Guest Column: A Multi-Pronged Approach to Cannabis Branding, Advertising in Maturing Markets

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By Micah Johnson

In late 2010, something unexpected happened at the convention center in Denver.

An expo targeting medical cannabis patients and general marijuana users arrived for the second year in a row as planned. Billed as being twice the size of the initial event, the expo featured a performance by Cypress Hill – one of the bands most associated with the MJ culture.

Dispensaries, head shops, grow stores, edibles companies and ancillary businesses gobbled up booths, eager for the chance to position themselves as part of the marijuana lifestyle.

But the halls did not fill with crowds. Unpurchased commemorative shirts hung in bulk, untouched by the few attendees that lingered. Booth operators set out their promotional materials and left, bored and disenchanted.

The “fizzle” was, and still is, indicative of the same business hurdle for each state’s dawning industry: The novelty of cannabis – whether medical or recreational – will not always drive crowds to large-scale marijuana lifestyle events, which many businesses mistakenly see as the only true way to tap into the MJ culture.

So how does a cannabis company become an integral part of a lifestyle-driven community once the initial luster of these gatherings fade?

Visceral, physical interaction is still imperative for success and longevity in this industry. It requires maintaining a constant, noticeable presence in the community, especially where (and when) niche customers do their “thing.”

Here are several strategies you can use to effectively target these customers:

Brand Outside of the Box

The art of lifestyle appeal does not transcend normal advertising; rather, it should also shape outreach to address customers in their day-to-day lives. Tangible, visible advertising – magazines, road signs, money mailers – must all ensure that anyone within 10 minutes drive-time will find you regardless of how hard they look.

Thematic deals should embrace learned behaviors: throw a limited-time “Dab Fest” like Red Lobster’s various extravaganzas. Offer birthday, early-bird, happy-hour and holiday specials so that you have something fitting for every occasion. We are all creatures of habit, and regularly need a retail “event” to get off the fence and interact.

There are many other ways to get your name out. In Denver, dispensaries have adopted a highway, formed a volunteer cleanup crew and organized an annual charity golf tournament. You can team up to sponsor or host concerts, infused dining clubs, rafting expeditions, frisbee-golf tournaments, volleyball leagues – you name it.

The idea is to make your brand as “personal” as possible, which will bring the long-lost human aspect back to what’s swiftly becoming a corporate landscape. Customers still strive to keep their day-to-day routines intact, long after the novelty of cannabis burns out.

Dig Deep Into Digital

In an age when people keep their mobile device dearly close, accessibility is key. So an important pillar of your advertising strategy should center around ensuring your business can be found on a map by potential customers – immediately, and on any device.

This is where responsive websites, major investments in SEO, and concise, illustrative content take center-stage.

But what drives powerful follow-thru is digital outreach.

Take social media far as possible, wishing followers a happy birthday and responding personally to messages. Reward people with coupon codes for sharing with their friends. Most of all, work to identify anyone within close proximity to your business and aspire to make them happy. Don’t worry too much about everyone else.

Partner Up

Strategize a way to start a “following” that pays back in retail dollars.

Find two or three other businesses in the industry that you don’t consider competitors and join forces – not to form an exclusive club, but to embrace cross-promotion. The ideal symbiotic trio includes a dispensary, grow store and glass shop.

Start as small as possible, setting goals to form a manageable sub-community. Your brands will be seen by the niche customer base through expanded interaction, and the joint-connection will paint the picture of a grander camaraderie reminiscent of the “good ol’ days.”

Doing so will empower ambitious initiatives, lower the risk of marketing failure, and allow a solid customer base to grow organically with each store involved serving as a focal point of the lifestyle.

Capitalize on Guaranteed Events

Smaller-scale, local gatherings can still thrive in the wake of an annual event like the Cannabis Cup. It doesn’t hurt to take a gamble occasionally, but don’t leave involvement up to chance.

Latch onto stable, well-recognized events and try to find a way to incorporate your brand through sponsorship or major giveaways. Have your vector-graphics logo file ready to dispatch at the drop of a hat so that it can be affixed anywhere, even on short notice.

Encourage your staff to be the friendliest people at each event, and make sure they are undeniably marked with your branded imagery.

Final Thought

These strategies will help elevate your business out of the advertising white noise to a place where customers can connect the dots from other places they’ve seen your brand.

Working together in concert, the analog (tangible), digital and visceral interaction promise greater, long-term returns than most large consumer-focused events ever will.

Micah Johnson is the president of Cannapages, a quarterly cannabis directory and consumer-focused magazine published throughout Colorado.