from renewable or plant-based materials.
Limited Edition: Millennials want something not everyone can have. This is why scarcity marketing via special edition products is wildly popular.
Customers looking for relief
All medical cannabis customers have a medical need for cannabis and CBD products. A recent study found that approximately two-thirds of medical cannabis patients define chronic pain as their chief reason for treatment.
Patients looking for pain relief for medical issues will be drawn to custom branded packaging that promises what they desire, without making unsubstantiated health claims. So, an emphasis on the efficacy of your product and the relief they will enjoy will be very persuasive for that audience.
When designing packaging for customers looking for relief, be sure to consider:
Medical symbols: Packaging design should make it clear that your product delivers health benefits. Some brands choose to do this through logos pairing cannabis leaves with medical symbols. But, with so many medical cannabis brands hitting the market, that concept will be quickly played out and overdone; making it hard for your brand to stand out. So, think of other ways you can convey your product’s medical value to set your brand apart.
Text: Use clear, concise copy describing your product and its benefits. Pain relief should be a focal point of the package messaging.
Simple design: Clean package graphics and labels with ample white space will ensure that consumers can read the product packaging and find the necessary information with ease.
Cannabis packaging should inform
The best custom branded packaging design successfully balances design and information. Custom packaging for any product must include basic product information on a custom printed label – preferably in a design that makes your product look appealing.
The overall design is an important element in the success of your products. As we emphasized in our guide on how to start a business, a strong brand identity is more important today than it has ever been.
But, medical cannabis packaging carries a heavier informational burden. Guidelines, which vary state by state, require that your packaging must include dosing information and instructions for safe use, as well as batch numbers and expiration details.
For reference, here is our handy content checklist for cannabis packaging. It is also important to be sure your packaging solutions meet state laws. If you already have packaging for your cannabis and CBD products but are struggling to increase sales, perhaps it’s time to consider rebranding your company and your packaging.
Cannabis packaging should protect the product
When choosing cannabis packaging materials, consider both appearance and function.
The best marketing and package graphics in the world won’t hold much value if the product inside isn’t properly protected.
Keep the following protection guidelines in mind when developing your custom packaging:
Proper seal: Packaging for products that are not single-use must be resealable and generally should be smell proof. Containers with lids, adhesive closures, ziplock packaging and boxes with interlocking closures are all options – which is right for your product?
Child safety: Packaging must be difficult for children to open – it must be child-resistant (such as pop-top bottles that require some dexterity to open). Packages must adhere to the Poison Prevention Packaging Act.
Tamper evident: Much like over-the-counter drugs, medical cannabis packaging must be designed in such a way that it is evident if the package has been tampered with.
Sturdy materials: Select packaging that is sturdy enough to protect the product inside. Different products will present differing packaging requirements based on the level of protection they require.
Edibles and beverages: States laws involving medical cannabis and consumable products are not created equal. In the states that do allow edibles and infused beverages, the packaging must be opaque.
With all products, it’s important to remember that the package is the first thing people will see. Great packaging design elevates your product and tells a story about who you are as a company.
But medical cannabis packaging must also work to build trust and confidence in the efficacy of your product. Use these strategies to create the best packaging for your product and cannabis customers will buy over and over again.
The event will begin every Thursday at 12 pm ET, beginning on September 8 and continue through December 22. Each week will feature three educational presentations, two Tech Talks, and a panel discussion. Weekly episodes include cannabinoid research & discovery, cannabis labs, licensing applications, post-election analysis, the Canadian market, hemp quality, HACCP & GMPs, facility design, cultivation technology, safety & compliance, COVID-19’s impact and supply chain quality.
Roy Bingham, Co-Founder & CEO of BDSA, and Nic Easley, Founder and CEO of 3C Consulting , will serve as the keynote speakers on Tuesday, September 8, discussing cannabis market trends and COVID-19’s impact on the cannabis industry.
“Human connection is so important for events, and we know we’re not the only game in town. That’s why we’ve invested in a Conference Virtual Platform that can facilitate discussions, discovery, and connection that can continue whether our event is offline or online—and not end with the live streaming,” says Rick Biros, president of Innovative Publishing. “Simply, the experience other conferences are offering is not conducive to learning, staying engaged or take into consideration that you have a job to do during that week. This is why we have designed the Conference’s program with short, manageable episodes that are highly educational.”
Companies that are interested in sponsoring a 10-minute technical presentation during the series can also submit their abstract through the portal. For pricing information, contact IPC Sales Director RJ Palermo.
Innovative Publishing has also converted the Food Safety Consortium to a virtual event. More information is available at Food Safety Tech.
