What’s the Future of Cannabis Marketing? Ask the Adult Beverage Industry

By Rick Kiley, Founding Partner of Soho Experiential

In my 20+ year marketing career, I have never encountered a product or service category that offers a more intriguing challenge than cannabis, and I seriously doubt I will encounter another. It’s Shakespearean in its contradictions: it’s medicine, but also recreational. It’s vilified by some and celebrated as a miracle by others.

The plant has myriad uses beyond human ingestion, from textiles to building materials. It has chemical properties that positively impact our biological systems (cannabinoids). One can create products that aren’t psychoactive (think CBD creams and lotions), and others that are (THC). Depending on the product, it might be viewed through a pharmaceutical lens, as an agricultural product, or a controlled recreational drug; and, subject to different compliance standards – many of which vary state by state.

Yet, here we are. It’s 2021, with nearly every state having a medical cannabis program, and more legalizing for adult use each year. COVID has decimated state tax revenue, and here is this miraculous cash crop that can be part of a solution. Simply put, the stage is set for quite an exciting ride in the world of cannabis. If you’re a marketer like me — who likes a challenge — this is your moment.

What’s next for cannabis?  Well, if you believe as I do that, ultimately, cannabis will be federally legalized for adult (recreational) use, look no further than the alcohol beverage industry, and follow these tried-and-true practices when developing your brands.

Your package matters a lot!

While operating under a legal medical use status, much of the packaging and branding has been designed from a pharma perspective. Tinctures and capsules and even flowers are packaged in relatively bland child-proof containers, with branding that is far more clinical than lifestyle.

The fact of the matter is, people do buy books because of the cover, and they do buy beer, wine and spirits based on the package. There is a reason brands like Grey Goose, Patron and Johnnie Walker invest in creating iconic packages. They are unique, memorable, and convey their premium nature.

In a category that is quite cluttered, and whose intake forms are pretty similar from brand to brand, creating packaging that is recognizable is merely the table stakes. Put the lifestyle your brand represents into your package. You’ll be giving people permission to connect with your brand beyond just usage and adopt it more fully into their lives.

Invest in the gatekeepers

As you might imagine, in the adult beverage industry, the bartenders, mixologists and sommeliers that work at leading restaurants and cocktail bars, are very influential with their patrons. Significant investments are made to entertain, educate and reward (within compliance guidelines) this group to help create credibility and sales velocity for products at the accounts they represent.

Except for consumers who have been part of the legacy market, there is a huge pool of consumers with little to no knowledge about cannabis. They arrive in dispensaries looking for guidance to identify the right products and intakes to suit their needs. The “budtender” is their guide on this journey. And, since product sampling isn’t easy and rarely permissible, the budtender’s recommendation is hugely important.

Most budtenders will not recommend anything that they haven’t used, and enjoyed, personally. So, invest in creating a good experience for budtenders, give them access to something they usually can’t, and tap into their ego by letting them experiment and use your brand as they prefer. Ensure you sustain that commitment with repeat conversations and feedback showing you value their opinion.

Educate end-users

Within brands that operate in complex categories (think wine and whiskey), the ones that are rewarded with adoption and loyalty are those that help alleviate a consumer’s social anxiety and deliver them social currency. Basically, if you are the wine brand that empowers someone to make an informed decision when choosing a wine when on a date, or out at a business function, you will be rewarded with loyalty for being the brand that makes the user look good.

This will be the case with cannabis as well; perhaps even more than with wine and spirits. The layperson’s understanding of the cannabis space pales in comparison to adult beverage, and cannabis is far more complex since there are so many potential variations of psychoactive effects.

The brand that’s able to deliver immersive education to end-users, alleviating their significant social anxiety around the category will be rewarded with significant loyalty, repeat purchase and peer recommendations.