Tag Archives: communications

Communications in Cannabis: The Playbook for Branding Success

By Trisha Larocchia
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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.

This dispensary ad appeared on Variety.com

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.

How to Grow a New Cannabis Business Amid a Pandemic

By Hannah Deacon
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The COVID-19 crisis is plunging the global economy into recession, changing consumer behavior and the world of business. Cannabis businesses are no stranger to operating in a challenging landscape. The constantly evolving legal status, regulatory hurdles and social stigma has forced founders in this space to be nimble and more financially wise with their capital.

While the market has experienced a seismic shift that has already attracted investors to inject capital into the cannabis industry and seen neighboring industries, including tobacco, alcohol and pharma, come into the fray, COVID-19 will change key industry structures and operations. To succeed and cultivate value, cannabis companies must adapt to the new realities of the marketplace to be well positioned for continued growth after the pandemic subsides.

With social distancing guidelines suddenly forcing brick-and-mortar retailers to move their businesses and customer experiences online and disruptions to the supply chain due to international travel and business directions, some businesses will struggle to stay afloat.

As consumer behaviour and online shopping patterns adjust to a new way of living (affecting B2B sales, online ordering, deliveries and manufacturing), leadership and strategic thinking will be paramount.

By understanding where the challenges and opportunities lie, cannabis businesses can thrive. Here are some focus areas and tactics to consider:

  1. Targeted consumer segmentation through social media

When starting a cannabis business, it is key to understand who your core consumers are and what they want from their products. This has become even more acute because of the pandemic with consumers flocking to all sorts of health-focused products including CBD.

With everybody spending more time online, social media use is on the rise. Executing a social media plan to include influencer outreach can increase brand visibility, build a solid consumer base and create brand advocates.

Instagram is essential to a cannabis business building an online presence but it’s important that it doesn’t become a “hard sell, please buy me” channel. Plan and make Insta-worthy content that educates and entertains followers to increase engagement, click-through rates and leads. Brands may want to pair with an influencer on either a gifting or paid-for basis which will mean the brand appears in a potential customer’s feed as they interact with their favourite accounts.

PlugPlay, a California cannabis brand, stays relevant with creative posts like these.

The art is finding key influencers whose audience is one that you would like to interact with. This type of positioning will allow cannabis businesses to reach a new audience or group of people.

  1. Marketing and PR

In times like these, many companies choose to pull back on communication activities and expenditures for fear of spending too much for what they perceive as little return, however, marketing and PR, when executed well, can be the lifeline of any business.

With so much noise in the market about the “next best thing in cannabis”, effective marketing and PR can distinguish brands that are credible and offer a strong value proposition to those that are all smoke and mirrors.

The current needs of businesses and consumers are much different than they were just a few short months ago, so it’s important to understand these needs and spending habits while combatting negative perceptions of cannabis.

As cannabis companies are not able to advertise like mainstream companies, a strong public relations and marketing strategy will enable firms to communicate their identity, build trust, shift perceptions through media coverage, enhance reputations and reach customers, partners and investors.

  1. Cost cutting

Businesses in every sector are cutting costs to keep their businesses afloat. This needs to be done strategically and requires senior leadership teams to explore cost reduction strategies and streamline non-essential costs.

This may mean further consolidation of cannabis companies and supply chains to manage cash flow and maximise resources. Companies may even look to create strategic partnerships with complementary businesses in the industry or push some firms towards mergers and acquisitions.

Business models will evolve as cannabis companies identify inefficiencies and reconfigure their operations and messaging. This could range from assessing their R&D capabilities, agricultural assets, manufacturing chains or route to market.

  1. E-commerce capabilities
Pivoting to e-commerce is nothing new, but getting creative with product offerings and marketing initiatives will set you apart from the typical CBD retailer

The postponement of countless CBD Expos, trade shows and cannabis conferences are creating new demand and opportunities for businesses. To reach prospective wholesale clients, investors and connect to their customer base, firms are entering the digital marketplace. Digital events, Zoom investor pitch panels and email marketing and sampling is on the rise and expected to grow over the coming months.

CBD brands should work in parallel with their retail partners to influence product samples in digital offers and create a touchless transaction. Buying products online is going to become a permanently entrenched habit, even when restrictions are fully lifted so it’s worth looking at how technology can support and enhance sales while offering a smooth customer experience.

  1. Industry Relationships

Everyone in the cannabis industry will be affected by COVID-19 so maintaining positive relationships is vital in these tough times. Calling investors or partners to tell them what is going on with your business or checking in on others in your ecosystem means information can be shared to iron out any issues and help generate ideas to future proof the business. “A problem shared is a problem halved!”

COVID-19 is creating incredible business challenges. As we navigate the new normal, it’s important to adapt and grow. As more products come to market and brands/services develop distinguished offerings, expectations will change so cannabis businesses need to be ready for greener pastures.

Jennifer Whetzel

Branding for Cannabis Companies 101: Part 3

By Jennifer Whetzel
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Jennifer Whetzel

Editor’s Note: In Part 1, Jennifer Whetzel introduced the concepts of branding, marketing and advertising for cannabis companies. Part 2 took a closer look at the benefits of branding. Part 3, published below, illustrates the different archetypes to use in branding.


