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.
Advertising your cannabis brand isn’t as easy as it should be—but then again, neither are most things about working in the modern cannabis industry. Here’s the good news: Today there are more avenues available for compliantly advertising your cannabis brand than ever before, particularly online.
So why don’t more cannabis brands run compliant digital ads? Generally speaking, it’s an issue of awareness. Since cannabis brands are currently disallowed from running their advertising campaigns through the modern digital advertising mainstays of Facebook, Instagram, and Google, most business owners believe that digital advertising as a whole is not allowed, and thus most cannabis companies are either underutilizing or completely overlooking their digital ad options.
In fact, the rules barring cannabis brands from advertising with Google and Facebook are specific to those platforms. While Facebook and Google—together known as “the Duopoly”—currently account for approximately half of digital advertising dollars spent in the U.S., the other half of the digital advertising pool—including sites like ESPN, HuffPost, Newsweek, Politico, Barstool Sports, and USA Today—is increasingly open to accepting ad buys from compliant digital cannabis and CBD advertisers. More publishers are opening their doors to cannabis ads every day, and many advertising professionals speculate that the COVID-19 pandemic may speed up the process, as publishers begin to look for new streams of ad revenue in order to weather the economic storm.
Where Can Cannabis Be Advertised?
Today, cannabis industry advertisers can easily run ads across hundreds of mainstream websites using programmatic advertising technology. This is true for both cannabis brands and CBD brands, though they use different programmatic platforms to do so: CBD brands (which we’ll address in more detail later) can use mainstream “demand-side platforms” (such as The Trade Desk) to run their ad campaigns, while cannabis brands can use new cannabis-specific platforms (such as Safe-Reach) created to address the unique compliance needs of the legal cannabis industry.
For those unfamiliar with the term, programmatic advertising refers to the automated buying and selling of online ad space using programmatic technology. In a nutshell, advertisers and their ad agencies use demand-side platforms (DSPs) to set the parameters of “bids” for certain ad impressions based on relevant attributes of the ad space and the viewer who will see it. Publishers put their ad space up for auction via supply-side platforms (SSPs), and ad exchanges play matchmaker to sell the ad impression to highest bidder in the time it takes the web page in question to load.
Cannabis-specific DSPs work with other cannabis industry leaders to develop sets of data relevant to cannabis advertisers; they then open these data sets within their platforms to help cannabis advertisers reach known cannabis consumers. These known consumers may be, for example, people who’ve downloaded apps like Leafly on their phones.
A key thing to note is that the cannabis ads themselves no longer need to be shown exclusively on these endemic cannabis sites and apps. In the past, digital cannabis advertisers were generally restricted to buying space on industry-specific sites like Leafly, High Times, and Weedmaps, which pushed prices up due to inventory limits and ran through ad budgets quickly. Ad networks like Mantis attempted to compile this inventory to make the buying process more scalable, but because cannabis has been (and remains) the fastest-growing industry in the United States since 2015, it’s no surprise that endemic cannabis ad inventory has been insufficient to meet demand.
Now, the data sets available through programmatic advertising technology allow ads to be shown to the same cannabis enthusiasts across any website, endemic or not. This makes digital advertising far more affordable for cannabis marketers, and allows for more advanced advertising techniques like building look-alike audiences, cross-device advertising, first-party data onboarding, and ad retargeting. These techniques can be used across all modern digital ad formats, including display, mobile, native, video and digital audio.
Still, even those marketers who are already aware that they can advertise digitally outside of Facebook, Google and endemic cannabis sites may struggle with knowing what they can say and show in their digital ads, particularly if they intend to run those ads in multiple locations or across multiple channels. The broadly applicable rules for running compliant digital cannabis ads are what we’ll discuss now.
Rules for Cannabis Ad Compliance
Thanks to cannabis’s continued federal classification as a Schedule I drug, current digital advertising regulations are governed by state cannabis laws, so they vary depending on where your business operates. This can become particularly confusing if you want to run digital advertisements visible to customers across multiple states (which some states allow—for those who don’t, cannabis ad tech will let you keep your ads within state or local borders too).
Luckily, most cannabis bills are crafted to resemble those that have been passed successfully before them, which means that state laws can be boiled down to a handful of broadly applicable guidelines no matter where you intend to show your ads. The current best practices for advertising cannabis are as follow:
No claims of health or medical benefits
No elements that could appeal to children (cartoon characters, etc.)