About Cannabis Industry Journal
Cannabis Industry Journal publishes news, technology, trends, regulations, and expert opinions on cannabis safety, quality, business and cannabis sustainability. We also offer educational, career advancement and networking opportunities to the global cannabis industry. This information exchange is facilitated through ePublishing, digital and live events.
In a press release published last week, Cannabis Testing Laboratories (CTL) announced they have achieved ISO 17025 accreditation as part of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture requirements for cannabis labs operating in the state. CTL is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Doane University, a liberal arts college in Crete, Nebraska.
According to the press release, CTL will be renting space on Doane University’s campus for its primary laboratory. Doane University is working on an effort to foster innovation where they create spaces on campus for entrepreneurial startups. Dr. Andrea Holmes, Director of Cannabis Studies and Professor of Chemistry at Doane University, is the founder of CTL. Dr. Arin Sutlief is the director of the laboratory as well, which means CTL is led by an all-female management team.
Dr. Holmes says hemp testing should be a priority for the state’s new industry. “Being the first ISO-accredited and state approved cannabis testing laboratory in Nebraska will allow farmers, processors, vendors, and even consumers of CBD and hemp products to have local access to high-quality and reliable testing,” says Dr. Holmes. “For farmers, continuous testing is of utmost importance so they don’t grow hemp over 0.3% total THC levels, at which point hemp is categorized as marijuana, which is currently illegal in Nebraska. Consumers of CBD products will also benefit from private testing as oftentimes CBD-infused products don’t actually contain what the label says.”
CTL will operate independently of the university, but the lab will be a resource for faculty and students. There will be internship and experiential learning opportunities available at the lab for students. In addition to that, the lab will also help faculty that teach cannabis-related courses.
“I am proud to be one of the creators of a fully accredited cannabis testing lab that provides our farmers and processors reliable and quick local testing of hemp,” says Dr. Sutlief. “CTL is among the first ISO-certified cannabis testing labs in the U.S. that is a subsidiary of a university. Innovation, research, entrepreneurship and education will be the central pillars of CTL as we set ourselves apart to become leaders in cannabis testing not only in Nebraska and the Midwest but also nationally.”
In a press release sent out last week, KCA Laboratories announced they have been awarded hemp testing contracts for Massachusetts and North Dakota. They received the notices through the North Dakota Department of Agriculture and through the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ Hemp Program that they were awarded the contract.
KCA Laboratories is an independent, third-party testing laboratory based in Nicholasville, Kentucky that specializes in hemp testing.
According to Ryan Bellone, Commercial Director for KCA Labs, they started the company to focus strictly on hemp testing. “The team here at KCA Labs is grateful for the opportunity to analyze North Dakota’s and Massachusetts’ hemp samples for Total THC content,” says Bellone. “We started KCA Labs to elevate the quality of testing in the hemp industry. It has been our goal from inception to service regulators, farmers, processors, and retailers with trusted results. KCA is excited to work with North Dakota and Massachusetts as well as the farmers and processors they serve.”
Bellone says they have started seeing a backlog of samples in a number of states for hemp regulatory compliance testing. “For years, a lack of laboratory testing was a bottleneck for the industry and now that the market has more options, testing turnaround time should not be a barrier.”
Reports estimate that up to 8 million people in the UK use CBD for its variety of wellness benefits. The market is currently worth £300 million, a figure which is expected to more than triple in the next five years.
Sales of CBD already outstrip those of Vitamin C at £301 million vs £119 million and given that almost 90 percent of users in the UK purchase CBD online, new investments into omnichannel and e-commerce capabilities are likely to lead to even more growth.
Yet, for all this excitement, the truth is the UK’s CBD industry is facing a bit of a roadblock.
Until this year, CBD has been in a period of regulatory uncertainty and the industry faced understandable criticism when high profile cannabis probes found that over half of the most popular CBD oils did not contain the amount of CBD promised on the label. On February 13, 2020, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) unveiled new plans to better regulate the industry and announced a deadline of March 31, 2021 for the submission of a valid application for novel food licence for businesses selling food and food supplements containing CBD in the UK. Contained in the announcement was a warning to all CBD companies that failure to comply may result in products being taken off the shelves.
Consumers are also advised by the FSA to “think carefully” about taking CBD, and not to consume more than 70mg a day, making the UK the first country in the world to set recommended limits for CBD consumption, despite no scientific basis for the 70mg recommended limit.
Whilst it is undeniable that the CBD market requires some form of regulation and standards need to be raised for CBD products, to ensure consumers are receiving safe, legal and quality products, this will be a complex and costly process. CBD companies, particularly smaller CBD brands, will need to ensure they have the necessary infrastructure, expertise and resources to meet this deadline.
