The Brand Marketing Struggle Is Real

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Illustration: MJ Graphics / Shutterstock

Every category of brand marketing has its challenges, but cannabis brands may have the most difficult path to success. Pharmaceutical ads in national print and broadcast media come with a litany of disclaimers and fine print about their harmful—even potentially deadly—side effects, yet cannabis marketing is verboten due to federal prohibition.

According to federal drug scheduling dating back to 1970, cannabis has a “high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence.” This means despite numerous studies showing the plant to be much less physically harmful than methamphetamine, cocaine, opioids, or even alcohol, marketing cannabis products remains largely off limits. So while Big Pharma companies get millions of eyeballs in return for their marketing dollars, cannabis brands available to a vast majority of the United States populace are forced to stay in the shadows.


The advertising dilemma

The very real marketing challenges faced by brands are extensive, but advertising is where the struggle really hits home. Until the plant is completely descheduled by Congress and positioned like tobacco and alcohol, major platforms like Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn will not take dollars from any brand deemed to be promoting “illegal drug use.” In 2021, Google’s ad revenue hit $209.5 billion, but cannabis brands did not contribute to that figure. And while Twitter recently became the first social media platform to allow cannabis ads in the U.S., it remains to be seen how effective access to that platform will be.

This lack of access to the top tier of paid media means missing out on one of the most powerful advertising channels of our generation. With no paid search results, no video ads, no promoted social media posts, and no display ads, the options for boosting content and driving exposure to consumers significantly decrease. Furthermore, the possibility to better understand consumer and potential customer preferences by creating a focused strategy based on user data simply does not exist.

Marketing campaigns are only as good as the information the marketers use to make decisions, so modern marketers in our industry essentially are working with fewer tools than their mainstream counterparts.

Brands also face the demoralizing prospect of shadowbans on social networks. These bans are a type of censorship that blocks audiences from viewing or engaging with a company’s content. Perhaps the worst aspect of the practice is the networks typically give the brand in question no indication shadowbanning is at work. The company will have no way to know its platform has been blocked. At that point, brands are yelling into the void—sometimes permanently. Platforms become unsearchable, and accounts are removed from major social media channels.

Social media is just not a realistic marketing tool for brands in 2023, and that’s tough. After all, while social media advertising is paid media, it becomes a powerful owned-media tool when its potential is maximized. As it stands, cannabis brands largely are stuck on the outside looking in.

Conquering go-to-market barriers

Brands also suffer with other basic marketing initiatives such as coordinating product launches, determining packaging, and aligning messaging across multiple markets. They operate in a brutally competitive market with regulatory restrictions that vary greatly from state to state. How can you operate efficiently when local and regional guidelines prevent you from establishing one core strategy? It is legitimately one of the most taxing, challenging, and cost-prohibitive scenarios for marketing products and brands.

So how do modern brands successfully market and sell their products? And how does a brand deliver a value proposition to its customers and achieve a competitive advantage?

In my agency’s support of both plant-touching and industry-adjacent sectors such as legal, construction, and product testing, two things have proved true in light of current advertising barriers. Firstly, public relations is not optional. Companies need the brand-building power, trustworthiness, and legitimacy that come with earned-media hits.

Secondly, a comprehensive content marketing strategy rooted in search engine optimization offers a clear path to increased brand visibility—and a position of respect and trust among consumers who are still finding their way in what can be a confusing marketplace.

Baby steps at the federal level

Thankfully, the government finally is catching up to the growing social acceptance of the plant. President Joe Biden recently signed a breakthrough research bill that will ease access to the plant for study and enable research into potential cannabis-derived medications. He also asked Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra to reassess how the drug is scheduled. This obviously is welcome news, but forgive me for worrying developments will move at a snail’s pace.

The sad truth is federal legality for this non-toxic plant likely is several years away.

While a majority of the industry hopes the federal government will deschedule cannabis completely, it is important to note nationwide legalization will not be a silver bullet. It will be very difficult for small, established brands to compete once larger multistate and multinational operators come for their piece of the pie.

That’s why it is imperative brands dedicate a portion of their budgets to a marketing play that will benefit them right now and in the long run: strategic communications that will elevate their brand above the competition and a strong content marketing program to make sure customers can find them where it matters most. The companies building their brands now will be the strongest and best positioned in the federally legal market. That kind of forward thinking will allow brands to see around the corner and truly be more prepared than their competitors when the switch flips and the patchwork of legal markets integrates into a federal network.

Ricardo Baca black and white headshot Ricardo Baca is founder and chief executive officer at Grasslands, a journalism-minded cannabis marketing and public relations agency. Named one of Fortune’s “7 Most Powerful People in America’s Marijuana Industry,” he is a twenty-five-year veteran journalist, Clio Award winner and juror, keynote speaker, two-time TEDx veteran, Marketer of the Year, and drug policy futurist.


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