From celebrity endorsements to wellness-focused messaging, here are the marketing movements defining the future of cannabis.
An increasing rate of legalization across the globe is ushering in a boom for the cannabis category. The global legal cannabis market was valued at $17.8bn last year, and is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of more than 25% between now and 2030.
As players in the category enjoy greater market opportunities, they’re investing more money in advertising and marketing in efforts to combat stigmas, expand brand awareness and attract sales.
At Advertising Week New York today, cannabis industry leaders gathered to discuss how they’re approaching the challenges and opportunities of marketing today.
Here are five trends they highlighted:
1. Weed marketing meets entertainment
Outside of the regulatory and compliance challenges of marketing cannabis and hemp products, brands in the space often have to contend with strict platform rules. Spaces like Facebook and Instagram, which could in theory help brands reach target audiences effectively, are not friendly to the industry. Due to these and other challenges, many cannabis brands are finding value in teaming with celebrities and leaning into the entertainment and music spaces instead.
Weedmaps, an app that helps users discover dispensaries and delivery options near them in states where cannabis is legal, last year approached Wheelhouse Labs, an entertainment company created in partnership with Jimmy Kimmel that works like an agency. “They came to us because they were frustrated with traditional advertising not taking their content,” said Wheelhouse Labs’ managing director Patrick Schmidt.
The organizations worked together to develop a television show that tells the story of cannabis, featuring rapper Killer Mike and hip hop duo Run The Jewels. “We were able to tell some of the stories that Weedmaps was trying to get out there – like equal access to licenses and how cannabis was important in certain markets,” said Schmidt. “The point of the whole entire endeavor was to normalize cannabis and show some of the other stories that are out there – versus just what you might see in a comedy or in traditional cannabis-type marketing.” The program debuted on Vice as part of a 4/20 campaign.
Curaleaf, a major dispensary serving consumers across 23 US states, has also prioritized entertainment and celebrity partnerships to get its message across. “We’re looking for creative ways to connect cannabis with communities through relevant topics. Whether it’s music, whether it’s art – those are ways that are really relatable for cannabis consumers or cannabis prospects,” said Kate Lynch, Curaleaf’s executive vice-president.
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The company recently teamed with James Haunt, a California-based muralist who earlier this year created custom graphics for the brand’s 4/20 activation as well as packaging for a new strain. More recently, Curaleaf had a pop-up at Chicago music venue The Salt Shed to spread brand awareness.
Celebrity endorsements – and even celebrity-headed brands – are also gaining steam in the cannabis space. Everyone from actress Gwyneth Paltrow and musician Willie Nelson to boxing legend Mike Tyson and ex-NFL player Rob Gronkowski have invested in or started their own CBD and cannabis ventures.
For a brand, gaining celebrity buy-in can be a game-changer – because it lends legitimacy and inspires trust from consumers. “When a celebrity gets involved in a project, they have a [personal] brand and they want to protect that brand,” said Diana Eberlein, vice-president of sales and marketing at Sorse Technology, a CBD and hemp supplier to food and beverage companies. “Celebrities are going to protect their brand, and they’re going to dig into [the details of the product and the brand]. We work with a number of celebrity partners – and they are at every tasting, they know all the testing, they’ve evaluated their Certificates of Analysis. That’s why a lot of consumers end up trusting brands that celebrities get involved with.”
2. Tasty product innovation upends stigmas
Hemp and cannabis brands are reaching more consumers by investing in product innovation and moving beyond flower.
About a decade ago, approximately 80% of all product sales were attributed to flower; now, that number is closer to 60% or 70%, according to Curaleaf’s Lynch. Increasingly, consumers are attracted to edibles, infused products and other manufactured cannabis goods.
Lynch believes this shift is helping to destigmatize the industry and enabling brands in the space to build more consumer trust. “Bringing products that are more familiar and a little less scary to the industry has helped,” she said. For example, when Curaleaf debuted an infused seltzer in Massachusetts recently, 50% of product sales came from consumers who were totally new to cannabis. “Launching products …t hat are lower-dose, tasty [and that] you don’t have to smoke … are ways in for us to bring new consumers in.”
Seltzers and other beverages, in particular, are having a moment. “Beverage is going to see a big growth spurt in the next couple of years. It’s currently the smallest segment within consumption, but it has the fastest growth rate over the last couple of years,” said Sorse Technology’s Eberlein.
Cannabis-infused drinks fit naturally into broader consumer interest in new types of beverages as well as health-conscious consumption. “We are seeing all these ready-to-drink, at-home mocktail kits,” Eberlein said. “We’re going to continue to see consumers seek out [cannabis-infused] beverages because they’re socially acceptable; they can replace your glass of wine at night or your beer and they eliminate hangovers.”