The deadline is fast approaching, and no extension has been granted despite of the difficulties caused by COVID-19. This will put all businesses under pressure, as the process for applying for Novel Food status requires supplying a large amount of data from rigorous testing. For larger players, this will likely be nothing more than a costly inconvenience, but for smaller, nascent businesses, these costs may put their longevity at risk. There are hundreds of CBD start-ups which have done great work to future-proof their businesses and create safe, high-quality products. Now, instead of preserving costs to try and stay afloat during the pandemic, these businesses must put a significant amount of precious resource and funds into finalising their applications in time.
Improving end user confidence in CBD products and understanding the process from seed to shelf is crucially important in this developing industry, however, I firmly believe these regulations are suffocating the market. I fear that on April 1, 2021, many smaller firms who haven’t managed to achieve Novel Food status yet have a superior product, will suddenly find themselves unable to legally trade.
On the other hand, there is the argument that the FSA ruling may increase the importation of CBD products from firms based outside of Europe. So far, the large cannabis firms in North America, which have the budget and expertise to meet FSA standards, have held back on importing CBD products to the UK. This may well have to do with the slightly dubious legal status CBD has so far had in the UK, so it will be interesting to see whether this changes in April next year and which players will enter the market. The CBD market will continue to grow and diversify but it will be essential that this leads to increasing consumer choice rather than confusion.
In my opinion, the only way the UK will be able to fully harness the potential of CBD is to create an independent, self-sufficient industry that not only helps consumers but contributes to the wider economy through jobs, skills and investment. The pandemic has done well to put a spotlight on the huge access issues cannabis patients face in the UK, bolstering the case to ‘onshore’ the industry.
Whilst this would require a streamlining and simplification of the licensing laws around growing cannabis, the development of a UK-based industry would have endless benefits. Not only would medical cannabis patients see improved access to their medication, CBD firms would no longer have to ship oil in from the dominating wholesale nations such as Poland, Czechia and Italy, this in turn having huge economic benefits. The development of a UK industry should involve the creation of a new regulatory system specifically designed for cannabis products and preferably for a new regulatory body, similar to the Office of Medicinal Cannabis in the Netherlands, to oversee all cannabis regulation, licensing, importation and approvals. This would mean a move away from the current solution of forcing CBD products into the Novel Food category and subjecting them to inappropriate regulations which will soon begin to smother the market with unnecessary red tape.
People are increasingly turning to more natural health and wellness solutions, so as Britons become better informed about CBD products and as the market matures, demand will certainly increase. Yet with both Brexit and standardisation of cannabinoid regulations occurring in parallel, the future and scale of the CBD market is still to be determined. A huge UK market could potentially help push it in a positive direction, facilitating processes for CBD producers.
The cannabis industry is resilient and until this point, has managed to grow at an exponential rate despite regulatory uncertainty. As acceptance and demand continues to increase, so the case for an independent UK industry will strengthen and regulatory roadblocks finally overcome.
Here is the good news: There are beginning to be regional- and country-specific guidelines on at least one widely grown cannabis crop internationally. This includes a range of regs on the medical side (GMPs) but they are also expanding for the “other” cannabis crop too. Namely, hemp.
Now, here is the bad news: The regulation that is developing in different regions is frustratingly not uniform, and can still differ greatly in critical areas. Most notably, for some reason, while the U.S. Farm Bill of 2018 created a new national standard for the amount of THC that could be contained in American hemp crops (0.3%), the same conversation in Europe during the same period of time led to a decision to set the level of allowable THC in hemp plants and products at a slightly lower one: 0.2%. As a further confusing muddle, Switzerland has set its THC limits at 0.1% (Switzerland is not in the European Union), and other countries across the region have also attempted to limit the THC in industrial hemp production to no more than this level, no matter what regulators rule at the EU level.
Beyond a lack of scientific reasoning obvious in the same, by definition, this creates a natural trade barrier between hemispheres. If U.S. farmers are looking for export opportunities to Europe (for example) not to mention other states, they have to worry about both local as well as destination standards – which on the surface at least, are currently incompatible.
It is also creating some frustrating issues for anyone who is in the market for hemp as either a buyer or seller.
Other Issues In The Mix Markets are driven by many factors – including regulations but also cost and of course consumer demand for a product within a certain price range. Certainly, the CBD industry if not the recreational THC one right behind it (even in Europe now) desperately wants to attract those who are known euphemistically as “daily consumers.”
