'Not after the Cheech & Chong profile': Inside the normalization of cannabis marketing

Legal cannabis is projected to be a $21 billion market in the U.S. by 2021, and providers of recreational pot are gearing up for consumer demand.

'Not after the Cheech & Chong profile': Inside the normalization of cannabis marketing

Players in the cannabis sector from growers and retail dispensaries to tech delivery mechanisms are starting to look less like fringe players and more like consumer brands. In recent months, many have recruited marketing VPs with traditional consumer brand experience, hired their first PR firms, or launched branding pushes.

To target recreational users, Grown Rogue on Friday debuted a website and branding that aims to market their marijuana flower, oils, and concentrates as easy, consumer-friendly product choices.

"We are not after the Cheech & Chong profile; that is not what our company is about," says Jacques Habra, chief strategy officer at Grown Rogue, which has a farm in southern Oregon.

He explains that Grown Rogue is casting a wide net for new customers.

"Our target is everyone from the soccer mom to the very athletic business professional to older people who may be experiencing marijuana for the first time since the 1970s or 1980s," Habra says. "That is because when you think of recreational marijuana replacing alcohol, whether hard liquor, wine or beer, in people’s lives, your target market suddenly becomes much more expansive."

Grown Rogue’s branding will market its 15 marijuana strains under five acronyms that together spell Rogue: Relax, Optimize, Groove, Uplift, and Energize. The company has organized its products into those buckets, based on research the company commissioned to determine how people feel after ingesting the strains.

"Our products are about enhancing an experience that the consumer would already be having," Habra explains. "If they want to heighten the experience of a bike ride, they’d opt for a product in Uplift, for example, or if going out to a club, one in Energize."

A month ago, the company hired Campbell Consulting for PR. Its founder, Judy Campbell, has partnered with Anouk Tapper, who runs Friction Marketing Agency, on a service offering called Cannabis Marketing Arts, which will offer cannabis PR and creative.

While recreational marijuana is illegal on a federal level, states including New York, New Jersey, and Florida have legalized medicinal cannabis. Othese such as California, Colorado, and Oregon, as well as Washington, DC, have legalized both medical and recreational pot. In those states and the District of Columbia, it is big business with rapidly growing sales. Revenue from the marijuana industry is expected to reach $21 billion in the U.S. in 2021, up from $6.7 billion five years earlier, according to Arcview Group. That’s a five-year growth rage of $213%.

Cura Cannabis Solutions had sales of $40.5 million last year. Much of the company’s success has been due to a focused mission on showing and educating consumers on what the future of cannabis can look like, says its director of PR, Jordon Cloud Rahmil.

Cura’s PR strategy includes sampling hemp-derived for reporters and bloggers, and it hasn’t backed off from using social media, despite the fact that Facebook and Instagram have to abide by federal law and treat cannabis as an illegal substance.

"The Instagram algorithm poses a big challenge because cannabis businesses often get their accounts shut down if they attempt to advertise," says Rahmil. "But we get past that by focusing very diligently on creating engaging content that follows through on our promise to educate and promote normalization of cannabis use."

"On our @Select_Oil Instagram page, we can see a significant difference in our analytics when we focus on content that educates and informs, rather than content that focuses solely on lifestyle," says Rahmil, noting the company is also focusing on its corporate reputation to build positive brand messaging.

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For instance, Cura was recognized by Oregon Business Magazine as a 2018 Top 100 Company to Work For in Oregon. "That is a huge win in an industry where there is still so much misinformation," she says.

Honing storytelling
Companies focusing on the medical-use market are also trying to up their marketing games, such as Resolve Digital Health, which produces a smart vaporizer technology for medical patients. In November, the company hired Marshall Rutman, a former marketing executive at Lululemon, where he was a director of global strategy and later its creative film director.

His goal is to connect Resolve with audiences on an emotional, visceral basis.

"What you see a lot of in the cannabis space is people selling product or lifestyle, but I haven’t seen anyone capture the human element, which on the medical side is what it is all about," says Rutman. "My goal is to create a constant stream of content that inspires and educates and connects on a humanistic level."

As an example, he points to a CNN documentary called Weed, which featured a girl from Colorado named Charlotte Figi, whose epileptic seizures were successfully treated with a specific strain of medicinal cannabis. That strain is now called Charlotte’s Web.

"Those kinds of stories help you look at the medicine in a new light. That is just one amazing one, and we want to bring many more out there," says Rutman.

The company is working on a marketing plan, with North 6th Agency providing PR support. In January 2017, the firm launched a dedicated cannabis group, which has five full-time employees, says CEO Matt Rizzetta.

"When we first started in 2015 and 2016 with cannabis clients, it was all about adopting an education mindset, because there was still a bit of stigma in mainstream media about marijuana. In fact, some media outlets were even prohibited from covering cannabis," Rizzetta says. "But with so much demand now, the product and services story has merged with the educational component."

Emerging threats
Dan O’Mahony, SVP at InkHouse San Francisco, which works with cannabis tech and delivery platform Eaze, agrees that the cannabis industry has an opportunity to break free from the educational narratives that have dominated the space. He sees opportunity with social media, where he thinks brands can "be a lot more open, a little more fun, and add a little more personality."

Yet while it looks like sunny times ahead for the industry, O’Mahony warns that the sector could face backlash in the coming years.

"The hypocrisy of predominantly white men entering and building lucrative and legitimate businesses based on something that a disproportionate number of minorities are doing prison time for shouldn’t be lost on anybody," he says. "As marijuana companies go from grey market to fully legally, they have a responsibility to bring those people along with them and address the imbalance."

Eaze announced a partnership last month with The Hood Incubator, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the participation of minority communities in the legal cannabis industry.

Olivia Mannix, cofounder of Cannabrand, which she launched in 2014 and bills as the first marketing agency dedicated to cannabis, contends the sector should remember that despite growing support, legalization has many opponents, including in the Trump administration

"Opponents are looking for us to slip up," says Mannix. "We have to make sure everything that we’re doing is kosher and going to elevate the industry, which is why branding and messaging and being above the line is so important."

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