People talk a lot about consistency when it comes to branding; after all, it’s a feature of the world’s most lucrative consumer brands (just ask Apple, Nike and Starbucks). As a result, companies will spend buckets of money on ensuring that their look and sensibility are uniform when marketing materials are out in the wild.

This consistency makes it easier for customers to recognize your brand. But the most important effect of consistent branding isn’t just that customers will recognize you– it’s that they’ll trust you.

 Trust is the product of familiarity and consistency, and it’s far easier to be consistent across platforms when you have a strong sense of who you are as a brand. Strong branding helps you stick out in a crowd, and repeated viewing reinforces who you are to consumers. By extension, a consumer’s ability to quickly recognize you means that when they see your brand in public, they’re more focused on your message than picking you out of the crowd. And one way for consumers to recognize you is through archetypes.

What a Character!

Branding: Who
Marketing: What & Why
Advertising: Where & When

Archetypes are typical examples of a person or concept that appear across different fields of literature, art and behavior; in other words, archetypes are familiar concepts that appear in storytelling. An outlaw is an example of an archetype. If an outlaw appears in a story, you may find yourself immediately drawing conclusions about that character’s motivations and sensibility and imagining how the outlaw fits into the story.

This demonstrates how archetypes can serve as a kind of shorthand when you’re telling your own brand story. We’ve created 16 archetypes–brand characters, if you will–for the cannabis industry, such as the Activist, the Doctor and the Stoner, among others. These archetypes all have a specific look and tone that you can use in your communications to keep your messaging consistent and effective so that people are focusing on your message rather than sussing out who you are and what you stand for.

For one thing, this makes your marketing efforts easier on you because you’ll be able to tell what makes sense in the context of your archetype. For example, the Doctor Archetype wouldn’t be sharing a 4/20 playlist, and an Activist Archetype wouldn’t be arguing the merits of different CBD bath bombs. You don’t want consumers scratching their heads, and having an archetype helps to determine what kind of behavior is appropriate for your brand.

Moreover, it helps to establish consistent behavior that your consumers see. Consistency helps to build trust because it helps customers build expectations. When you build expectations and you act in a way that immediately feels familiar to them, they’ll feel more comfortable with you. Imagine your closest friends; you have a strong sense of who they are. You know that your friend will refuse to order their own fries and then pick at your own. But there’s some comfort in this because when a person acts exactly as you expect, it makes you feel as though you know them deeply. And when there aren’t any mysteries, you can focus on what lies ahead in your friendship.

You know that Apple stands for sleek design and innovation.

Brands operate the same way. When you see an Apple ad, you don’t have to rack your brains for context before you absorb their message. You know that Apple stands for sleek design and innovation, so when you see an Apple ad, Apple doesn’t have to keep reintroducing those values. Instead, you can focus on the new product or idea being featured, knowing that the sleek design and innovation are already baked in– and it’s because Apple has done decades of legwork making sure that that’s the case.

Archetypes make that legwork even more efficient by giving you those values as part of a character. If you think of your brand as a character, it immediately makes your communication more human. For instance, like Apple, the Scientist Archetype also values innovation. But when you write social posts as a Scientist Archetype rather than a brand, it makes it easier to connect with folks because you’re writing from a particular person’s perspective rather than a bulleted list of company values.

It also grants you more structure in your brand strategy because it allows you to envision a whole person. When you’re writing a post, for example, you can ask yourself, “Would the Scientist say this?” You can envision this Archetype’s mannerisms and sensibility, and being able to do that makes it far easier to know what will feel real to consumers– and by extension, trustworthy.

That ability to build trust is what will ultimately decide how successful your brand is in this burgeoning industry. You’ll be facing more competition than ever and you may eventually find yourself facing companies selling near-identical products. The brands that will win out will be the ones that know how to build trust with consumers with a cohesive brand strategy. With the right strategy, that could be you.

Marguerite Arnold

The Great Cannabis Branding Conundrum in Europe

By Marguerite Arnold
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Marguerite Arnold

Cannabranding is buzzy. In the United States and in Canada, it is a vertical that is developing fast along with the multi-billion dollar legitimizing cannabis market. In both the United States and Canada, digital marketing to promote brands is a hot topic.

Social media has firmly rolled over traditional advertising barriers even as it still remains a landmine. And if there were ever a “fun” brand to be associated with, cannabis carries a lot of plusses. Starting with the rapidly fading stigma. According to Adweek, there were 170 advertising and marketing agencies picking up national cannabis business in the United States, with additional firms serving smaller firms or markets at the beginning of the year.

Yet battles that should be dated with the year 2017 in the mirror, are still raging and underway even in these jurisdictions. No matter what or where, advertising remains complicated. Beyond the American hemisphere, the issue of branding is a still-slumbering giant that may yet awake in the second part of the next decade. For the most part, that will have to await the advent of recreational use, at least within Europe.Are there successful brands already established in the world of cannabis? Of course.