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3. Out-of-home ads offer opportunities and challenges
Although out-of-home (OOH) advertising is a more traditional channel, cannabis brands are still dedicating ad spend to billboards and signage.
“For this category,” explained Wheelhouse Labs’ Schmidt, “out-of-home is one of the few things that brands know they can do. It’s antiquated … but it’s an important part of this category, because it’s the one one of the few channels that [brands can invest in] and not have to worry about people taking down their ads or questioning it.”
Lynch joked that simple, straightforward billboards that read, “Cannabis this way” are often the most effective.
Even so, while OOH eats up a significant portion of advertising budgets in cannabis marketing, there are limitations to the channel. Performance measurement is a key concern. Lynch explained that Curaleaf’s approaches to measuring OOH impact are “pretty traditional,” primarily consisting of lead source tracking through the company’s website. When a user visits Curaleaf’s site, they’re asked how they heard about Curaleaf; they may indicate that they’ve seen the brand’s OOH activations. “It’s not a perfect science,” said Lynch, “and out-of-home is the first to go out of our budget.”
Even so, lead source tracking of the kind Curaleaf practices is a valuable mode of first-party data collection – a growing priority for brands of all kinds who are facing new consumer privacy hurdles and limitations to digital user tracking.
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4. CBD will be the Trojan horse for wellness messaging
As consumers’ interest in health and wellness grows, cannabis brands are seeing lucrative opportunities to position themselves within the wellness space.
Curaleaf, like many other consumer-facing cannabis brands, began as a strictly medical marijuana business. And Lynch says the brand remains “very committed to identifying ways in which cannabis is a wellness product.” For example, the company is working with researchers at UPenn to conduct studies on the efficacy of cannabis for various medical treatments.
Its marketing, too, often seeks to position the brand’s products as tools for improving health and wellbeing. Although the brand cannot make any unevidenced medical claims, it has used fans’ firsthand accounts of their experiences with cannabis in its messaging to convey the product’s relaxation and wellness benefits.
As consumers continue to spend on products they perceive to support their health and wellness goals, experts predict cannabis brands will have more opportunities than ever.
“You’re going to continue to see this trending towards wellness and low-dose [cannabis products], just like you’re seeing in alcohol – whether it be talking about sobriety or low-alc beverages,” said Schmidt. “From a product innovation perspective and then also from a marketing perspective, [we’re going to see] low-dose THC products that are easily integrated into everyday life. That’s what is going to be a key thing to not only get people into the category, but also normalize it.”
CBD, too, which has already found a place in health and wellness aisles across the globe, will help advance consumer trust and perception of the cannabis category at large, experts believe. “The fact that [consumers are] willing to entertain hemp products and minor cannabinoids that are non-psychoactive is very helpful because it introduces people to the plant and gets them more comfortable,” Lynch said. “And if they’re willing to consider CBD, they might be interested to try a low dose THC product. So we look at CBD as a Trojan horse to build advertising and messaging around THC. It all comes from the same plant.”
The sentiment was echoed by Eberlein, who said, “CBD is the gateway into the THC world – when people realize that this is a safe, standardized product, they’re going to be more comfortable making that transition into THC and other health and wellness-added adaptogens that are emerging.”
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5. Activating learnings from the alcohol industry
The cannabis industry has plenty to learn from the alcohol industry and other ‘vice’ product sectors.
Schmidt implied that alcohol largely paved the way for the cannabis marketing of tomorrow. “A lot of people probably don’t know that until the late 90s, you couldn’t even run advertising for hard alcohol on national television,” he said. “We’ve all grown accustomed to seeing beer and spirits on TV, but for a long time, that wasn’t something that happened.”
One thing the alcohol category mastered, Schmidt suggested, was developing a “marketing code that all the parent companies would agree to” that set guardrails around the kinds of advertising that was permissible. The move indicated to platforms and media networks that alcohol brands would be responsible and follow a set of predetermined rules. And it worked.
In a similar calculation, alcohol brands – eager to signal to both consumers and advertising partners that their products were safe in moderation – built campaigns focused on responsible drinking.
Cannabis brands, Schmidt said, should take a page from alcohol’s playbook “so there’s not this idea of, like, ‘reefer madness,’ and that we’re trying to perpetuate a national level of ‘cannabis addiction’ or something like that.” Brands like Curaleaf and Weedmaps, he said, “are positioning themselves as industry leaders and helping lift the category up out of some of the stereotypes that could potentially bring it down.”