Branding Dope: The Woes of Advertising Cannabis

Members of the legal weed space share insight on marketing marijuana.

How do you truly advertise cannabis? To be frank, for as long as people have been blazing down, weed has more or less just sold itself. Sure, alluring (though mostly superfluous) strain names can give consumers and marijuana enthusiasts the impression that their Skywalker OG is genuinely and unequivocally better than your Tangerine Dream. In actuality, they're probably equally lit. Relative quality isn’t necessarily verifiable and favorable lab results can be purchased; so by the time said dope hits dispensary shelves, tracing it back to its cultivator or point of origin is not always possible. As you can see, the very idea of a “cannabis brand” is a modern invention indeed.

Think about it like this: Weed is illegal. Despite its growing acceptance, the herb remains a Schedule I narcotic per the Controlled Substances Act. And medical and recreational-use marijuana laws differ (sometimes vastly) from state to state.

As such, any obviously weedy advertisements you come across were not dexterously placed. The platforms and media channels specifically designed for cannabis brands are limited or reserve the right to charge a premium rate to said pot producers.

“A good ad tells you not only what you’re going to get but also gives you some sense of the actual experience you’ll have.”

“Every retailer, cultivator and brand in the [Colorado] cannabis industry currently advertises in six primary channels,” says Matt Matson, Marketing Director at Verde Natural, a Colorado-based, soil-grown cannabis wholesaler and medical dispensary. Those six channels are, according to Matson:

1. Social media
2. Trade shows and events
3. Dispensary and event pop-ups
4. Cannabis magazines
5. Sponsored online content and banner ads
6. Swag/Merch

Of course there are exceptions. 

Strain database and cannabis information hub Leafly––a tech company that doesn't touch a single plant––has in the past taken out full page ad space in the New York Times. Meanwhile, competing tech venture WeedMaps spreads brand awareness via billboards up and down the California coastline and sponsors professional surfers.

"'Weed' is simply too broad a category considering how many brands are in this space and how many different types of products are being offered,” says Jesse Meighan, COO of Jane West, an e-commerce platform in the space. “Some are more gently focused on wellness, some on precise medical care, and some are just about getting you really super high. For someone who's new to cannabis, it can be overwhelming,” Meighan says. “A good ad tells you not only what you’re going to get but also gives you some sense of the actual experience you’ll have.”

Still, as the cannabis industry becomes increasingly relevant and legal weed’s reach expands, brands will ramp up marketing efforts to their most desired demographic: the general public.

In the marijuana space, "having a full-time marketing staff is relatively new," says Lily Colley, Director of Marketing for infused foods brand Incredibles. “Even most respected cannabis companies in Colorado don’t convey this level of professionalism. Our new goal is to help reach non-traditional cannabis users.”

This sentiment is felt across the weed world.

“As a brand, we haven’t bothered to explore radio or television advertising because these mediums are regulated by the FCC, which is a federal organization,” says Meighan from Jane West. “The Controlled Substances Act prohibits 'communications facilities' from advertising Schedule I drugs, which unfortunately still includes cannabis. While broadcasters are allowed to publish cannabis ads in legal states, they risk violating this provision (a felony) if they do.”

Just this week, the National Football League approved broadcast advertisements for liquor brands during game breaks. But according to the NFL, weed is just as no-chill as it's ever been, both for the league’s injured athletes and game-time advertisers.

“Tread lightly, so as to not turn off the consumer who may not be as familiar with cannabis,” advises Josh Priebe, Director of Marketing at THC Design, a Los Angeles-based cultivation enterprise.

“It’s not like I’m going to put a billboard up across from a school,” Priebe said to KINDLAND.

His statement is somewhat poetic, as the world’s most successful burger-slanger McDonalds recently made a tongue-in-cheek, and kind of weedy, joke on a billboard near the border of New Mexico (where recreational use is illegal) and Colorado, where legal weed money earned from tax revenues is one of the largest contributors to the state economy.

"Read the MED's definition of ‘Advertising’ and you'll be thinking to yourself: ‘Can I advertise at all?’”

Though the marketer who first cut his teeth in the skateboarding and action sports industries wouldn’t be able to land a billboard near a school even if he wanted to. Nor would his Colorado-based peers.

“Each advertisement you run needs documented proof that no more than 30 percent of the audience is under the age of 21 for recreational products, and under the age of 18 for medical products,” Verde Natural’s Matson said to KINDLAND. “[If your company] can't document proof, then according to the regulations you cannot place an advertisement. This goes for all media channels,” he said. “You can't target tourists with your ads. Engaging with consumers via location based marketing targeted at devices is forbidden. Furthermore you cannot post any sort of flyer or signage outdoors unless that sign is for your store. [In Colorado], read the MED's definition of ‘Advertising’ and you'll be thinking to yourself: ‘Can I advertise at all?’”

Matson says these strictures have a majority of marketing efforts within the space “communicating with the same group of existing cannabis consumers.” Which is a problem if mainstream consumer acquisition is the end goal.

Veritably, it’s not just selling product that proves to be onerous for the weed sect; simply mentioning marijuana on Facebook can have a brand’s post incapable of being “boosted” or taken down altogether.

According to Lauren Gibbs, founder of Colorado-based boutique digital strategy agency Rise Above Social Strategies, Facebook's rejection of weedy ad dollars even hurts advocacy groups. And the social network’s approval process, which otherwise might take only minutes, can take up to 36 hours for cannabis-related posts.

“What you’re being cut off from is timeliness,” Gibbs tells KINDLAND.

“Denials are far more common than acceptances and often without explanation or recourse,” echoes Michael Litchfield, marketing head at HelloMD, a telehealth-enabled medical marijuana provider and online cannabis and wellness information hub.

Essentially, Facebook likely takes the anti-herb stance on posts that could potentially result in the sale of a federally illicit product for that very reason.

But social media is crucial for any business hoping to land new business. So brands in the industry deal. And right now, they're finding creative workarounds to advertising barriers by marketing their messages as “influencer-based” campaigns that rely on social media users with massive followings. And, of course, there's always guerrilla marketing tactics.

“Denials are far more common than acceptances and often without explanation or recourse”

“We have found marketing success by working with a public relations agency that has helped us position ourselves as industry thought leaders,” Rob Fess, Marketing Director for online cannabis wholesaler Tradiv, tells KINDLAND. “By providing commentary, based on our business data and industry expertise, we are consistently featured in top mainstream and industry-specific news outlets. This sort of commentary and expertise is in high demand and doesn’t carry with it the legal challenges associated with advertising in this space.”

And like any other industry, where companies create advertisements in hopes that the money spent will mean more products sold, weed ads have to also be good ads.

“Right now we are still in the educational phase of [cannabis],” Jane West tells KINDLAND. West previously co-founded Women Grow, an organization to promote women in executive leadership roles within weed. 

“I don't see our messaging as actually being advertising, because there's so much education that needs to occur in the space. We need educational materials regarding the incorporation of the substance into one’s life, not necessarily traditional advertising.”

But according to THC Design’s Priebe, “A good ad is more of a controlled chaos in terms of growing and showcasing your brand. Color recognition, names. What is Fanta? People are comfortable with orange soda because of the brand name, and orange can of Fanta.”

Perhaps someday, we'll share that same familiarity with Tangerine Dream.