No false or misleading statements, including those made about competitors’ products
No testimonials or endorsements (e.g. recommendations from doctors)
No depiction of product consumption
No pricing information, potency statements, or promotional offers
Ads for infused products must state “For Adult Use Only”
Using these guidelines, cannabis marketers can more easily create ads to be approved for use in a variety of settings. A few states have their own additional rules: In Florida, a state approval process for ad creative also applies. In Alaska, Arkansas, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon and Washington, additional state-specific copy is required in the ad creative.
Note that it’s always important to double-check your state’s most recent requirements, as local rules may change over time. If you’re working with an advertising agency that specializes in the cannabis industry, they can help you with this process; cannabis-specific programmatic platforms like Safe-Reach will also check your ad creative against local requirements as part of their approval process.
Why Advertise Cannabis Digitally?
Prior to the advent of modern, cannabis-specific digital advertising technology, cannabis marketers were light years behind their mainstream industry counterparts in terms of the advertising channels they leveraged to get their message out. Traditional advertising tactics like billboards and print ad buys were popular among cannabis businesses early on due to the lack of digital ad publishers willing to work with them.
The problem with these traditional tactics is one of targeting, measurement, and reporting: It’s impossible to know who has seen your ads, how many of those viewers went to your website or dispensary after seeing them, and what your return on ad spend (ROAS) was. The fact that you can neither know nor control who will see your ad in a print newspaper or on a billboard is why most states have treaded cautiously with their advertising restrictions to avoid ads being seen by minors. In Washington state, for instance, no advertisement is allowed “within one thousand feet of the perimeter of a school grounds, playground, recreation center or facility, child care center, public park, library, or a game arcade admission to which it is not restricted to persons aged twenty-one years or older; on or in a public transit vehicle or public transit shelter; or on or in a publicly owned or operated property.”
With programmatic advertising, digital identity data allows advertisers to show their ads exclusively to an appropriate audience—for instance, adults ages 21 and over who live within state borders. Digital advertising also addresses the issues of measurement and reporting, which is why mainstream brands have already shifted en masse to choosing digital over physical ads: You can learn, down to the cent, the return on your digital ad investment, which makes the choice of continuing to advertise an easy one as long as ROAS remains positive. As of 2019, digital ad spending surpassed traditional (TV, radio, print, etc.) for the first time in history, and in 2020, eMarketer estimates that $151 billion will be spent on digital marketing versus $107 billion on traditional. By 2021, 70 percent of all digital ads—and 88 percent of display ads—will be bought and sold using programmatic technology.
As the fastest-growing industry in the United States, cannabis should also be one of the fastest-growing segments in digital advertising, but so far cannabis advertising efforts have been far off pace with the industry’s progress as a whole. However, that is beginning to change as savvy cannabis brands begin to understand and leverage their digital marketing options.
What About CBD Advertising?
The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp-derived CBD products in the United States, but did not offer guidance on selling, marketing or advertising them. Most CBD products are thus sold and marketed in a legal gray area, which is only made more confusing by Facebook’s and Google’s policies of rejecting these as “illegal drug” ads (a policy both platforms enforce irregularly). Although CBD brands should still try for approval, and some ads (especially those for hemp-derived CBD topicals) may be approved, CBD advertisers cannot rely on Facebook and Google for ongoing traffic, and ads may be taken down after initial approval regardless of legality.
That said, CBD business owners already have an even more extensive range of digital advertising options available outside of search and social than cannabis brands do. Some websites that do not yet accept cannabis ads will accept CBD ads, and mainstream ad tech platforms like The Trade Desk allow CBD ad buys as long as ad creative meets their internal guidelines for approval. Thus, the de-facto rules and regulations governing CBD advertising today are made by the platforms and publishers running their advertisements. To ensure ad approval on programmatic platforms like The Trade Desk, CBD brands should follow the same guidelines listed for cannabis brands above.
To sum up the current state of digital advertising compliance in the cannabis industry, cannabis and CBD brands should know that there are far more digital advertising options out there than most people realize, and that creating compliant ads is relatively straightforward as detailed above. That said, brands considering an investment in digital advertising should also keep in mind that the current window of opportunity for getting a head start on the competition is already closing day by day as brands begin to realize all the ways they can run compliant cannabis digital ads.
