How Cannabis Marketing Is Growing From The Ground Up

The cannabis industry is ready to cash in. More than half of the U.S. has already legalized or decriminalized marijuana, with more states expected to join soon. And research suggests cannabis will bring in more than $20 billion in 2021 alone.

However, as the industry emerges from infancy, cannabis brands still face big challenges when it comes to marketing and promotion. The field differs from other heavily regulated sectors like cigarettes and alcohol. Over the last decade, cannabis marketers have been handcuffed by content censorship and inconsistent standards online. Social media platforms can kick off cannabis brands without warning, even if they adhere to established guidelines. As a result, these marketers have had to get creative (and in some cases, cross their fingers while hoping for the best.)

To learn more about these challenges, I reached out to Thomas Winstanley, VP of marketing at Theory Wellness, a small batch marijuana company with recreational and medical cannabis dispensary locations in Massachusetts and Maine. Notably, Theory Wellness was the first licensed recreational outdoor cultivation on the east coast.

As new brands look to navigate the cannabis industry, I asked Winstanley about which platforms perform best, where he finds creative inspiration, and how marketing could evolve as more states legalize marijuana.

What kind of cannabis content tends to perform best?

There are some bread-and-butter posts that definitely will just always perform well. If you show a lot of cured cannabis, that’s going to do well. People just love to see it.

But then we surprise ourselves sometimes. We actually had a social review this morning, and we were looking at some old content. One was a shot of a tin of pre-rolls that had over 500 likes. That’s kind of interesting. A really good product flatly did really well. But sometimes we think that something’s going to hit, and it doesn’t.

Are there certain platforms that tend to perform better than others?

I don’t want to name names, but we have lost some pretty significant CRM platforms that had been driving our business because one way or another, they discover we’re a cannabis brand.

Even though we’re legally running an operation that is adhering to all state policies at a state level, at a federal level, we can be a liability. So we’ve seen and we’ve felt the adverse implications of that when a platform says, “Hey, you know what? We don’t want to support your business. We support what you guys are doing, but we don’t want you on our platform.” So it’s really tricky.

For our intent, LinkedIn is definitely the best social network. They don’t seem to care all that much. Twitter is definitely not as ferocious as Facebook and Instagram. We see a lot of competitors go down on Facebook and Instagram, and that’s surely by virtue of regulatory policy. So there are definitely platforms that will work with us, and there are ones that will not.

A lot of it comes down to how Instagram is feeling about us that day. Because there have been a lot of things around shadow bans where if Instagram feels you’re telling a lie, they may start to bury you a little bit. You may not get as much exposure. For the most part, we know how we want the brand to look. We know how we want the brand to feel, and we operate within that space.

Are there other industries that you specifically look to and take inspiration from?

It’s really hard to look at any other industries and use it as a comparison. My experience as a marketer has been in the pharmaceutical industry, I’ve worked in spirits, I’ve worked in consumer packaged goods. And honestly, I think I’ve drawn a little bit from each of those kinds of verticals when it comes to professional companies and seeing how they’ve operated.

In the spirits world, you can go to a case study and you can look at, “Okay, why were certain types of cognacs really hot in the 2000s?” Great, somebody’s already done that. I can’t go and be like, “Okay, why was purple haze so hot in the ’80s?” Nobody has a case study that’s like, “Here’s who was smoking cannabis in 1980, and this is why they were enjoying purple haze.”

What about other brands?

We try to be tastemakers. We are a young company, and we look to companies that we just like. What I would say is probably different from what our CEO would say, which would be different from what our CFO would say, but I look at brands like Warby Parker … I’m wearing their glasses. They have the best customer service that I’ve ever seen. I think their entire experience is great.

I also look at cool sub-music labels like Ghostly International. They are a very cool record producing label, but they also have this wonderful offshoot of very cool apparel and music listening accessories, and they’re a lot more than just a music brand.

We don’t know that there’s a ton of analogies for what we do and what this industry is becoming and where it’s going, but we just try to do the cool things that we’re seeing other brands do. And if they’re doing it, we could probably figure out a way to do something similar. Let’s try to find those threads of tastemaking that we can then introduce to our brand.

Fifty-four percent of Gen X cannabis users feel overlooked by brands and marketers. How do you reach these Gen X consumers when online ads seem to focus more on Gen Z and millennials?

I can understand why consumers are like, “Yeah, my cannabis brand doesn’t understand me.” Part of the reason is because we’re not allowed to understand you, because we don’t keep your data. This is a huge point of differentiation. Every night, all of the sales transaction data is purged on the recreational side. I’m not keeping Thomas Winstanley’s record of how many recreational cannabis purchases he’s bought across our stores.

So instead of having this massive database where I can sort through and try to figure out what the UX was to get someone from the landing page all the way to our retail store, it becomes really difficult. This is the nature of the cannabis industry today—we’re more evolved in a lot of ways, but we’re also less evolved in terms of what we’re able to do and our capabilities.

But we still seem to find a way. Our retention rates are really high. So we know that we’re doing something right. I’m less focused about the lifespan of Thomas Winstanley who comes and shops with us. I just want to make sure if Thomas Winstanley has an issue and he wants to address that issue with us as a company, that he’s going to get that issue resolved quickly and he’s going to have someone on the other end on the phone when he calls here.

How do you think the marketing tactics are going to evolve as more states legalize marijuana?

We’re seeing some incremental steps towards progress [on the legal end]. That can be everything from e-commerce companies like Shopify or WooCommerce toeing in the water in Canada before coming to the U.S. and saying, “We’re going to allow this.” We’re seeing small numbers of banks start to work with cannabis companies.

I think from our end, we are still working. We ran our first digital campaign about a year ago now, and it was not a good one. It just didn’t do as well as we had hoped, because we were working with a team that wasn’t as experienced with digital marketing. It was kind of like, “Let’s try this and see if anybody says anything.”

You don’t need to be Nostradamus to know what’s going to happen in cannabis in a year or two.

Fast forward to now, we’re working with a really top-notch demand-side platform that’s working on a big campaign for us across the northeast that’s going live shortly. So where I started from almost three years ago to where we are today, that box is definitely opening. But it’s still not like I can put a pixel in our browser and throw up some Instagram ads and Facebook ads, and try to build some conversions off of that.

You don’t need to be Nostradamus to know what’s going to happen in cannabis in a year or two. So what we’re trying to do is build the structures and systems in place to prepare for that inevitability of what marketing becomes in the space.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Image by Planet Flem

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