This means that both the price point and consumer opportunities must hit a mainstream distribution norm. While the recreational market will continue to be distorted by delayed, but inevitable discussions about reform across Europe, the medical market is beginning to set some groundwork that is also bleeding into the entire discussion. Namely, that extracts will play a large role here.
What does this wrinkle mean in a world where the agricultural cultivation standards are different?
Biomass And Extracts Are Gaining In Importance For those in the strictly “flower” game, the market at least in the U.S., will remain a place where pretty flower crops will gain premium prices as long as they meet local spec.
However, this is a limited proposition, even now – especially in the CBD business. The edibles market, for one, has created a huge potential for vast quantities of industrially produced, outdoor grown hemp, bound for extraction and downstream, a vast variety of end products across a wide spectrum of niches – from wellness to purely cosmetic. So is the burgeoning medical market in Europe.
This means two things. The first is that consumer-facing products with any amount of cannabinoid (take your pick) can be produced to order, no matter the cannabinoid concentrations of the original plant. The second, by definition, means that biomass bound for extraction, particularly export, will gain an increasingly larger share of the wholesale market.
Does it really matter, in other words, to a European extractor, that the source product is of higher THC concentrate than is allowed for B2C sale in Europe? No. Indeed, all it means is that they have to buy lower amounts of biomass. The rest is merely a mechanical problem.
Playing The Regulatory Game For an increasingly competitive hemp market in the United States, in other words, foreign exports are absolutely an intriguing option for revenue right now, and will continue to be as long as price competitiveness and overall quality issues remain high. Furthermore, there will be almost no pressure to regulate the market globally to the same standards, particularly if CBD itself is descheduled in December by the WHO.
In other words, the regulatory disconnect between the U.S. and Europe right now, and certainly for certain kinds of unfinished bulk product, could therefore open a new niche in the market that is unlikely to be “fixed” anytime soon.
At the outset of 2020, the cannabis industry appeared poised for a series of incremental changes: a number of states were considering decriminalization and legalization measures, and support was growing for federal legislation allowing cannabis businesses access to banks and financial services. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which disrupted state legislative sessions (and legislative priorities), obstructed signature gathering for ballot initiatives, and reshuffled federal priorities. However, despite all of these changes, the cannabis industry has seen significant developments across the country. Beyond of course the many challenges and losses brought by the pandemic and its aftermath, in some ways, it may prove a boon for the industry.
Legalization and Decriminalization
Currently around a dozen states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, while just under two dozen states allow use of medicinal cannabis. With support for legalization measures steadily growing in most states, a number of major states seemed poised to pass legislation legalizing recreational cannabis, including large potential markets in the Northeast such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. And in many other states, advocacy groups were well underway gathering signatures to qualify legalization measures for the November 2020 ballot. When the pandemic hit, however, state legislatures largely suspended their normal operations, and signature gatherers were stymied by stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements.
Despite these major obstacles, legalization and decriminalization legislation has continued to move forward in a number of states, and still others will have legalization referenda on the ballot for November’s election. Perhaps more important than these initiatives themselves are the diverse states that are moving toward loosening of restrictions around cannabis: rather than being limited to a handful of especially liberal states, cannabis advocates are seeing tangible progress is every geographic area, among states whose political leanings span the spectrum.
While the Northeast corridor had planned to undertake legalization efforts in a coordinated fashion this year, those results were put on hold given the seriousness of initial COVID-19 outbreaks in the greater New York area. However, the New Jersey General Assembly nevertheless passed decriminalization legislation, though the matter has not yet cleared the New Jersey Senate, and the appetite for full-scale legalization remains strong there, with a ballot initiative going directly to voters in advance of the New Jersey Legislature considering the issue. The Commonwealth of Virginia enacted decriminalization legislation also, and a legislative caucus in Virginia has pledged to introduce recreational legalization legislation this summer when Virginia convenes a special legislative session. Voters in Mississippi and South Dakota will be able to vote on ballot initiatives to legalize recreational cannabis, and similar ballot initiatives are underway or likely in Arizona and Nebraska. Advocates in Arkansas and Oklahoma had also hoped to bring initiatives to the ballot, but have encountered practical and legal obstacles to gathering the required signatures in time for this year’s election.
These myriad initiatives reflect a strong shift toward legalization of recreational cannabis across the country, and the ability to continue gathering signatures and momentum despite stay-at-home orders and social distancing underscores the growing popularity of the movement. Whether through the legislature or directly by the ballot, it seems all but certain that the number of states permitting recreational cannabis will grow significantly this year.