Programmatic Advertising: A Close Look at Cannabis (IAB)
The world is changing, and women are the ones changing it. Classic methods of advertising to women just don’t work anymore, and worse, make you seem outdated and out of touch.
According to a 2017 study by BDS Analytics, 45 percent of cannabis users are women and that number is quickly rising. It could be even higher since according to Van Der Pop’s Women & Weed survey, 66 percent of women hide their cannabis use. No one seems to be able to agree on the exact figure, but experts do agree that women are the fastest growing market in the cannabis industry.
Harvard Business Review reported in their 2009 article “The Female Economy” that worldwide, women control nearly $30 trillion in household spending and make the majority of purchasing decisions in the family. If they’re not directly purchasing something with their $18 trillion in collective income, they are influencing others’ purchasing decisions. Often, they are the primary caregivers in their family circles, making them responsible for buying things for their children, or on behalf of their elderly loved ones.
Women are into cannabis wellness, but like to get high, too.
In Headset’s 2019 report entitled “What Women Want in Cannabis: Shopping Trends Among Female Cannabis Consumers,” some of the most popular cannabis products among women are still classics like flower and pre-rolls, but women are more likely than men to try capsules, topicals and sprays. They are fascinated by the concept of CBD helping them with issues like menstrual cramps, body and muscle pain, and even sensitive skin, but enjoy products with THC as well.
In general, women’s purchases in the cannabis industry end up being more centred towards wellness, but it’s not all about spa treatments and relaxing.
Sex sells, but not in the way you think.
There has been a growing interest in using cannabis and CBD for women’s sexual health. Researchers haven’t quite caught up with the science yet, but researchers at the Center for Sexual Health at Saint Louis University think that cannabis and CBD can help women overcome pain and anxiety during sex. Foria Wellness is a brand that sells CBD suppositories and lubricants that help women have a better sex life. Not only are their products seemingly effective, but they provide loads of education to their audience and work with influencers to build their community.
Beauty is Pain.
Being a woman is hard. Or at least, painful. Between walking in heels, getting in an intense workout, and feeling the stress of general life, women end up with quite a few aches and pains. Topicals and bath bombs seem to be leading the way in this area. Celebrity stylists have been using CBD lotions on the feet of starlets before a long night on the red carpet, and more brands are marketing their products to fitness buffs.
Market to specific kinds of women.Skincare is another burgeoning market. Van Der Pop reports that 60 percent of women are interested in cannabis skin care. Again, the science hasn’t quite caught up, but anecdotally it has been shown to have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties when applied to the skin. Women with psoriasis, eczema and other skin troubles are also finding relief with CBD. A bunch of large retail brands have already jumped on the bandwagon and indie brands are starting to pop up as well.
Life is Stressful.
A report from Spate and Landing International found that there has been a 24 percent increase in consumer interest in anxiety. Young people these days are under more pressure than ever, and they are turning to their products to solve it. The American Psychological Association says that 12 percent of millennials are officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, so it’s no surprise that anxiety and depression are the fastest-growing search terms associated with CBD.
Does this make me a bad mom?
Being a mom is stressful, and a lot of moms have been toking since before their kids were born, so after the kids are asleep they relax on the porch with a joint. It’s right for them, but the stigma is still there and they can feel it. Over 70 percent of women believe that there is still a stigma attached to cannabis use. The answer is not only marketing to Mary Jane moms but also using marketing to help end the stigma around cannabis consumption.
What do women look for in cannabis brands?
Women use cannabis for different reasons than men, so it makes sense that they would look for different things in a cannabis brand.
“Traditionally, marketing weed to men has either been about projecting fantasy, or appealing to the everyday guy that men feel like they could smoke a bowl with,” Mary Pryor, CEO and co-founder of Cannaclusive, told AdAge. “But women want to know what gets the job done without having to do too much work to know what we’re going to get.”
That means lots of education and support at the customer level. Women are used to a higher level of customer service and will most certainly take their business elsewhere if they feel they aren’t being heard or served effectively.
Women buy things that make them feel good, or items that help them express themselves, so aesthetic is important, too. There was a time in cannabis culture when most cannabis accessories had flames, or skulls, or aliens, and while that may appeal to some women, the majority want a more feminine and streamlined look. Brands like Van Der Pop offer modern designs that will readily fit into the consumer’s decor, and Lord Jones packages their CBD oil with an ornate style that invokes more of a luxury perfume brand than a cannabis product. Women are looking for a product that will look good on their shelf or in their homes.
