Adam Bierman: In MMJ Industry, Flying Under the Marketing Radar Rarely Leads to Success

By Adam Bierman

Many different types of businesses currently service the MMJ industry, from storefront dispensaries and manufacturers who create and distribute products to consulting firms that assist these businesses in their daily operations.

In a traditional industry, these businesses would all employ distinct branding and marketing initiatives in an effort to maximize market share. In the MMJ industry, however, these businesses are often completely lost in the mix due to rampant misinformation.

The single biggest directive I hear from decision-makers when it comes to the promotion of their business is that they want to “stay under the radar.” My reaction is always the same: If you wanted to stay under the radar, what were you thinking getting into this industry? Why would you not do everything possible to grow your business? 

I hear from attorneys who say they don’t want to be perceived as “pot lawyers” – rather, they want to be viewed as established professionals who have become experts in the MMJ industry. I also hear from dispensary operators who don’t want everyone to know they exist and therefore have come to rely on word-of-mouth marketing and patient loyalty.

If you run a compliant operation, then you pay taxes and have some type of permit that lists your profession/service. If you operate a dispensary, then the government knows you exist, so why hide from your target market?  If you are an attorney working in the industry, you are probably listed on NORML’s website or other online vendor directories (not to mention court documents), so why not market yourself as someone who specializes in MMJ law?

To market your business, you need to take it seriously and not allow yourself to get pigeonholed by the industry. Unfortunately, many businesses fail in this regard.

I was at the Kush Expo last summer, and it provided a perfect example of what not to do, as it was clear that many companies don’t take their marketing and branding very seriously. The rare exception was TetraLabs, which set themselves apart from the rest of the industry with a professional display that presented the business as a clean, established pharmaceutical company. Some other companies, however, employed bikini-clad models to represent their businesses. What is it with girls in bikinis? It’s like they’ve become the public face of all things marijuana. This strategy doesn’t sit well in the MMJ industry. How many dispensaries in California claim to reduce branding and promotional efforts for fear of becoming too intrusive and upsetting MMJ opponents, but then turn around and use scantily clad women to help promote strains with X-rated names?

I am going to take a crazy leap here and say that there is only one difference between Budweiser using bikini girls to sell beer and a dispensary using a similar tactic to promote marijuana: Budweiser makes no bones about its strategy. If a dispensary decided outright that it would be able to maximize market share with a marketing initiative that included bikini models, I’d actually be for it. But I have a huge problem with dispensary owners who tell me that they don’t want professional signage and prefer to avoid aggressive advertising over fears that they will be offensive, but then turn around and take out an ad in a local magazine with bikini girls.

Here’s the bottom line: Looking legitimate doesn’t mean wearing a suit and tie, it means taking what you do seriously and having a real approach to how you present yourself to your market. If you are an attorney dealing with MMJ, create an industry-specific website and proudly stand behind it. Yes, you may have a wider practice. But develop a separate site/section for this industry to present your business in a forthright manner. If you run a dispensary, determine branding and be consistent. Don’t hide. Create real signage like any other legitimate business. What dentist’s office has blacked-out windows and a tiny logo for a sign? What legal firm doesn’t boast about – and highlight – its areas of practice?

If you choose to take advantage of the fact that 18 states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws, then seize the opportunity to the fullest. Brand and market your business in a way that gives you an advantage over your competition. At the end of the day, if your business fails or is not as successful as envisioned, you don’t want to kick yourself because your marketing strategy was too timid.

Adam Bierman is co-founder of California-based MedMen, which provides consulting and marketing services to medical cannabis companies.