I recently went to the Adweek conference and found that I couldn’t help but keep returning to the cannabis stage. I know, I know... Quelle surprise. But seriously, the cannabis market is in the time of its maturity when anything is possible, and the people participating in it see a future that’s almost beyond imagination. It’s… intoxicating, and the panels were passionate and exciting.
Despite their enthusiasm, all the marketers who spoke cited one key challenge (which is also the big opportunity) critical to the growth of the market: in order for the market to grow, cannabis needs to be culturally normalized… Right! Of course. For decades, so much of mainstream culture has been telling us about the dangers of cannabis (as well as perpetuating a legacy of injustice). That didn’t just go away overnight because a few ballots have been passed; most people are still cautious (though curious) about cannabis. A cloud of cultural taboo and misunderstanding still hangs over the larger market, and needs to be lifted in order for consumers to fully embrace the market.
So, how do you normalize cannabis? How do you demystify a product for consumers who are, as one panelist said, ‘in a state of complete confusion’? Here are a few takeaways from the sessions I attended:
Normalization needs to come from many different places – packaging, video content, editorial, the in-store experience, or even just access to the banking system, to name a few.
Budtenders are helping educate consumers, and they’re critical to suppliers, but consistent training is a challenge, and brands don’t want to be too dependent on budtenders.
Places like MedMen and Planet 13 are doing a lot to help normalize cannabis, but low grade ‘dispensaries’ are doing the opposite (maybe we shouldn’t call them ‘dispensaries’?).
Understanding the cannabis ‘occasion’ can help us better segment the market, and develop different products (and messaging) for different people.
Working with influencers is a challenge, because so many of them are uncomfortable sharing their usage with their followers. (So much for authenticity.)
The industry needs one unifying regulatory body to create safety standards and guidelines for marketing, and to encourage responsibility messaging. Cannabis producers should lead this process (as opposed to waiting for the government to do it).
DTC, particularly through services like Eaze, offers consumers a more discreet way to buy, but education is still needed on this channel, or brands risk losing customers after an initial disappointing experience.
At an event our agency hosted recently, I was speaking with Shep Gordon, (the Supermensch) and he pointed out that back in the 60s no one thought California wine would amount to much, but it was the winemakers themselves who were able to grow the market into what it is today. They did this by putting put a ‘face’ to the product (especially Robert Mondavi), which helped build trust with consumers. Perhaps the growers in the cannabis market can adopt a similar strategy, and leverage some of their strongest personalities to build the market.
Of course, in order for things to really get underway, national legislation has to be passed. But that may take a while, and in the meantime, brands need to do their part to enlighten people. Many of the recent hires in the cannabis world have alcohol and/or cpg backgrounds, and that should tell you something in and of itself – that the people invested in the cannabis market believe that the winners will be those who create great brands and breakthrough marketing.
*Curious about some other ideas cannabis marketers can use to build their businesses? Read our post, 12 Ideas Cannabis Marketers Can Steal From The Spirits Market.