COVID-19 Business Closures
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the early months of 2020, most states instituted various forms of stay-at-home orders that required the closure of nonessential businesses. While these policies had—and continue to have—serious impacts on businesses of every type, cannabis companies have largely seen strong economic growth notwithstanding.
One of the most important developments in this space came in the context of state and local governments designating certain businesses as “essential” for purposes of business closure orders. In nearly every state to consider the issue—Massachusetts being the main outlier—state and local governments recognized cannabis companies as essential, which allowed them to operate during the shutdown.
The “essential” designation largely carried between both recreational and medicinal cannabis jurisdictions. And this matters because of what it means for the industry. State and local governments clearly realize the important medicinal role that cannabis plays for patients dependent on it for treatment, and the overlapping customer bases of mixed dispensaries further contributed to keeping cannabis companies open during the pandemic. Even in states where certain dispensaries operate solely in a recreational capacity, those jurisdictions recognized the importance of allowing access to a safe recreational substance, like alcohol, during prolonged stay-at-home orders.
Similarly, likely as a result of those same stay-at-home orders, cannabis companies largely saw significant increases in sales revenue. More customers visited retail establishments, and those customers often purchased more product per visit. This resulted in better-than-expected sales revenue for cannabis companies, and also produced increased tax revenues for state and local governments.
The cannabis industry saw more than just increased sales, however. In the process of issuing emergency rules for the cannabis industry during quarantine, a number of state and local jurisdictions either began to allow cannabis deliveries or expanded its availability, a shift in policy that may stick around well after the pandemic subsides.
One final impact of the pandemic may also help push legalization initiatives forward in the coming years: decreased tax revenue and major budget gaps. Due both to a decrease in economic activity like shopping and dining, as well as the unexpected health care costs associated with responding to the COVID-19 crisis, state and local budgets are expected to see significant shortcomings for years to come. In response, state and local governments are starting to see cannabis as a significant and viable source of tax revenue. For example, various cities in California that had previously been reluctant to permit recreational cannabis are beginning to welcome cannabis companies in hopes of making up for lost tax revenue. Similarly, in New Mexico, where legalization has remained a heated topic of discussion, Gov. Lujan Grisham has explicitly expressed her regret that the state failed to legalize cannabis, recognizing that tax revenues from the industry could have reached upwards of $100 million. Other state and local governments are coming to similar realizations, which should help propel expanded access to legal cannabis in coming years.
Major changes in the cannabis industry in 2020 have not been limited to the states. In the midst of changes and crises across the country, the federal government has been making meaningful progress in two major respects, COVID-19 notwithstanding.
First, cannabis companies are edging closer to having full access to banks, bank accounts and related financial services. The SAFE Banking Act, championed by Rep. Perlmutter, has made it through the House of Representatives and is currently in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. However, as Congress continues to toil away at future COVID-19 relief legislation, political signals from Washington, D.C., suggest there is a reasonable likelihood that the protections of the SAFE Banking Act will be included, in some form, in the next round of major COVID-19 legislation out of Congress. The enactment of these banking provisions will provide substantial relief to cannabis companies who have largely been excluded from opening bank accounts and utilizing the services major banks provide. Additionally, allowing access to banks and their services should further facilitate the rapid growth in the cannabis economy we are witnessing elsewhere, and this movement could further legitimize the industry as part of a broader push for federal legalization.
Second, after a four-year delay, the DEA has finally proposed draft rules to expand the DEA’s limited cannabis research program. For decades, all cannabis research to date has relied on limited supplies of cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi. Now the DEA is finally following through on its promise to further develop, refine and expand its research program by allowing additional suppliers and market participants to play a role in cannabis research. While the rules proposed are not without detractors and critiques—and the rules themselves have not been finalized—this marks an important step forward to a better understanding of the effects of THC on consumers, not only because more research is needed to understand a substance consumed by millions annually, but also because the limited supply of cannabis on which researchers currently rely has been shown to differ substantially in appearance, consistency and chemical composition from cannabis that is commercially available in states across the country. With an expanded research regime comes the hope that scientists will be able to develop new and innovative cannabis-derived medications, while also furthering our understanding of how THC affects health and the body.
At every level of government, the year in cannabis so far has proven to be far more eventful than many predicted. And the COVID-19 crisis has not slowed progress. There appears to be continued momentum to further mature how cannabis is treated at every level of government, which signals that significant changes are on the horizon. Industry observers will be closely focused on how the rest of the year proceeds, especially with a presidential election on the horizon.
Editor’s Note: This article was revised to clarify that New Jersey has not yet decriminalized marijuana. A decriminalization bill passed the New Jersey General Assembly, but the New Jersey Senate has not acted as of this writing.
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.
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