Marijuana is entering a new age of marketing.
In Seattle, Washington, last August, a billboard was erected with a bearded man sitting in front of a green tent holding up a Thermos among a picturesque outdoor Pacific Northwest backdrop.
The billboard featured sleek branding complete with hash tags and social media icons to promote the cannabis product company named Dama. The image was just one of more than 15 of Dama billboards in Washington—and the first-ever cannabis billboard campaign nationwide. (It’s worth noting, however, that cannabis-affiliated billboards are still illegal in most states, even in locales like Colorado. Marketing laws are different state by state, and before a company starts launching their own campaign they should consult with local legal services.)
That same month, Leafly, the Seattle-based website and mobile app built for users to look up strains of marijuana and dispensaries, placed a full-page ad in the New York Times. The ad congratulated the state of New York for legalizing medical marijuana.
According to Leafly’s chief executive Brendan Kennedy the ad was created to encourage patients to use Leafly’s resources to make informed decisions about marijuana. It showcased an image of a man and woman who each use a different strain of cannabis for health conditions with the tagline “JUST SAY KNOW.”
The marketing effort by Leafly worked.The website had four million visits in one month alone with web traffic increasing 10%-15% month-over-month.
As cannabis becomes increasingly legal state-by-state a new era of marketing is becoming open to the industry for the first time ever—it’s not without its own hurdles and rules. Still, there’s strategies that cannabis companies can study and adopt to out market competition.
Both the Dama’s billboards and New York Times’ Leafly ad stand out because there’s no marijuana leaves, joints or smoke in the ads both look like ads that could be for an energy drink or other lifestyle products. This sophisticated branding sets them apart from other cannabis companies, and it’s a smart move to promote marijuana legalization to individuals who are not cannabis consumers.
Noel Abbot is an associate at THC Marketing in Washington where he also runs the website cannabisethics.org. Abbot is an advocate for teaching cannabis companies the power behind their marketing. “I think the companies who are doing the best job are the ones who are establishing themselves as an identity at the forefront of their advertising rather than showing pictures of, say, joints,” Abbott says.
He adds that the primary way that marijuana legalization is going to affect people who don’t consume cannabis is through marketing and advertising so in his view dispensaries, and other cannabis companies, should be thoughtful with the kind of images they are projecting. “If people see ads that are consistently distasteful or they offend them on a regular basis there’s a very good chance that someone’s going to change their mind about legalization,” Abbot says.
New cannabis companies may find splashy New York Times ads and billboards out of reach, however online marketing can be a good starting point. Abbot says that he’s led successful marketing campaigns simply by helping clients with search engine optimization key words so that their dispensary shows up on Google. “It’s such a new industry that when people are looking for a dispensary they have to go to Google to find out about the company,” Abbot adds.
In San Diego, California Johnny Gary (name has been changed for privacy purposes) is the president of Medical Marijuana Marketing where he has helped clients with branding, websites, blogs and videos. Gary says that things as simple as regular newsletters, or text messages, offering specials can go a long way to keep customers returning to your business. Gary’s especially had success with YouTube videos. “After your video is produced you want to upload it to YouTube, you want to optimize it with keywords,” Gary says. “So, let’s say your dispensary is in Beverly Hills. You would want to put ‘marijuana dispensary’ and ‘Beverly Hills’ so that’s your company will come up on YouTube and Google.” The more people that watch it on YouTube the more likely it will appear on Google.
That being said, marketing online, although affective takes finesse and it is best to consult with an expert because some states even ban email marketing as well as particular Google ad words. And while Facebook can be particularly effective when it comes targeting ads directly to a marijuana-friendly 21-plus crowd, if you don’t follow certain regulations there’s a chance your ad won’t be approved. Or worse your account will get shut down.
What’s more is that there’s still a long road to establishing big brands in the cannabis industry. Why is that? The trademark is currently banned for the cannabis industry. The U.S Patent and Trademark Office currently only registers “lawful” trademarks, which is a hurdle, of course, because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.
Still the biggest and most baffling challenge for cannabis companies might be that they can’t claim marketing expenses. Come tax season companies can’t write off business expenses or investments. As San Francisco-based tax lawyer Robert W. Wood notes in Forbes, “That’s because Section 280E of the tax code denies even legal dispensaries tax deductions because marijuana remains a federal controlled substance. The IRS says it has no choice but to enforce the tax code.”
But don’t let that stop you from building your business—marketing is an integral part of any cannabis-related company. Start small and make sure you have an easy-to-find web site and an active online presence whether that means keeping up a blog with helpful marijuana news or health information (one article might read, for example, the benefits of vaping) or staying active on sites like Twitter and Facebook.
CHEAT SHEET: MARKET LIKE A PRO IN 5 EASY STEPS
1) Know your local marketing laws and regulations
From a legal perspective navigating marijuana laws can be tricky even in states like Colorado where cannabis is legal. For example, some marketing guidelines from the Denver, Colorado-based marketing agency Cannabrand include keeping it local. Cannabrand notes that in Colorado it’s unlawful to target out-of-state customers. Then, there’s the 70 % rule, in which 70% of the viewers/attendees must be 21-plus in order to advertise cannabis online, in print or on TV/radio broadcast (an even better rule-of-thumb is to aim for this be the case for 100% of ads online and beyond). Be sure to consult with your local legal services to ensure your marketing efforts are complying with state regulations.
Looking for cannabis-friendly legal aid? Check out ganjapreneur.com/marijuana-legal-services
2) Craft on-target newsletters
“You want to send out a newsletter with valuable content and with your specials and give them an update about what’s going on in your dispensary, and that way they stay connected to you. That increases people calling you and people coming in,” says Gary. “Another great thing is that you can also share this on your company’s social media networks, which is increases exposure.” According to Gary building your email list and sending out newsletters is the number one most effective strategy—plus, it’s low budget and a dispensary can do it themselves.
3) Make a YouTube video
“It’s one thing if you read a text, it’s another thing if you watch a video and there’s sound and there’s something with emotion. You establish a connection with that person who is sitting back relaxing and consuming information,” says Gary. Keep in mind, if you are creating information videos try to keep them under under 60 seconds-and make sure to post the name of your brand at the end for Googling purposes.
4) Create the right ad
Research the right advertising methods for your brand. Many alternative weekly city newspapers accept print ads from marijuana dispensaries—the trick is to stand out from the crowd. The LA Weekly, for example, has over 20 cannabis-related companies per issue, so it’s worth the time and money to create an ad that will showcase itself among the masses. One way to do that is to create a lifestyle look for your brand that’s without the typical “stoner” paraphernalia or cliches. Another is to be specific about your product and feature customer reviews. Always include a “call to action,” which can as simple as offering a deadline for a deal.
5) Form partnerships
If you can, partner up with other people in the industry and form a solid partnership. Or build a relationship with a doctor, or with a group of doctors, that give out medical marijuana prescriptions. Help them with their needs, too. You can give them case studies, and ask them to refer patients to your dispensary. “And then you have them sending people to you directly,” says Gary.
By S.K. Dunn