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Here’s How to Run Compliant Digital Cannabis Ads

By Brett Konen
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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.

This CBD product ad can be found on Thesaurus.com

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).

Both Ivyside and Weedmaps are featured on this page

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.”

This dispensary ad appeared on Variety.com

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.


 Suggested Readings 

Programmatic Advertising: A Close Look at Cannabis (IAB)

White Paper: Digital Ads for Cannabis & CBD (PrograMetrix) 

Processes, Protocols and Layers of Protection: Essential Security Measures for the Medical Cannabis and Hemp Industries

By Joshua Wall
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As legalization of cannabis products from hemp to medical cannabis takes root across the U.S., there’s a growing need to understand and build good security practices. While many think of security as safeguarding assets like facilities and product, effective security does much more. It protects a business’ workers, providing them secure workplaces and incomes. Ideally, it reaches from supply chain to customers by ensuring consistently safe products.

To truly understand the value of this for a brand or for the industry as a whole, consider the opposite: the destructive effect – on a brand and on the industry at large – of unsafe or tampered product reaching customers, or of crimes occurring, just as the industry seeks to demonstrate its validity and benefits. Security is vital not only to individual farmers, processors or customers but to all who value what the industry brings to those who rely on CBD or medical cannabis products for their wellbeing.

Know the Threats.

Part of the learning process involves understanding the value of the product.Security is all about anticipating and reducing risks. These can include physical threats from natural sources – think flood, fire, tornado or crop fail – or from human threats. Human threats can arise from organized criminals, hackers, amateur thieves, vandals – or insiders.

As regulated industries, hemp and cannabis businesses also face risk of losses, which can be significant, from penalties ranging from fines to being shut down for non-compliance. While rules vary from state to state and continue to change, a disciplined approach to security is foundational to reducing risk at many levels. Rigorous operational processes must incorporate security that addresses risks at multiple points of access, transport and sale of products.

Learn the Rules.

In a rapidly evolving industry, one of the most important things producers can do is to learn. Security requirements vary by region and providers need to be aware of what is available. Get to know your state, local and federal resources for your operating area. California law, for example, specifies use of high-resolution video surveillance in dispensaries, while others do not.

Joshua Wall, Chief Operating Officer at Harvest Connect LLC

Part of the learning process involves understanding the value of the product. With medicinal cannabis, it’s helpful to grasp both its commodity value and the street value that could make it attractive to thieves. In “Why Marijuana Plant Value is So Important for Adjusters,” Canadian Underwriter Magazine gave examples that indicate the size of losses that may occur in growing and processing operations:

“In the medical marijuana space, ClaimsPro has already seen losses primarily between $150,000 and $750,000. These losses, mostly on Vancouver Island, were for fire and water damage, as well as boiler machinery issues, physical damage to buildings and specialized greenhouse equipment, as well as extra expense and business interruption.”

The same article notes a claim over $20 million at another single flower greenhouse. Security needs to reflect what’s present on our premises.

Educating the community can reduce risk as well. Producers of industrial hemp may need to inform would-be thieves that what they are looking at is not street-valued product. To protect the crops, which are generally grown outdoors and do not require a full security detail, a best practice is simply posting signs on the property that say explicitly “No THC.” 

Begin with a Risk Assessment.

Security begins with a professional evaluation of site vulnerabilities, examining key weaknesses that could be exploited by attackers. These include:

  • Monitoring access to the site is a foundational principle of security.
  • Design limited access points into the facility as well as prepare for possible facility breaches with perimeter access control, technological redundancies and ballistic glass for defensive architecture measures.
  • Look at route vulnerabilities as well.
  • Hedge site risk by not limiting your operation to a single site where one incident could wipe out an entire year’s crop.

The nature of threats is always changing. A 2018 Newsweek article described the struggles of legal cannabis farmers against illegal and potentially cartel-backed and violent operations in California. While a 2020 Business Insider report described indications that legalization was prompting some cartels to leave cannabis alone and move on to fentanyl and meth. “While Mexican drug cartels made their money predominantly from marijuana in past decades, the market has somewhat dissipated with the state-level legalization of cannabis in dozens of states across the US.”

Define Levels of Risk and Access.

The best security matches spending to risk in a commonsense way. Are you more at risk from the occasional smash and grab incident or is there reason to anticipate an organized assault? As in many industries, the greatest risk often comes from employee fraud or theft. Hiring carefully, paying fairly and training staff well are important to long term security.

Iron Protection Group in a training session
Image credit: Tampa Bay Times

How will the product be moved around within the facility and beyond it – and what staff are responsible for each part of the journey? Who can enter the cultivation areas and what protocols must they follow? On site staff should be trained on what to look for if they observe a security breach. Consider biometrics such as retinal scans, fingerprint scans or similar.

In cases where valuable product or cash is present, guards can play an important role. Harvest Connect uses only high-level former military or police officers in these roles, an approach recognized by many. Hunter Garth of Iron Protection Group notes they have “the ability to de-escalate a potentially harmful situation and the fortitude to see a mission through to completion, no matter what external circumstances may arise.”