The Secret? Know Your Audience
The first rule of marketing to women is: don’t market to women.
The absolute best way to reach women is to create authentic content for women, by women, addressing their specific concerns.At least, not women as a mass, general group. Market to specific kinds of women. Like cannabis, women come in many beautiful and exotic varieties, each one more interesting and lovely than the last, and each with their own values and shopping habits. For example, the wellness guru will have different needs from the sun-weathered gardener, who will have different needs from the stressed-out mom with a sore back.
Here are some time-tested generalizations that could help you out, though. The Journal of Business and Management reports that women are more likely to appreciate finer distinctions and enjoy more of a conversational style dialogue. When it comes to problem-solving, women care more about how a problem is solved, and like sharing and discussing it. Similarly, shopping is also a process where women tend to enjoy more interaction and take more pride in finding the best bang for their buck and the best product for them.
According to Bloomberg, you should study women as if they were a foreign market. All groups of women have their own culture, values and even language. The key here is to get to know each and every one of these personas so that you can create a targeted strategy to reach them specifically.
The absolute best way to reach women is to create authentic content for women, by women, addressing their specific concerns. Create a community for them. Formulate products for them that actually work. Hire them, listen to them, hear them and they will choose your brand every time.
A steep spike in demand has created a race to the finish line in the hemp industry, but marketing a CBD product before FDA regulations are in place can be tricky. However, there is plenty you can do now to set your CBD company up for success.Let’s look at how CBD brands can get their marketing ball rolling in order to stay ahead of the curve.
Start With How You’re Different
Despite being a new market to many consumers, the hemp industry is well established and highly competitive. Leaders such as Charlotte’s Web and CV Sciences (AKA Plus CBD Oil) are publicly traded, but the market remains extremely fragmented with small mom-and-pop shops winning out in their respective locales. The number of competitors is intense and growing. In late 2018, Congress gave hemp its blessing by including it in the farm bill. As a result, “the market will continue to grow at a fast pace,” says Steve St. Clair, CEO of Enerhealth Botanicals. CBD is now officially mainstream. With thousands of competitors, it is of utmost importance that brands pull away from the pack.
Brand strategy is something that CBD companies should outline now. How is your product different? Why would a consumer pick your brand over another? These questions can be defined by talking to your current customers, observing holes in the marketplace and understanding the key advantages you have over other companies.
Consider how messaging varies for Colorado Hemp Honey compared to Epidiolex. The first leads with messaging centered around not just the quality of their honey, but why honey is a great source of fuel, especially for athletes (“Bee your best”). The latter speaks directly to families with children who suffer from seizures (“Seizures are shared. So is Relief”). While Colorado Hemp Honey might put an emphasis on attending extreme sporting events, Epidiolex would find greater benefits in focusing their efforts elsewhere.
That same brand strategy can be used when considering product extensions. According to Heath Thomson, director of business development at CFH, knowing how your company serves its customers can guide you toward product development. “There’s booming demand for CBD across consumer demographics, use cases and product types. While this presents immense opportunity, CBD is not a cure-all and not every product type that is in development or new to the market is appropriate for medicinal or dietary supplement use cases,” says Thomson. “For example, many CBD suppliers/manufacturers are chasing water soluble CBD, but do we really need CBD enhanced water?”
Nail Your Brand Online
Armed with a brand strategy, it’s time to build something consumer facing: your website. Mass market retailers are beginning to launch their CBD programs; however, they have dozens of brands to choose from when it comes to building stock. Brands with an established presence, clear purpose and consistent brand identity will have a leg up on fly-by-night companies.
In marketing, a brand’s website is considered its digital headquarters. Investing in a clean website with clear communication is a must. A strong website will establish trust among consumers (and retail partners) and further communicate how your brand is different from the rest.
Beyond branding, e-commerce functionality is an important revenue driver. A consumer may feel self-conscious purchasing CBD in store (there is still quite a bit of stigma surrounding the product), but clicking “check out” in the privacy of their own home is easy.“Earned media is where companies can separate from the pack and become category leaders.”
Own Your Email List
When it comes to driving revenue, there is no replacement for email. Some marketers personally feel their inbox is too full and so they cringe at the thought of adding to the constant stream of media we all face. The stats are undeniable though: the ROI of the typical email program is 73%.