How brands enter the market in the EU in fact, based on their social media and internet influence elsewhere, is very much a part of that discussion. So far in Europe, there has been no federal recreational reform. Medical use is still in front of legislatures. As a result, that means that more traditional social media efforts in particular, are verboten when launched in country.

With foreign firms now entering the EU market, the big question is, can such firms establish a brand presence here (or for any of their products?) Or will that too, be launched from abroad?

And how exactly will that fare in Europe, particularly in places like Germany, where the overwhelming pressure is on to treat cannabis just like another narcotic? And in particular, a generic drug.

A Brief History of Advertising in Cannabis

Hard as it is to believe, just four years ago, there was no legal, functioning recreational market anywhere. Weedmaps and Leafly were the only game in town when it came to advertising, along with growing free press coverage, in particular for small companies who were starting to establish market presence in the legalizing cannabis business. In fact Weedmaps and Leafly can be effectively credited, certainly in the United States, with putting cannabis advertising, along with dispensaries and prescribing doctors, on the map.

The impact of a California media industry on this issue, especially with state recreational legalization imminent, cannot be underestimated. However, these days, it is not the only game in town.

Fast forward to 2017, and the world of cannabranding has exploded, no surprise, in the world of social media. “Bud porn” proliferates on Instagram. In fact, an Instagram account, along with YouTube videos, Facebook posts and Twitter pictures are derigeur for pot companies these days as much as they are for anyone else. Free media is still a force.

However even here, the rules and enforcement of the same, at least in the United States, are still shadowed with uncertainty. Federal Schedule I status means that technically, even the big social media giants are in the same boat as traditional advertising mediums (like print or even internet-based media). Section 843 of the Controlled Substances Act specifically prohibits “communications facilities” from advertising Schedule I drugs. However the internet has never really been brought under FCC guidelines – and on many fronts. See “bud porn”, as the first example. Cannabis “advertising” such as it has clearly developed, is absolutely another one.

And into this gap have poured cannabis-branding initiatives galore. One of the most corporately ambitious so far? Netflix, with not only pot-branded entertainment, but its own brands of cannabis. It is far from the only one. Google Adwords also changed its policies with regard to medical advertising this year. The advent of a recreational market in California will absolutely drive this issue globally. But beyond California state borders, how will more local laws be enforced? And by whom? Is anyone at the FCC or Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department considering the national impact of any cannabis branding launched in California, for example? And where would they start? Would corporate advertising that is present at national conferences be targeted too? Along with the growing cannabisHow will such firms establish branding in a world so totally off-limits to “brand” advertising? conference economy itself which is already multi-state? The situation is already slippery. Abroad, could or would BfArM, the German federal agency overseeing the regulation of narcotic drugs (including cannabis), bring suit against Facebook for distributing California-sourced advertising for an Australian firm now doing business in Europe?

Clearly, there are landmines everywhere one looks. And not just for the big guys. The path is still littered with issues and problems for smaller, U.S.-based initiatives. Accounts can be blocked arbitrarily on social media and have been, such as on Facebook. In sum, however, it is also very clear that the preponderance of a tide is shifting. The industry as well as internet-based branding, is winning.

Especially as recreational reform blooms in Canada and California.

Advertising, in a digital world, has no borders. And cannabis branding is about to test exactly how accurate that mantra is. Or at least how much the location of one’s server counts. And it may be that because of this issue, the entire enchilada is about to jump the shark, if not a few international borders.

The Awakening Canadian Giant

North of the American border, the great Canadian recreational cannabis experiment is more than just in the offing. The train is puffing with steam at the station. The impact of a federally legal, recreational market that Canada will become as of next summer, cannot be underestimated from the advertising and branding front.

First, it means that Canadian companies will be able to advertise and promote their brands to at least a domestic audience. Granted, they will undoubtedly face the same issues as liquor companies in some ways. But promoting specific brands and labels has already hit the Canadian social media universe. See the efforts of all the major pot-producing companies with domestic server and corporate presence.

In turn, this has further opened another question. If digital and social media has no boundaries, what does that mean for the rest of the world? Particularly those countries now also watching the larger Canadian corporates establish both growing and distribution presence within their borders, and with strict advertising bans on cannabis domestically. That includes bans on advertising marijuana as medicine.

The Most Compelling Cannabis Brand Remains Legalization

Are there successful brands already established in the world of cannabis? Of course. Think only of the many celebrity-backed brands (even for medical) that you have probably heard of in the last few years. There are likely to be more.

However the reality is that in many jurisdictions, starting with Germany, such branding theoretically at least, stops at the border. The many firms who are establishing presence here on the distribution and potentially cultivation side, do nothing more than promote their company names at industry events.

How will such firms establish branding in a world so totally off-limits to “brand” advertising?

For now, one of those answers is to establish a presence as a serious pharmaceutical company. Another of course, is to become more vocal over the need for further reform and patient access. So far, that issue has remained one mostly vocalized by reform groups on the ground. That could change, particularly with further delays in implementing medical programs in Europe. Celebrity-backed appearances in media on this issue go far.

And for the meantime? Branding specialists will have to hope that advertising campaigns developed off-shore begin to meet targeted European patient groups.

Even if the first message is the concept of cannabis as legitimate medicine.