Cannabis marketing has reached a complicated point in history. The era of adult-use legalization is over a decade old, with more states coming online every year. But while the feds continue to drag their feet on reform, the cannabis industry keeps chugging along, hoping for change.
In the meantime, emerging markets are experiencing exciting growth, with more mature markets facing insurmountable challenges. It’s a dichotomy not lost on anyone, and even robust businesses opt to tread lightly—especially in terms of their marketing spend.
Knowing they must make every dollar count—and that many traditional forms of marketing like social media and paid Google ads are still a gray area—cannabis operators are seeking new and different ways to attract customers and gain market share.
Here are our six predictions for cannabis marketing in 2023.
Mainstream partnerships will reach new audiences
Cannabis companies can no longer rely on mature consumers to fill their coffers. As more diverse demographics enter dispensaries and the canna-curious continue to explore the wide world of weed, operators must approach them on their level. Twitter and Google are starting to soften their stance on certain cannabis companies, and it won’t be long before the floodgates open with the advent of federal reform.
Collaborations with mainstream companies are a fantastic way for brands and retailers to boost visibility. As cannabis becomes normalized, examples of these partnerships are increasing. For instance, Colorado brand Charlotte’s Web recently became the official CBD brand of Major League Baseball. At the same time, Lagunitas’ collab with Absolute Xtracts set the bar high for how consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies can integrate with the nascent cannabis space.
One-off marketing campaigns can also have incredible reach and may be more attainable than high-profile deals like those mentioned above.
“A creative way for brands to spread the word is through public relations efforts and stunts,” said Alice Moon, publicist and social media strategist at Trailblaze. She pointed to the firm’s success with a client who aimed to bake the “world’s biggest weed brownie,” a caper that led to an enormous engagement.
“Another way to garner press coverage is to partner with a non-cannabis brand to come up with a new product offering,” Moon said. “A great example of that is Kiva’s partnership with Fatburger to make an infused ketchup. This campaign has garnered a lot of coverage due to its unique nature.”
Third-party marketplaces will continue their dominance
Global e-commerce exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the switch to online shopping is a convenience many do not wish to give up. The trend doesn’t stop with groceries and gifts—it also extends to green.
For the vast amount of people who begin their cannabis retail experience online, third-party marketplaces are often a brand’s first point of contact with their potential customers. Platforms like Weedmaps and Leafly dominate the space, garnering massive traffic while spotlighting products that may pay a premium to appear first on a menu.
Some brands may bemoan the increasing prevalence of third-party marketplaces, but they’re a crucial part of the cannabis retail landscape. Fortunately, engagement can fit nearly any budget or scope, meaning even small brands can grab a slice of the proverbial pie.
Cannabis experiences and activations will increase
As cannabis companies seek creative ways to entice and intrigue potential customers, experiential marketing will continue to be a crucial component of advertising efforts. A recent survey found 76 percent of consumers would rather spend money on experiences than products, putting things like concerts and vacations in front of big-ticket consumer items like televisions or luxury goods.
Cannabis companies enjoy a more prominent presence at non-industry events, with activations and pop-ups at large-scale music festivals like Outside Lands and Coachella. Industry-specific affairs are also growing, with dispensaries and consumption lounges offering everything from craft nights to karaoke, hoping to bring in a broader range of customers looking for a good time.
“I think we’ll continue to see a lot of old-school tactics pop up this year; consumer and budtender education and engagement will grow,” said Amy Larson, senior vice president of marketing and communications at TILT Holdings. “Experiential brand activations will become more popular. Think of ways to bring your product’s experience to life in a way that consumers would experience in their real lives; maybe we’ll see the rise of consumption lounges bring back the age of ‘Tupperware Parties.’”
Video content will dominate digital
As the popularity of TikTok and similar platforms increases, fun and engaging video content is crucial. Consumers love a good short, especially if it has high shareability. A recent study by Emplifi revealed engagement rates for Instagram reels are 35 percent higher than other types of content on the platform.
The tactic can be tricky for cannabis operators as censorship and shadowbans are often a genuine concern. However, many creators are doing their best to work around the algorithm by using code words, swapping bud for broccoli, or limiting overtly iffy shots such as on-screen dabs or hits from a bong. But when done right, the results can be astounding—one viral video is often all it takes to become a household name overnight.
Video is also key for search engine optimization. More than 80 percent of all web traffic comes from video consumption, and Google often rewards sites with at least one video link.
Influencer marketing will become more intentional
Speaking of social media creators, influencer marketing will undoubtedly be a go-to tactic for cannabis brands and retailers in 2023. Gen Z and Millennials, key demographics for cannabis, live online and are far more likely to engage with a product or service their favorite influencer recommends.
Cannabis creators like Jessaland and Pothead Princess can command a pretty penny for a collaboration, but the investment often offers a decent ROI. Throw an affiliate deal in with a paid promotion, and brands could easily see engagement skyrocket within hours of a social post.
“I expect to see more location-specific influencer campaigns [this year],” Moon said. “Cannabis companies may partner with influencers who are passionate about cannabis to promote their products or retail locations. As more companies realize the benefits to influencer marketing, I expect to see a rise in campaigns nationwide.”
KPIs are set for a big change
For many marketing teams, key performance indicators around web traffic and engagement are a huge part of overall metrics. Google Analytics plays a vital role in measuring these key performance indicators (KPIs), but an overhaul of the platform is about to change everything.
The introduction of the all-new Google Analytics 4 will see marketing teams transform how they discuss digital traffic. Instead of simply measuring website visits, bounce rates, and the like, GA4 focuses on events throughout the customer life cycle. This will be a drastically different way to interpret data and force marketers to reevaluate how they set and track KPIs.
The change may feel daunting, but cannabis companies are used to having to pivot. Adopting the new system is just another part of the journey between ever-evolving regulations and a shifting market landscape.
‘Cannabis isn’t going to sell itself…’
Marketing budgets may be limited, but they cannot be cut out completely. Operators must do what they can in an increasingly crowded marketplace to stand out.
“Cannabis isn’t going to sell itself,” Moon said. “This is a competitive industry, so brands really need to allocate dollars to their marketing departments, more so now than ever before,”
Larson agreed but warned fellow operators to be strategic to avoid potential pitfalls.
“Just because someone else is doing it—and succeeding—doesn’t always mean it’s right for your brand or your product,” she cautioned. “Be willing to try new things and experiment to the extent it makes sense for your brand and your budget but don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.”