When it comes to email, you (the marketer) set the guardrails. Unlike with paid advertising, your account won’t be shut down simply due to the nature of your product. Even with a modest 20% open rate, you’re reaching far more consumers than on social media (where brands only get 1% organic reach), and in a much more meaningful way.
Build Your PR Strategy
Two weeks of trying to run an advertising campaign for a hemp company will teach you one thing: when it comes to CBD, paid media is a minefield. To date, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, and Amazon still do not permit promotion of CBD products on their platforms. As a result, brands must lean more heavily on earned channels, such as PR.
“Earned media is where companies can separate from the pack and become category leaders. Press is more than just free advertising when it comes to hemp or cannabis. Consumers want to know that what they’re putting into their body is safe, and with so much legal grey area they’ll be even more wary than with other supplements,” says James Clark, co-founder of Room 214. “News coverage – especially in the right publication – is like a seal of approval for your product and reaches audiences currently blocked by advertising.”
Leaders in the CBD industry already play a strong game when it comes to PR, but there’s plenty of room for more.
Prepare for Constant Change
This point cannot be stressed enough: over the next two to three years, everyone in the hemp industry needs to buckle up. The constant change in this ever-budding market means you must be ready to make quick turns and adjustments. This is even true in the exercise of writing this article, as every morning I wake up to news about new regulations in various states and motions from the FDA to hold hearings.
The impact constant change has on paid media is not to be underestimated. Over the course of just a few weeks, an advertising vendor may change their policies regarding hemp products. My team has seen this happen time and time again. They would spend a day getting a campaign rolling, see great success within a few days and then see the account had been suspended shortly after. While there are cannabis-specific advertising platforms such as Mantis, mainstream networks are still turning down hemp-based brands.
This sort of up-and-down movement requires patience, and a strong “try, try again” attitude. Applying the Dunkirk Marketing Model will help brands keep their eyes on the horizon while faced with these daily obstacles. With your focus on end goals, you must also be prepared for quick adjustments and split-second decisions.
Get Started Now
While CBD companies face far more obstacles than other CPG companies when it comes to promotion, your marketing should not take a back seat. How you build your brand today will position you to earn the trust of consumers tomorrow. Spend time building a solid foundation by getting to know your core customer. Outline a messaging plan and your brand’s positioning, and invest in owned and earned channels such as your website, email marketing and PR.
On February 13 at the upcoming Seed To Sale Show in Boston, MA, Steven Hoffman, Chairman of the Cannabis Control Commission of Massachusetts, will deliver a keynote discussion. Hoffman will sit down with National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) Executive Director Aaron Smith to discuss the first few months of recreational legalization, challenges and the path forward for the state. We caught up with Hoffman to hear about some of the biggest obstacles and successes when it came to standing up a regulated adult-use cannabis market.
The Commission was tasked with creating something brand new, without a roadmap in place and developing rules around some very contentious issues. “I think the biggest obstacle was that we were doing something unprecedented,” says Hoffman. “Every state is different demographically and the laws differ state to state, and we got a lot of help from other states sharing their experiences with us, but we were still going down an uncharted path for Massachusetts.”
Hoffman told us the very first thing they needed to do in 2017 was conduct listening sessions in which the commissioners listened to citizens for recommendations and heard people’s thoughts on cannabis legalization. “We did that immediately. We needed to conduct a process that was transparent, thoughtful and inclusive,” says Hoffman. “We then, in public, debated policies around adult-use marijuana regarding licensing processes, criteria and enforcement.”
They debated policies in a public forum for four days and came back the following week to embed their decisions in draft regulations that were submitted to the Secretary of State in December 2017. Then, they had 10 more public hearings, made some modifications to the rules, and promulgated a final version of the adult-use regulations in March 2018, keeping everything as transparent and inclusive as possible. “I don’t think anyone has been critical of that process behind it,” says Hoffman.
Certain pieces of the regulations stand out as particularly inclusive and progressive for Massachusetts’ cannabis program. For example, certain mandates encourage diversity and support communities affected by the drug war. Hoffman says the Commission couldn’t take credit for those completely because their objectives are explicit in the legislation, however, the agency still made sure the state followed through. “The mandate said the industry should look like the state of Massachusetts in terms of our diversity,” says Hoffman. That includes creating a diverse industry with respect to ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ, veteran and disabled participation. Additionally, he added, “it was a very explicit set of requirements that those communities who were disproportionally harmed by the drug war are full participants in the new industry we set up. Those were both legislative mandates, so we take them very seriously and I wouldn’t have taken this appointment if I didn’t think it was absolutely essential.”
