Tag Archives: google

Advertising a Cannabis Business Through the Pandemic

By Brett Konen
No Comments

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 Along the way, traditional marketing methods have increasingly been replaced by their digital counterparts.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.

This ad for The Bakeréé appeared in The New York Times.

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.


Suggested Readings

Case Study: The Bakeréé (PrograMetrix)

Programmatic Advertising: A Close Look at Cannabis (IAB)

White Paper: Digital Ads for Cannabis & CBD (PrograMetrix

Marguerite Arnold

The Great Cannabis Branding Conundrum in Europe

By Marguerite Arnold
2 Comments
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.