Consider the state of the cannabis industry today versus 1967, when I was a college senior. My friends and I would occasionally huddle in an apartment, pull down the shades so that nobody could see in, and share a joint or two.
We had no idea how the grass ended up in our hands. We weren’t even certain about what we were smoking, as in: "Was this sprayed with weed killer?" But whoever got hold of it could proudly proclaim the brand.
It was either "Colombian Gold" or "Sinsemilla" or one of the other few "brands" we had heard of, like "Maui Wowie." In fact, it was whatever the person who sold it to us decided to call it.
More than five decades later, "grass" is now "cannabis" and is legal in most states. In 2018, it accounted for more than $12 billion in U.S. legal sales. Cannabis product labels tell you whether you are using a sativa, indica or hybrid strain, as well as the amount of THC and other ingredients measured to a tenth of a percent.
But no single brand has been able to match the consumer recognition Colombian Gold had back in the day. You can cite many reasons why, but here are the four I think are most responsible (the good news is they will become irrelevant over time, and great campaigns will emerge):
The maze of compliance regulations. The DEA classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, making it illegal at the federal level, and leaving it to states to legalize it. Unfortunately, the various state laws often conflict, rendering cross-state campaigns virtually impossible.
All promotions are local, and cannabis companies embrace email and texts — hardly platforms that encourage brilliant campaigns — because they are the most local of promotions possible.
The management of cannabis companies is heavily entrepreneurial. As the C-suite becomes more professional, marketing will be controlled by experienced CMOs who know what a campaign looks like, how to create and launch one, how to pick outside firms to help, and how to measure ROI. But those people are currently very much in the minority. In the meantime, few real campaigns are undertaken because so few people bang the board-room table in support of them.
Growers and processors must create more predictable consumer experiences. They are quickly getting better at creating strains that deliver the same taste or results each time they are used. But for now, too many cannabis products don’t deliver on that promise.
The industry really needs a home run product with consistent differentiators. When that happens, branding will become a real possibility and the entire nature of campaigns will change both in nature and budget.
The industry is being ill-served by its associations. There are too many and they compete for money and support from the same people. Their efforts are fragmented and nowhere as effective as they should be.
Because of that, there is no shared messaging. Although each association has achieved some admirable successes, the industry hasn’t established a broad context for how consumers and others should think about cannabis. The industry needs to coalesce around a single strong association in the same way, for example, that the global consumer technology industry has done through the Consumer Technology Association.
Doug Poretz is a cofounder of High Growth Communications, an integrated communications firm focused on the cannabis business.