You can expect to hear more from Hoffman on this and other matters related to implementing cannabis regulations at the upcoming Seed To Sale Show in Boston, MA, February 12-13, 2019. On November 20, 2018, the first adult-use dispensaries in the state opened their doors for business and began selling cannabis. Hoffman says he is most proud of their rollout of the program as well as the transparency and inclusiveness through which they conducted the process. “I think this is a very controversial issue; the voters approved this issue by 53-47%,” says Hoffman. “No matter what we do, we won’t make everyone happy, but we’ve done everything possible to allow people to participate and feel like they’ve been listened to. We made our decisions publicly and transparently.”
Beyond that, the Commission wanted to take their time to make sure things were done the right way the first time. “From day one, we decided we were going to do this right rather than meet an arbitrary timeline,” says Hoffman. “It’s gradual, it’s maybe slower than some people would like, but our rollout has been well-received and relatively smooth. I think a gradual and thoughtful process, not focused on a deadline, went very well. Hopefully we have given other states a model when they plan their own rollout.”
Hoffman wouldn’t comment on whether or not he would encourage other states down a similar path, but he did say they could probably learn a thing or two from them. “I expect other states will do what we did,” says Hoffman. “They will talk to other states ahead of them like us and hopefully will benefit from learning from our experiences. I don’t know what the laws will look like but I expect other states need to make it work for them specifically.”
You can expect to hear more from Hoffman on this and other matters related to implementing cannabis regulations at the upcoming Seed To Sale Show in Boston, MA, February 12-13, 2019. Make sure to check out his keynote discussion with Aaron Smith on Wednesday, February 13 at 10:30am.
Techniker Krankenkassen (or TK as it is also frequently referred to) is one of Germany’s largest public or so-called “statutory” health insurance companies. It is companies like TK that provide health insurance to 90% of the German population.
TK is also on the front lines of the medical cannabis discussion. In fact, TK, along with other public health insurers AOK and Barmer, have processed the most cannabis prescriptions of all insurers so far in the first year after the law change. There are now approximately 15,000 patients who have received both a proper prescription and insurance approval coverage. That number is also up 5,000 since the beginning of just this year.
In a fascinating first look at the emerging medical market in Germany, TK, in association with the University of Bremen, has produced essentially the first accessible report on approvals, and patient demographics for this highly stigmatized drug.
Because it is in German, but also contains information critical to English-speaking audiences in countries where the medical issue is being approached more haphazardly (see the U.S. and Canada), Cannabis Industry Journal is providing a brief summary of the most important takeaways from TK’s Cannabis Report.
Most Patients Are Women
This is not exactly surprising in a system where symptomology rather than ability to pay is the driver of authorizations and care. This is also exactly the opposite trend when it comes to gender at least, that emerged in Colorado on the path to medical legalization circa 2010-2014. While chronic pain is still the most common reason for dispensation, the drug is going mostly to women, not men, in their forties, fifties and sixties.
Even Chronically Ill Patients Are Still not Getting Covered
This data is super interesting on the ground for both advocates and those who are now pushing forward on “doctor education” efforts that are springing up everywhere. The only condition for which cannabis was approved 100% was for patients suffering from terminal cancer pain from tumours. In other words, they were also either in hospice or hospital where this kind of drug can be expedited and approved quickly. Other conditions for which the drug was approved were both at far lower rates than might have been expected (see only a 70% approval rate for Epilepsy and a 33% approval rate for Depression).
Expect approval rates to change, particularly for established conditions where the drug clearly helps patients, even if there are still questions about dosing and which form of cannabis works best, along with improved research, data and even patient on boarding.
Also expect interesting data to come out of this market for patients with ADHD (or ADHS).
Imported Cannabis Is Very Expensive
TK and other public health insurers are also on the front lines of another issue not seen in any other legalizing cannabis country at the moment. An eye-wateringly high cost per patient. The biggest reason? Most of the medical cannabis in the market is being imported. This will change when more cannabis begins to enter the market from other EU countries (see Spain, the Baltics and Greece) and, yes, no matter how many elements of the German government are still fighting this one when it begins to be cultivated auf Deutschland.