Inventory and Transaction Controls

Inside threats from sloppy processes can be just as insidious as attacks. Poor tracking of inventory by Oregon’s legal cannabis producers made headlines in 2018 as The Oregonian reported, “U.S. Attorney Billy Williams told a large gathering that included Gov. Kate Brown, law enforcement officials and representatives of the cannabis industry that Oregon has an ‘identifiable and formidable overproduction and diversion problem.’’ Discipline, applied by state pressure but carried out by producers themselves, has begun to reduce the diversion of untracked product into the black market a year later.

Cannabis businesses need a professional approach to monitoring all product and money that moves through its systems. These operational processes can include time, date and attendance stamps on all inventory. Similarly, accounting systems and software must follow the highest professional standards. Lastly, when breaches occur, it is essential that fraud and theft are caught, eliminated and prosecuted as appropriate.

Nurturing an Emerging Industry

Security resources are an integral part of maintaining the integrity of a business’ supply chain. As the product moves from the fields to processing centers to consumers, purity assurance becomes an operational objective. Ultimately, protecting the product through secure and professional practices is the optimal way to serve customers, build a brand, and sustain the industry.

Want Strong Profits for Your Cannabis Business? Start by Building Your Brand

By Danielle Antos
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Everyone knows that the packaging of your cannabis product creates the first impression for a potential customer. However, product packaging is sometimes an overlooked detail for new and existing cannabis businesses. The packaging design for your cannabis product is vital to establishing your brand and building a loyal customer base. Packaging impacts your product significantly: it must keep your products safe and secure, but it also has to help you increase your sales volume and bottom line. Ultimately, a well-executed and managed brand translates into increased profitability.

Today, plastic HDPE, LDPE, PP and PET bottles and closures are widely-accepted packaging options for cannabis products. Plastic packaging offers abundant choices, but how do you know which plastic bottle and closure is right for your product? Here is a checklist that will help you create packaging that hits the target.

Know Your Competitors

Do your research and check out the competition. What are other cannabis companies doing? What type of plastic packaging do they use and is it high quality? What is their message and are they consistently branding their packaging across all product lines? How can your cannabis packaging stand out and attract attention? This knowledge will help you to define your brand and how you can differentiate your cannabis products from your competitors with the right packaging.

Appeal to Your Target Audience

Your cannabis products can’t fulfill the needs of all consumers, so define the type of consumer you are trying to reach. Tailor your message to the specific groups that meet your brand’s criteria. Consider demographics such as lifestyle, age, location and gender. Also consider what is important to them. For example: is your target audience concerned about the environment? If so, consider plastic packaging alternatives such as Bioresin. Polyethylene produced from ethanol made from sustainable sources like sugarcane, commonly known as Bioresin, are becoming more common. Bioresin bottles have the same properties and look the same as traditional plastics, so it is easy to convert. Defining what speaks to your target consumer will help you determine which plastic packaging option to choose for your cannabis product.

Convey Your Message to Consumers

How do you want consumers to perceive your cannabis product, company, and values? What expectations will it meet? Take Coca-Cola for example. It’s an instantly recognizable brand because of consistent use of the same style and color packaging, along with a universally-appealing message of refreshment, taste and satisfaction. Coca-Cola’s messaging has remained consistent over decades and it fulfills the expectations of consumers – they know exactly what they’re getting when they purchase it.

The message on your cannabis packaging should reflect your company values, fulfill customer expectations and of course, be eye-catching and promote the product inside. Packaging should also convey your brand information consistently and across all product lines. Consumers will become accustomed to your brand and will trust your products.

Make Your Product Stand Out

Once your brand message is defined, you can move forward with selecting the right plastic packaging. There are many crucial points to consider in the selection process. For example, if providing the freshest products to the consumer is critical, then select plastic bottles and closures that ensure your product does not become stale or contaminated. If protecting consumers is part of your brand message, then select bottles and closures that meet federal and state regulations for child safety, that are manufactured with FDA-approved materials, and that meet ASTM certifications.

The product branding process can be intimidating. Overcome your fears by working with a plastic packaging manufacturer that fits your needs. Sometimes an off-the-shelf HDPE bottle or plastic closure just won’t do. Unique bottle shapes, the use of colored resins, and switching to plastic packaging made with sustainable materials are options that will showcase your cannabis product and help increase visibility in the marketplace. Look for a plastic manufacturer with diverse capabilities and packaging ingenuity. A manufacturer that offers a diverse product line and also can develop customized bottles and closures to your exact specifications and appearance will be a great asset to you. They can guide you through the process to ensure that you get a product that will help differentiate your brand and make your product stand out.

Follow Through

Consistent and targeted branding based on thorough research is a proven approach to creating a strong brand. When your brand message is applied to all of your plastic packaging across your cannabis product lines, a stronger and more recognizable brand is created. Remember to follow through with your brand messaging across all other channels of communication such as: print advertising, signs at your business’ location, on your website and through your online marketing efforts. Your sales and customer service staff should also reinforce your brand message when meeting with customers and prospects. A thoughtful and well-planned strategy for your brand will help increase sales and grow your new start-up or established cannabis business.