The Inflection Point for Cannabis Brands Is upon Us

Companies that create iconic experiences, tell strong stories, and leverage the media will have a head start at becoming the household brands of the future.

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On August 3, 2014, cannabis advertising kicked off in the United States in a big way: Leafly ran a full-page ad in The New York Times.

Yet today, nearly eight years later, cannabis marketers still haven’t been able to build their brands the way other businesses can. For the first time in advertising history, a legal category was banned outright from major media platforms. CBS wouldn’t let Acreage Holdings run a Super Bowl ad; ABC said no to Lowell Farms’ bid to run an ad during the Oscars.

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In the digital realm, Facebook and Google effectively refused to accept ads from cannabis and CBD brands. Many publishers and connected television providers followed suit.

Undaunted, cannabis and CBD media buyers built their own hyperlocal media ecosystems, leveraging programmatic digital, local print, and out-of-home advertising to reach their market.

But we’ve come to the end of the beginning. The inflection point for cannabis brands is coming soon, and marketers need to be prepared for what’s next.

I spent more than a decade working with major brands like Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and Kellogg’s, and I’ve learned a few things about how consumer-packaged-goods (CPG) giants think. The world’s biggest brands aren’t ignoring cannabis. On the contrary, they’re very aware the base of cannabis consumers has more than doubled from 30 million to more than 65 million. They know nearly one in four U.S. adults is a cannabis customer, and retail sales have risen to an impressive $21 billion. And you can be sure they’ve noticed the industry is the fifth-largest — and fastest-growing — consumer industry in the country.

So why are they still on the sidelines? Because cannabis remains federally illegal.

The day this changes, the world of cannabis brands will change radically. Some of the most recognizable brands on earth will launch cannabis products or race to acquire companies that already have a strong brand, loyal customers, and sizable market share.

Sheer scale, which hasn’t been an issue in the industry to date, will begin to matter a great deal. A grown-up brand will be essential, especially since cannabis brands increasingly will compete with over-the-counter drugs, skincare brands, alcohol brands, and more.

Think upper funnel. Today, the category is focused heavily on lower-funnel customer-acquisition metrics. However, we’re starting to see sophisticated marketers put more spend against upper-funnel metrics to drive brand awareness and loyalty. They’re starting to buy media more like CPG brands.

Celebrities matter. In 2013, Taylor Swift signed a $26-million deal to endorse Diet Coke. In cannabis, Mike Tyson’s brand Tyson 2.0 is a “knockout.” Celebrity evangelism is real if it’s done in an authentic way. Consider finding a celebrity partner. Celebrity-endorsed brands will be the first to be acquired.

Iconic execution. Red Bull’s skydiving team leaps out of airplanes and sends sales to the stratosphere. Distinctive, on-brand executions drive brand success. There’s a reason Red Bull’s YouTube channel has 10.4 million subscribers.

In a stunt that gained national media attention, Marimed created the world’s largest pot brownie. The stunt was great for Marimed, but perhaps not as good for overall category development. After all, cannabis is about a lot more than pot. For the industry to grow, we need stunts that shatter preconceptions rather than building on them. Does your brand have a distinctive brand positioning supported by iconic executions? 

Be omnipresent. Anywhere in America, you’re never more than half a mile from a can of Coca-Cola. That kind of omnipresence, both physically and in media, is crucial to driving brand awareness and sales. Driving sales of Coca-Cola at scale means having an omnichannel strategy across television, digital, over-the-top media, outdoor, print, radio, and sponsorship of everything from American Idol to NASCAR to the Olympic Games and beyond.

The best data wins. Regulation makes cannabis a hyperlocal business, so finding and activating the right audiences at scale is everything. Brands that demonstrate they can get this right will be valued far more than brands that do not embrace a data-driven strategic approach.

Create shared experiences. Coca-Cola long ago mastered the art of putting its brand at the center of everything in American life. If you can’t imagine a backyard barbecue, high-school football game, or movie without it — and I’ll bet you can’t — it’s because marketers have been seeding those moments in advertising for decades. Can you position your brand as an integral part of a beloved social ritual?

Get retail right. Make your brand available everywhere, make it easy and fun to buy, and build the kind of brand loyalty your competitors can’t match.

Brands built today will support lower-funnel metrics every chief executive officer requires of their marketing organization, not to mention prepare companies for the future challenges and opportunities associated with federal legalization. Companies that create iconic experiences, tell strong stories, and leverage the media available to them will have a head start at becoming the household brands of the future.

Way back in July 1971, Coca-Cola filmed one of the most iconic commercials in advertising history: a “united world chorus” of young people on a hilltop in Italy singing “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” It was a big vision from a brand that knew it was bigger than the product alone — it was part of global culture. That’s a good ambition for any brand to have.

Get your playbook ready. Building a big-looking brand in a hyperlocal business like cannabis isn’t nearly as expensive as building a national or global brand. If acquirers see you have a working brand playbook they can leverage, they’ll find that very exciting.

The time is now. Get ready.  


redhead woman with green eyes smiling for a professional headshotKatie Ford is chief operating officer at Fyllo, where she oversees the company’s day-to-day administrative and operational functions as it moves to drive compliance and trust in the cannabis marketplace. Recognized as one of AdAge’s Women to Watch, she spent twenty-four years with Publicis Media, where she served as president of client solutions, driving brand growth for Fortune 500 accounts including Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, and USAA.

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