Most German Patients Are Still Only Getting Dronabinol
If there was one thing that foreign investors should take a look at, it is this. One year after legalization, just over 1/3 of those who actually qualify for “medical cannabis” are in fact getting whole plant medication or a derivative (like Sativex).
This means only one thing. The market is continuing to grow exponentially over at least the next five to ten years.
Marketing cannabis and the products that accompany recreational use is set to become one of the biggest industries in the United States. With 29 states promoting legal medical cannabis, 14 with it decriminalized and 8 having legalized it completely, you might be thinking this will be the easiest ad-campaign of all time. Unfortunately, science suggests otherwise.
The Science of Marketing
You heard correctly, marketing is a science, but almost half of what we know about the process cannot be applied to cannabis. Why? Because cannabis lives in the grey area of the American psyche. How do I know this?
In 2015, I completed and published The Safe Haven theory, a socio-demographic linguistic analysis of attitudes toward recreational drug use in the United Kingdom. I won’t bore you with the intricacies of the study, but the findings are important.
The study, using theoretical sociological trends, found that even non-recreational drug users in the United Kingdom favor cannabis legalization. A great number of police jurisdictions have chosen to not longer punish cannabis users, meaning that the law is (mostly) on our side – the side of full legalization and taxation of cannabis as a product for recreational usage, not so dissimilar from alcohol.
In the UK, we could easily put a huge billboard of someone’s grandmother smoking a spliff and make a million on the first day.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be done in the United States.
Advertising law aside, Americans just don’t have the same view of cannabis as Brits. In the last two years, I applied the same framework to a host of American demographics, and – as I hypothesized – localism rules the American market.
If you live in a Red town and you’re a recreational cannabis user, stigma will prevail over the scientific data, and changing that stigma is almost impossible without hard scientific evidence to back-up the marketing campaign.
Qualitative research is key when understanding why people buy into particular industries. This might not be the general belief held by most folks in advertising, as stats and numbers are distinctly easier to work with. However, as last year’s General Election and Brexit vote showed: numbers can lie. Therefore, the best means of understanding what people really want is to actually talk to them – and I mean in-person.
Marketing rules are shifting. More and more, the heads of marketing departments are turning to scientific and scholarly data to assess the current trends in social development, molding their campaigns around this data as a means of showing that they are industry leaders in understanding the phenomena, as well as speaking to target buyers in their own language.
Am I being too wordy? Let me put it simply.
Say your new product is an indoor indica strain with sleep/stress aid properties, this is how you should market it to three specific demographics:
Californian recreational smoker in the 50+ age demographic with a moderate knowledge of cannabis strains,“Indoor indica, grown locally with minimal chemical input, good as a sleep aid and positive for stress reduction.”
New York medical user, 30+, business background,“This strain is an excellent sleep aid, can decrease stress without taking off the edge of your day-to-day workload; highly recommended for those employed in a full-time, private sector position.”
Small town with predominantly low-income demographic employed in blue-collar industry, “affordable means of relaxing after a tough day at work that won’t give you the same cancer risk as tobacco.”
We market the same strain to each of these demographics, but the language used in the campaign is more important than the product itself. In the UK, the same strain would be marketed across the country using something like:
“Dank strain with sleep aid and relaxation properties, best for chilling out at the end of the day – definitely not recommended prior to work!”
What this means for the United States cannabis marketing specialist is simple: you need to invest as much as you can in getting scholarly researchers out into the field and figuring out the local socio-demographic linguistic trends for your target buyers. Luckily, this can be a fairly affordable means of research.
Marketing specialists have two options in uncovering this data:
Use students currently enrolled in universities and colleges, either offering paid internships or college credit for bulk research.
Hire an academic consultancy corporation. This is rapidly becoming a norm in for companies looking to expand their marketing by using scientific data, particularly in industries related to sport and the outdoors.
Just like how Pepsi really missed the mark with their latest failed advertising campaign, cannabis companies are at significant risk of ostracizing themselves from a wealth of demographics that would otherwise be open to recreational or medical cannabis use as an alternative to harsh pharmaceuticals, alcohol and even some forms of therapy.
Language is key, and if you can’t talk to your buyers on their level then you’ve already lost your edge over the competition.
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