Industry leaders typically anticipate major consumer trends well in advance, but 2020 disrupted longstanding expectations. The pandemic ultimately expedited the proliferation of several incipient trends, bringing them to the forefront years ahead of schedule. Adjustments in cannabis consumer behavior parallel those occurring in other industries, but historically cannabis has been a step behind in capitalizing on emerging shifts because the legal industry often operates without the same tools and services available to mainstream sectors.
Access to comprehensive data and research is the key to offsetting imbalances between cannabis and other industries. Data helps brands better understand their customers’ values, preferences, and lifestyle choices, which is crucial for brands aiming to precisely target their marketing efforts. Brands that engage directly with consumers are perceived to be more authentic and personable, and those characteristics build trust and loyalty. Considering cannabis consumers’ notoriously low rates of brand loyalty and the industry’s increasingly sophisticated and competitive atmosphere, executing data-driven marketing strategies is more important than ever.
The consumer landscape shifts with each passing year, but 2020 saw exceptionally dramatic changes in consumer behavior. One of the most noticeable trends: Consumers made larger purchases with less frequency, most likely due to lockdown orders and safety concerns during the ongoing pandemic. Rather than spacing out spending across multiple visits or buying items as needed, consumers stocked up on all their favorite products in a single purchase.
There also was a massive spike in delivery orders when initial shelter-in-place mandates forced consumers to stay at home. In March, according to Boston Consulting Group, e-commerce sales in the United States jumped 58 percent compared to the same time period in 2019, and the pattern persisted well into 2020. A more recent national consumer survey by online shipping portal ShipStation discovered a 33-percent increase in online shopping among North American consumers over the past year, with nearly 66 percent citing the pandemic as the reason behind their changed habits. The cannabis industry saw an even greater demand in delivery orders, according to analysts at data consulting firm Surfside, with an average increase of 43 percent.
Retailers across all consumer industries also noticed a significant push for eco-friendly products that are healthier for consumption. According to PwC’s 2020 Global Consumer Insights Survey, a whopping 69 percent of global consumers are now more focused on mental health and wellbeing—a 20-percent increase from prior to the pandemic. Personal wellness has become a priority for consumers when making purchasing decisions, and an increasing number of consumers are seeking out sustainably made products. In cannabis, more consumers are asking for solventless products, which are produced without the aid of potentially harmful chemicals, and for products derived from living soil and grown using environmentally friendly processes.
Lastly, consumers no longer identify themselves as part of a larger group; instead, they belong to emerging micro-communities aligned with specific interests. More consumers are engaging digitally within niche groups digital strategist Sara Wilson calls “campfires,” thus limiting their exposure to the broader market. Although this makes marketing a bit more intricate, it creates an opportunity for brands to purposefully communicate with specific audiences.
Staying abreast of these general trends is impossible without data and research, but these insights extend well beyond this high-level analysis and ultimately can help brands improve each marketing strategy’s probability of success.
Data plays a pivotal role in helping brands better understand their consumers by answering the who, what, where, when, and why of behavior. Social listening extends a step further by uncovering exactly where and how consumers engage online and who they interact with. By defining the guardrails for where to invest time and resources, data enables brands to reach specific consumers through targeted and cost-effective campaigns.
Through research, brands can pinpoint the best platforms for connecting with intended audiences. For instance, digital media producer Whistle discovered 91 percent of Gen Z males and 84 percent of Millennial males regularly play video games. If marketers capitalize on that statistic and leverage other gaming data, they can then discern whether Twitch or Discord would be a more effective platform for reaching their consumers and only pay for advertising on the games most relevant to their ideal customer. Brands can implement this strategy across multiple mediums outside gaming, including podcasts and music.
Cannabis brands are having a particularly difficult time building loyalty with customers, in part due to bans on cannabis-related advertising across all major social media platforms. To circumvent this issue, cannabis brands increasingly rely on influencers to drive awareness and interact with consumers, and data is critically important in choosing the most effective influencer-marketing strategies.
Influencer marketing can be a money pit when executed incorrectly, which often happens when brands are disconnected from consumers. A 2019 survey by Influencer Marketing Hub revealed the bottom 25 percent of brands that utilize influencers fail to generate any revenue from their efforts because they use a spray-and-pray tactic that targets many influencers at once in the hope a few are effective, which generates low return on investment (ROI). Data and research eliminate the guessing game by identifying the most impactful and relevant influencers in a specific market.
In a world where consumer shopping behaviors constantly change and e-commerce is king, research and data are critical for businesses to sustain a competitive edge. Soon, however, these tools will be table stakes for the success of brands and marketers, especially in the cannabis space. It all comes down to ROI in the end, and using data to develop marketing strategies significantly boosts meaningful consumer engagement while saving both time and money.
As more consumers embrace digital experiences, brands are expected to reach them in deeper and more creative ways. Brands that don’t invest in modern approaches undoubtedly will lose key consumers to more sophisticated and community-driven competitors.
Daniel Abrahami is co-founder and chief executive officer at Headquarters (HQ), a strategic advisory collective helping cannabis entrepreneurs unlock accelerated growth. He also is managing partner at AGM Ventures and has been advising companies and investing in cannabis operations since 2014. Previously, he led business development for ABC Gems, co-founded Pravo, and helped launch direct-to-consumer fashion and apparel companies.