Opinion: Marijuana brands are ready for their marketing close-up

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Maureen Maldari

Cannabis acceptance has been steadily growing over the past 10 years, ever since Colorado became the first state to launch recreational marijuana sales.

However, the tipping point for cannabis acceptance might have occurred early during the COVID-19 pandemic, when both recreational and medical marijuana stores were deemed essential businesses and remained open in states where marijuana was legal.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many smart cannabis brands and retailers saw an opportunity and promptly invested in e-commerce and delivery tools, and they were quickly rewarded with a flood of stressed-out, homebound consumers ready for an alternative to wine and Xanax.

That’s great. But the real next step for marijuana brands to be truly legit in the eyes of most consumers is for them to get real about their marketing and bring some consumer packaged goods (CPG) grown-ups into their marketing C-suite.

Today, the real issue for cannabis brands is mass marketing.

I know it might be surprising to some who have a more lax take on cannabis, but there are many in the population who still see a taboo around marijuana.

They’re not sure it’s the right thing to do, even though it could help treat their chronic pain.

What’s needed now are savvy marketing professionals to help take the category to the next level of mass acceptance.

What the pros know

The advantage traditional CPG pros have is a deep understanding of how to garner brand affinity.

They do this through tried-and-true techniques of selling personal experiences and marketing to consumers’ emotional connections, something the cannabis sector has largely been missing.

In the next year, we will see more mainstream marketing pros from areas such as CPG, alcohol and over-the-counter markets, among others, moving to marijuana brands because they understand and respect marketing and understand the nuances of adult categories.

So what should cannabis brands focus on with their marketing going forward?

Here are a few best practices to keep in mind:

Be responsible: There might be an urge to do some splashy creative work that plays off the non-health effects of cannabis.

That’s a mistake.

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For cannabis to broaden its appeal among general consumers, the focus needs to be on health benefits, both physical and mental.

Marketers also need to be mindful of all the pitfalls, how to navigate them and when to challenge them.

Doing your homework can put you leaps and bounds ahead of those who are just swinging wildly.

Remember branding basics: Right now, there is no Coca-Cola of cannabis, but as legalization for recreational marijuana continues, even without federal legislative changes, branding is going to be more important.

The marijuana industry needs to get better at knowing who its customers are and how to build on that.

That means thinking beyond legacy users – including millennials – to how to attract baby boomers, seniors and women. All are gravitating to infused drinks, edibles and other non-flower options.

Understand your diverse audience: Not too many brands span multiple generations.

That’s what makes working in this sector so exciting and challenging.

Data can help you better understand where they intersect.

Which messaging works best with a specific demographic?

Lots of questions to be answered by a savvy chief marketing officer.

Education: Some estimates calculate there are roughly 160 million U.S. buyers, many of whom are canna-curious but hold back largely because of the stigma around cannabis.

Brands need to reach these potential customers with a thoughtful education campaign that attempts to change perceptions and highlights the health benefits and emphasis on data, analytics and understanding of the consumer journey.

Aggregate, don’t itemize: There are so many attributes that combine to make something unique, particularly in marijuana.

Focus on the brand experience and net result, because this is where brands can differentiate themselves.

Be storytellers: More than most sectors, cannabis brands can have the opportunity to tell a story.

The richness of the brands and experiences the consumer can have opens a world of creative possibilities. Use that in your marketing.

Marijuana might not be considered “essential” to everyone, but how the category grows, and which brands become the Budweiser of cannabis, is very much in play right now.

The smart brands are thinking long term by onboarding top-level marketing talent and putting a strategy in place to take their brand and marijuana marketing overall to a higher place.

Maureen Maldari is co-founder and CEO of The BAM Connection, a marketing agency based in Brooklyn, New York. She can be reached at maureen@thebam.com.

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