The beginning of the legal cannabis industry was defined by excess, and in response, the market catered to the most obvious group that had never shied away from consumption: the Cheeches, Chongs, Snoop Doggs, and Seth Rogans of the world.
In the decade since Colorado became the first U.S. state to legalize cannabis for adult use, we’ve moved away from free dispensary dabs and 500-milligram edibles to more refined products intended to fit seamlessly into the lives of everyday, mainstream Americans.
But this shift might have a lot to do with who is buying more cannabis today. Members of Gen Z —anyone born between 1997 and 2012—are slated to become the industry’s biggest spenders within the next few years, and they’re bringing a demand for healthy, affordable, honest, diverse, and socially responsible brands.
In order to meet these demands and keep up with the cannabis consumers of today and tomorrow, some brands are going to have to undertake a major pivot.
Here’s why and how this evolution is playing out.
Who is Generation Z?
Together, Gen Z and millennials make up the bulk of today’s cannabis consumers, and while the legal industry was founded on an ethos that catered more to the Y2K crowd, the brands of today that expect to be here tomorrow are looking to Gen Z for positioning guidance.
The reason is simple. Gen Z accounts for 20 percent of the current U.S. population, and they’re also the most diverse and informed generation in recent history. This means the industry will need to create products that cater to a nuanced culture: one that celebrates difference, is particularly tech-savvy, and has a strong influence on older and younger generations alike.
“Gen Z has a buying power of around $150 billion, but they influence up to $600 billion in spend,” said Aneesh Dhawan, member of Gen Z and chief executive officer at Knit, an end-to-end insights platform that focuses on helping major brands understand and reach Gen Z consumers.
“That [buying power] has a huge impact on the global market,” said Dhawan. “Younger Gen Z-ers impact their parents, who might be millennials. And older Gen Z has an impact in terms of setting trends. When we’re working with a brand and trying to understand what’s happening five, 10, or 15 years from now, we’re looking at trends that revolve around, ‘What does a Gen Z-er think?’” said Dhawan.
No matter the industry, Gen Z is attracted to marketing communications that offer instant benefits, highlight a brand’s social responsibility, and allow for user personalization.
“Push notifications are good, but value is in the moment,” said Jen Zick, principal of the digital strategy group, media, entertainment, and communications at Adobe. “Those notifications need to be time-sensitive in order to stand out. A key theme across our Gen Z research is the demand for cadence, personalization, and good timing. When we ask why Gen Z opts out, it’s often because one of those themes wasn’t done well.”
What to adopt and what to avoid
Thoughtful consideration for the new generation and their preferences is no different for the cannabis industry—especially considering how much Gen Z loves weed. And with an already-oversaturated market that’s expected to grow, cannabis marketing has to work a lot harder than showcasing a quality product at a good price.
“Gen Z isn’t just about the purchase,” said Brianna McGee, co-founder and chief visionary officer at Bombatta. “They care about ethical standards, and they pay attention to brand messaging. They’re savvy consumers, and they want their purchases to mean something.”
This is where social responsibility comes into play. If a brand is in the industry solely to make money, Gen Z will be able to sniff that out and lose interest quickly. That’s why brands leading with heart need to make it clear where their loyalties lie, and how a consumer’s engagement might contribute to that intent.
“We care about ending all cannabis prohibition and lowering the barrier to entry—giving back in and around the communities we serve and locally sourcing when we produce,” said McGee. “Millennials and Gen Z definitely resonate with these kinds of initiatives.”
From a marketing perspective, Bombatta is social media-heavy and deep into sharing who they really are: a socially-conscious Bay Area brand that is all about accessibility, inclusivity, and diverse terpenes.
“Our brand is very visual and tailor-made for a young generation,” said McGee. “Your social media can’t just be holding pages—engagement is everything. We also tap into popular trends and use Gen Z-ers as collaborators to evangelize to their peers.”
Another clever tool The Flower Shop wields for its Gen Z consumers is the idea of immersive interaction, leaning into Gen Z’s penchant for personalization.
“Gen Z is looking for something experiential, and it’s The Flower Shop’s mission to create an engaging experience both in our stores and with our brands,” said Todd Grobstein, vice president of marking at The Flower Shop.
“We want to follow best practices of traditional retail while adding on an experiential element that can be both fun and informational,” said Grobstein. “It’s all about the 360-degree experience—not just about selling and consuming a product.”
As for its social media approach, The Flower Shop uses its platforms to visually and viscerally marry that engagement experience to the product, opting to “showcase it out in the wild.”
“We’ll feature someone drinking a High Tide Seltzer on the golf course, taking a hiking break to enjoy a Shortie, or simply chilling by the pool after popping a Ladylike gummy,” said Grobstein. “We want to show how cannabis can be part of Gen Z-ers’ everyday environment.”
Play it cool
“Understand and respect Gen Z, and do what you can to meet them where they are culturally so you can target them effectively,” said McGee. “And don’t chase them. There’s nothing more off-putting than the obvious pursuit that’s a bit too on-the-nose or patronizing. Gen Z sees this coming a mile away.”